Since my last roasted Brussels sprouts looked like desiccated remains from an excavation site, and my last fried potatoes limped into their bowl, and my last rice dish was chiseled out of its pot, I’ve been wondering what advice I can possibly give when it comes to winter dinner parties that remove the sense of isolation that creeps in this time of year.
Still, I have something to say on the subject. Maybe I’m compensating for having to apologize the food is cold, overdone, underdone, too spicy or too bland. As I freely admit, I love cooking as much as I love filling out forms.
People get upset when I say this. Not because they have to tolerate what I serve (well, partly because of that), but because they want to convert me. They want me to spend more time whipping and wilting, which is like asking me to pound my own wheat.
And yet . . . if a dicey cook can’t impress with her casseroles, she can attempt to dazzle with her hospitality. I can’t tell you how to puff your pastry, but I can give tips on how to keep people coming over anyway, even if they end up raiding your fridge.
1. Keep the lights low. I’ve entered so many homes bright enough to examine molars. Harsh light creates interrogation syndrome plus makes women look older and they will never forgive you for this. Besides, you don’t want people to look too closely at what’s being laid on the table, so add lots of candles, unscented of course, so they don’t fight with the familiar smell of delicately burned food.
2. Serve great (store bought?) appetizers. I’ve been to parties lately where there were none, so people didn’t know what to do with their hands and were more likely to get drunk though that does prevent them from noticing the meal is late. Yes, too many chips can ruin people’s appetites for a good feast, but who said they were going to have one?
3. Think hip music. We know this right? Apparently not. I’ve been to gatherings where you could hear a pin drop, and since I may have already dropped one in the stew, I’d rather cover the screams with background sounds that set a mood, maybe even invite people to dance a little because once they move they realize they don’t need a lot of food to slow them down.
4. Change things up. If you can, serve apps in one room, dinner in another, dessert in front of the fire in the living room. It keeps people from having their butts glued to their seats for hours, inviting boredom, rumination, and a sudden epiphany about an all-you-can-eat special in the neighboring town.
5. In winter, toss blankets around. This puts people in a comfy, low-brow state of mind to match your low-brow offerings. Lazy people also appreciate childish cupcakes like Mom used to make that you can easily buy, or let a guest make a chocolate gateau with glaze -- yum! It’ll get rave reviews which they’ll remember came from your house.
6. Inspire good conversation. That’s my goal for any dinner party. There are lots of rules about getting the right guest list, about sitting the right people next to each other, about keeping the talk light and airy. I disagree. If the food is questionable, it’s a terrific metaphor for debating the imperfection in life -- the state of the world, the fate of the earth, the dissatisfaction with most things, the stress of being human.
Or, to balance out the angst . . . where to grab a great slice of pizza on the hungry way home.
February 24, 2019