I used to live in a much bigger apartment. It had two bedrooms, five closets, a double parlor, a sun room, and a big balcony, all of which was falling apart. Plaster flaked from the ceilings, the bathroom walls were molding, and the linoleum in the kitchen was older than me. The floorboards creaked mysteriously at night. It was the ideal floor plan in the House of Usher.
It was also cheap and big enough to accommodate some serious entertaining. I had a propane grill out on the balcony and served homemade barbecue in the summer. One year I had thirty-five friends over for a Thanksgiving Turkey buffet. I could seat ten for a formal dinner by disguising a flea market size folding table under a crisp linen tablecloth and genuine Fire King Jadeite dinnerware. (Not that knock-off Martha Stewart crap, thank you very much.) I always served four courses, ambitiously selected from The Barefoot Contessa, Jean Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four Star Chef, and The Silver Palate Cookbook. I would clean up for a week afterwards.
What I loved about it was the sense of accomplishment in entertaining people in a manner largely lost on my generation. It was about the quality of the meal and the beauty of the presentation. All the proper glasses and flatware, arranged just so, goading my guests into approximating etiquette. I worked like a fiend to conjure a perfect moment that no one else I knew was all that interested in. But once they had a taste, it was on. I seduced them into higher expectations of a meal and in return they bowed to me. It was strangely enchanting for all concerned.
Last month my friend Andrea asked me, as if it were something we had spoken of just the other day, “Hillery, when are you going to make that garlic soup again?” She had tasted it nine years ago at the first dinner party I’d ever invited her to…and not once since then.
What with one thing and another—shooting the show, quitting my job, being evicted from my spacious though dilapidated flat, moving, re-launching my freelancing business—I haven’t been much of a hostess lately. And the new friends I’ve been working so hard to meet and make, they know nothing of this side of me. When Karen was trying to console me through my eviction, she encouraged me to sell all my stuff and take a share in Manhattan, “You know, darling, for a fresh start.” I stopped crying and started laughing. She had never seen my china cabinet or my pan rack or my bar. She couldn’t know that these trappings were as much a part of me as an arm or a leg.
Karen’s been talking about leaving the city for a while now; so, while I was monumentally disappointed to hear it, I wasn’t that surprised when she announced her imminent departure last week. The first thing I said was, “You’re coming to my house for dinner!” I would invoke perfection all over again. On Saturday night, my garlic soup would resonate within the soul of another. Before she left the country, my friend would know the sum of all my parts.
Yeah. Somewhere in that next week, I lost the plot. I was keeping up with my running regime, procrastinating by posting on my new blog, and managing to do some work I can actually bill out. By the time Friday rolled around, I had accomplished exactly nothing in the way of preparation for the big night. I’d stalled in the middle of hooking up my surround sound speakers—splicing monster cable is harder than it sounds—and my living room was covered with tools and wire. I hadn’t even planned the menu.
I was too tired to be anything but blasé about it all, so after my client meeting in the afternoon I decided to wing it. I went to the Whole Foods in Union Square and made it up as I went along. Garlic. Check. Cheeses. Check. Key limes. Great. I’ll make a key lime pie for dessert. Cornichons. Check. Short ribs are on sale. Main course. Check.
I needed something slightly exotic for the second course, but something that wouldn’t have to be combined with anything else exotic. Without the recipe selected in advance, I couldn’t know what that second ingredient might be and the whole thing would turn into a crapshoot. I picked up some crabmeat. I could work with that potential worst case scenario. This is the way you learn to live when your neighborhood is something of an urban wasteland. Grocery shopping becomes its own commute.
On Saturday morning my chore list runs in two columns. There are the things I absolutely must get done before four-thirty, when I have to get in the shower, and the things that can be put off and, ultimately, dispensed with altogether in case of a running out of time type of emergency. Basically, I can cook in front of my guests, but the house really should be clean before they arrive.
I am forced to economize as time flies. Key lime pie becomes key lime pots de crème to save me from having to make the graham cracker crust. The floors will be swept, definitely, but not mopped. All of this is fine. I’m slipping, but no one will notice. When I have to give up on the linen table cloth because I don’t have time to press it, that’s when the panic sets in. I know for certain that I’m a hack when I can’t even set the table in advance…because there’s no more advance left.
An hour after my guests arrive, all four of them, I give up on the soup course completely. I have fallen so very far. I want to wallow in my shame, but I know I can’t. I am still responsible for feeding these people and I have assured them some level of enjoyment. I may be low rent all of a sudden, but I am still running the show!
The surprising thing is, it goes over. It goes all the way over. They don’t seem to miss the table linens or the garlic soup. They’re getting to know one another and making conversation in a way that, even if they had been meeting randomly for the first time, has to signify as: Ding! Friend of my friend. Cool. They’re talking gay marriage and apathetic youth and those darn Republicans and then someone says, “Whether or not you agree with her politics, you have to admire her upper body. Oh my God, I would love to have arms like Condi’s!” They’re smart, they’re funny, and they’re showing it off in my living room.
No matter how convinced I am that I’ve dropped the ball, I have to admit that it’s a success. It’s not the seduction I’m used to conducting, but it’s working. People are leaving with a new friend to phone, a new movie to watch, and new show to download to their iPods. And the food? Oh, I’ll be back. I will return to form. I mean to mesmerize again. But it’s nice to know that even shooting from the hip, I can impress. After her first bite of dessert, my friend Sandra turns to me and says, “My crush on you has grown.”