Guest Who's Coming to Dinner?

Gypsy Rose Lee seductively bared her hostess side with the legendary Let me entertain you. I might not be a professional stripper; but I was a Boy Scout. I still live by the motto that they seductively beat into me with camp outs and merit badges: Be Prepared.

Being a host has one basic responsibility:  Show your guests a good time.

Everyone loves an event that goes smoothly. You plan and plan and plan; but sometimes surprises pop up like an erection in science class – unnecessary and potentially disastrous. Events occur that really test your entertaining mettle. Sometimes you either want to cry or go in the kitchen, hastily fashion an apron into a kimono and lower your body over a Ginsu knife hari kari style.

Entertaining is for those who have strong stomachs, good planning skills, a will as strong as your de rigueur cast-iron skillet -- and the ability to adapt.


If you intend to bake a pie where four-and-twenty blackbirds fly out on cue and your local bird purveyor is short a bird -- you have two choices: Stand in a park posing like a statue and hold seeds in the palm of your hand until one foolish, disease-ridden pigeon lands. Then you savagely kill, dress and delouse that bird. Or simply change your menu.

I had my dining table made sixty inches across, and round so I could see and talk to every guest. I have eight matching dining chairs so any seated dinner can be any combination up to eight. I recently planned a party for six. Note the word planned.

I mixed the guest list (again, party of six) like a cocktail. I plopped in a couple of ice-breaking old friends, stirred in some new hooch and shook it up with strategic seating. This party was all men, so Boy-Girl wasn't an option, and Top-Bottom is so 1990. I seated by personality type: Chatty-Quiet-Funny-Smart-Outrageous-Hung. (I always seat myself last and nearest to the kitchen.)

My plan includes a plan for setting the table, shopping and cooking. Each of these steps must be tweeted and instagrammed, so I need to stay on a schedule.

Space is limited in my apartment. To set the table, I have to roll a rug back and move a buffet table out a bit to access cabinets that hold more china options.

Once every dish for every course is identified and removed from their zippered cases, I close the cabinets up and roll the buffet and rug back. I climb a ladder and unhook the cabinet doors over the fridge to get the crystal down. Each glass is kept in it's own padded box.

(All cabinets are secured shut with hasps to keep the dishes from crashing onto the floor during an earthquake.)

The silver is unlocked and unrolled from its tarnish-preventing felt bodyguard packets. Vases are hidden in a deep cabinet like illegal immigrants in a San Diego storage facility, and I reach in the dark cupboard and feel around like I am Hillbilly Handfishin' until I find the right one.

Red and White roses from LA flower mart.
Whatever flowers are in season dictate the color of the tablecloths and linens.

The Los Angeles Flower Mart is usually my first errand for dinner prep. It’s downtown, so if there's time, I dip into dim sum in adjacent Chinatown.

For this dinner I wanted to spend more time with my guests so I made my fish en papillote. By 4PM, the six packets were all prepared and chillin' in the fridge. My individual roasted beet and goat cheese terrines were all plated, just waiting for that last second where I graciously bestow a blessing of lightly dressed micro-greens on top.

Pink table clots with green and white china dishesBy 6PM the table was set and I took a calm moment to admire it. I used the perfect pink tablecloth and was so relieved that exactly six perfect pink freshly pressed napkins were available -- the others had not returned from the laundry. I stood back and appreciated how nice six looked. An even half dozen. The perfect amount of space for the place settings that were perfectly in place for the guests arriving in thirty minutes. Six at six.

Were this a Disney movie, this is exactly the point where a dog would chase a cat and the cat would screech across the table sending everything flying high into the air. As the dishes fell, I'd catch each breakable heirloom in my hand, on my foot, even on my nose. As my great-great grandmother’s priceless gravy boat was just about to hit the floor, my tongue darts out and saves it.

But not today bitches -- the phone rang and shook me back to present day Los Angeles.

In LaLaLand, people tend to cancel even the most locked-in plans if traffic is bad, they can't find parking, their nanny was deported, or their dog chased their cat across a table. So far no one had canceled, so when the phone rang at 6:15 and it was one of the guests, I feared I was about to hear a doozy.

"I'm standing here with my dear friend who I would love you to meet. Or is it whom?” he said.

I adore meeting new friends – just not now, I thought.

"Can I bring her tonight?' he asked.

As in: I'm bringing my friend to your house in fifteen minutes. 

I'd like to thank the Academy for the performance I gave on that call for Best Performance by a Host in a Horror Film.

"Of course -- bring her," I said. 
 
He wasn't being insensitive -- he couldn't know about my almost perfectly completed plan. We'd dined at each other's houses dozens of times where we just stood over the stove and picked lamb stew out of a pot with a common fork.

I flew into a strategic action plan. I climbed the ladder and unpacked another goblet. I panicked and tried to remember if I'd bought six or eight or twelve or one hundred place settings of the china I was using. As I pulled the rug and buffet back to look, I silently gave up a prayer of It’s a good thing to the patron saint of perpetual hosting, Martha Stewart.

My faith was restored and rewarded -- I had another place setting. I re- hasped the doors, shoved the buffet back in place and smoothed out the rug. I was getting sloppy in my haste and almost forgot the napkins. I frantically dug through the napkin drawer with the frenzy of Bristol Palin looking for a condom, but came up empty.

There wasn't time to switch out the tablecloth. Sure, I wanted to grab the edge of the cloth, yank and magically pull it out, leaving every dish intact. But how could I get another one underneath the dishes?

I grabbed a stack of blue napkins I never use. Stand-ins can be prettier than the original lead. Take All About Eve -- Bette Davis had reason to dread foxy Anne Baxter. As I placed the new blue beauties around the table I made up a little story in my head to tell the guests later: I read in Vanity Fair how all the best people in Paris are using blue napkins with pink cloths – isn’t it fun!

I sent Bob dashing to the fish store while I cut another parchment heart for the seventh entree packet. I opened the already closed packets and stole a few sauteed leeks and wild mushrooms from each one, with the sneakiness of a teen siphoning off a bit of his parent's booze when they were out I hoped no one noticed. I lopped off the top of a few of the beet terrines, and Frankensteined a new one. There was plenty of food.

Never let 'em see you sweat. The unexpected guest arrived. I can't place my finger on exactly what; but something about the way she just walked in and immediately complimented my art and my hair as she inhaled the air and picked up on my subtle use of thyme made me like her a lot -- right on the spot.

My concern of how a round girl would fit in the table of square peg men melted away with her smart tales of her Stanford life with Condoleezza Rice. She adored my blue napkins, remarking that she would love a scarf of that fabric. I heard women use trickery and she certainly Delilah-d us with her charm and grace.

The night went late. I love getting swept away and spending time with my guests, unconcerned about time. Dinner over and dishes cleared, we leaned in and put our elbows on the table to luxuriate down into deeper conversation. We were bolstered by interesting topics and trips into the kitchen for more wine and cake. This was one of those nights where a group’s collective conscience solves a social problem or plans a trip to Greece.

No one knew of my last minute rush and truthfully to me, it seemed long ago. If I'd once viewed the added guest as a nuisance or unpleasant interruption of service, it's now forgotten. When her thank you note arrived the next day, it was the first, it was the loveliest written. And I was not surprised.

Einstein said the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.  I think he was a Boy Scout.

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