My friend Lulu (not her real name), who is young enough to be my daughter, had a dismal time recently. She and her husband hosted both sets of their parents for a Christmas Eve meal. She moaned to me later that they didn’t make enough food, there weren’t enough bowls, and neither were there enough chairs for everyone to sit around the dining table. She tried to make the best of it, serving the chili in mugs and herding everyone into the living room for what she gamely called an indoor picnic. But she felt certain they (his parents, anyway) saw through her lame attempt to be the hostess with the mostest.
Boy, could I relate. One Thanksgiving long ago, just after I’d moved to Dubuque from Colorado and was close enough geographically to cook for my parents and sister, they drove up from Davenport for the big day. I’ll never forget the moment when my sister started to take a large portion – let’s say half – of the beautifully roasted chicken I had brought to the table. My mother hissed helpfully at my sibling, “Put it back!” I had, you see, prepared only one 3-pound bird for four adults and two children.
That’s the thing about entertaining. So much of it centers around the meal, and it’s not your everyday foodstuffs. I have this habit, for better or worse, of reading entire cookbooks after we invite somebody over, rather than depending on the tried and true. “Why don’t we try this kale and white bean soup I found on the Cook’s Illustrated website?” I’ll suggest enthusiastically, referring to the recipe that requires first soaking the dried beans in water overnight. “I could make a rolled raspberry sponge cake for dessert and serve it on my grandmother’s glass plates!” The fact that I have never rolled a cake of any kind in my life is no limitation to my culinary fantasies.
If not for guests, then when else will we try these fancy pants recipes? It’s not that I don’t love my husband, but if we can’t finish off a pot of chili without getting bored, then fixing an 8-serving veggie lasagna for just the two of us is not such a good idea. I know I’m not the only one who pounces on the fact that company is coming to try out something new. Once, we were invited to dine with some wonderful people whose company I greatly enjoy. She served a delectable salad crafted of arugula, thinly sliced apples, sharp white cheese, pitted dates, caramelized walnuts, shallots, and balsamic vinegar. The vinegar had to be boiled until syrupy and reduced to a quarter cup. Our hostess confessed that she had repeated this crucial step over and over until she almost ran out of vinegar, because it evaporated so quickly.
Just a few weeks later, I served that same salad (watching the vinegar boil with uncharacteristic attention – remember, I’m famous for my blackened grilled cheese sandwiches) to another group of friends, along with some other sensational things. One of the guests was so blown away by the menu, she exclaimed, “We should eat like this all the time!”
And it’s true. We should. But listen, I’m not talking about gourmet dining so much as having people over and making something special for them. You may think I’m nuts to talk about this now, when we’ve all just put away the big roaster and the ring mold for the Cranberry Surprise. You’re tired, I know. You can’t even think of whipping up a sandwich for lunch, let alone a meal for six on Saturday night.
But it’s worth it, I think. I love being invited to other people’s homes. It’s a privilege to sit talking in their living rooms, to eat around their dining tables, to pet their dogs and see what knickknacks are hanging in their bathrooms. (I’m not nosy; I’m interested.)
And it’s an honor to invite people over to our house as well. It means we have friends, we have enough food to share, we have enough dishes and chairs to go around, even if they don’t necessarly match, and we have a bathroom worth investigating. (One time, we thought a guest had gotten lost or worst when she left mid-meal to use the loo and didn’t come back for what seemed like an awfully long time. Her husband was about to go on a reconnaissance mission when she reappeared, confessing she’d gotten involved in reading one of the magazines I keep stacked by the tub.)
I used to feel it wasn’t Christmas unless I got something related to cooking as a present. As the years went by, I received a soufflé dish, a crepe pan, even a cookie press. This year, I got an 8-quart soup pot from my son, which ties in perfectly with the cookbook he gave me for my December birthday. What better excuse to entertain, to try something new, to invite people over when it’s cold outside and warm inside our home and hearts.
Once I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio. It was the Christmas special, and he was interviewing the regulars from his cast at their homes, a change of pace from the usual on-stage program. He went to see Sue Scott, the tall, thin blonde who plays all the female roles (the sultry dame in “Guy Noir, Private Detective,” the suburban housewife in the ketchup commercials). She talked about how much she and her husband loved to have friends over, and how late their gatherings could last. Sometimes, she said, they would still be talking as the sun rose and the newspaper banged against the front door.
Now that’s entertainment. We may not stay up quite that late, but we’re planning to have more people over this year, If you see me at the grocery store peering at some exotic new kind of potato or fresh herbs, you’ll know they’re headed for my beautiful aqua Le Creuset soup pot, and the stomachs of our next guests.