Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Dinner Party as a Status Symbol?

I love to cook. I really do. I started collecting recipes when I was in high school--I still have the note books. I used to take great pleasure in having friends over to my house for a good meal and conversation which lasted for hours. This goes back to college, where I'd go off campus to borrow my aunt's place to cook. I impressed the hell out of my first boyfriend when I researched and gathered the recipes to do a complete Greek meal, starting with the lemon-egg soup and ending with home made baklava (a sure-fire winner at parties I held for years.) My roommates at the New York apartment I where lived after Hofstra and before Columbia decided that they would clean up after me so I would cook most meals. That was an excellent arrangement, since neither one of them could cook.

Some of my more memorable parties include the chocolate party I gave for painter Michael Whelan when he was in the D.C. area for a gallery opening, the one I gave photographer Corson Hirschfeld the night after he had an exhibit of his hand-colored "Places of Power" open at the National Museum of Natural History which was mostly mezze, the dim sum brunch I did for friends on a challenge, and the night out here in L.A. when screen-writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Paul Guay wanted to have dinner with Harlan Ellison and I cooked Italian (Marcella Hazen is my kitchen goddess.) That dinner for ten is the closest thing I've had to replicate what I used to do all the time in D.C., except for cooking Thanksgiving dinner, one of my least favorite things in the world.

I did try to do a big Christmas dinner one year. It was our first anniversary (yes, Len and I were married on Christmas) and we had to get Michael to the airport for a trip back east to his father's late that evening. I did invite friends and, although the food was very good, it was a rushed evening and I've vowed never to do it again.

Len's idea of entertaining is to throw hot dogs on the grill and watch TV. That's not entirely fair. He's in love with Rachael Ray, so dinner (at least in winter) will often be something from 30 Minute Meals, which always take at least 90 minutes to make. It's an improvement, but his reason for having friends over is to watch television. Therefore, dinner never takes place on the dining room table, even when friends are present. Except for Thanksgiving.

I hate Thanksgiving because it involves the least imaginative cooking and no one wants to mess with the traditional turkey, stuffing, two kinds of potatoes and all other manner of starchy foods like green bean casserole. Thanksgiving's only redeeming points are baking pies and the fact that people sit around a table and talk to each other for hours. And that the television is turned off once guests arrive. In all the years Len and I have been together, I've never had fewer than 12 people at the Thanksgiving dinner table and I have had as many as 23.

So, as I said above, I used to take great pleasure in having people over for dinner or to come to my place when I make a party. The point is, I enjoy cooking for my friends who appreciate what I've done. I don't waste my time cooking for people I don't like. Cooking has always been one of my hobbies. I have deflected any suggestions that I turn to catering as a profession because I've already turned one hobby (photography) into a business. I am considering opening a bed and breakfast artists' retreat someday, though.

Today's New York Times had a terrifying article entitled "Dinner at the Foodies': Purslane and Anxiety" by Katherine Wheelock. First off: what the hell is purslane and why do I need it? (It's an herb from India, said to be Gandhi's favorite, and is used in salads raw or as a cooked vegetable. It looks a little like one of the succulents I've got potted in the garden.) The gist of the article is that dinner parties are becoming a status symbol like a good car or a great lawn, which aren't things to be had in Manhattan. Some people in New York are going nuts giving dinner parties, jumping on the latest trends and traveling hours to get just the right ingredients, or trying to avoid looking like they are responding to a trend instead of being on the cutting edge of new trends. One woman, in the midst of a divorce, talked about throwing a first birthday party for her child and ordering pizza and then having her husband go out and buy $1000 worth of food to serve. There is apparently a one-upsmanship competition going on among foodies in New York. I knew there was a good reason I didn't want to live there any more.

Very few people I know are particularly competent or interested in the kitchen. What does the well-educated woman make for dinner? Reservations. I'm good at that, but I was raised in the time when girls took home ec, not shop. I was raised in a kitchen where one grandmother made pasta by hand (when I think of her I smell flour and eggs) and the other could make a translucent strudel pastry stretched across the dining room table (I have her mother's Hoosier kitchen cabinet with an enamel top in my kitchen for a prep area.) Dining out, except for Sunday breakfast after church, was a rare occasion, reserved for The Little Venice restaurant in Binghamton (some 60 miles away) although the women in my family were excellent Italian cooks. The nearest pizza place was Molinari's in Oneonta (30 miles away), so we made pizza at home. I learned by watching and reading. I firmly believe that anyone who likes food can learn to cook if they are curious, know how to read, have a decent set of taste buds, and a sense of adventure.

I probably have four or five women friends out here who are as good or better than I am in the kitchen: Laurie, Suzenna, Karen, Gillian, and Suzanne. I've recently made friends with someone who writes about food for a living, Tory (connect to her blog on the right.) Karen's taking up baking as her third career (she was a second-career trademark attorney) and she's turning out fabulous breads. Laurie and Suzenna are phenomenal cooks and make a party's food, no matter how complicated, look totally effortless. Either one of them could be a professional caterer. Laurie works as an editor for the same company that produces Gourmet and Bon Apettite. Suzenna has a cookbook and food magazine collection which puts my considerable library to shame. (I've often said that my goal is to have as many cookbooks as Phyllis Richman had in her office at the Washington Post.) We've met many interesting people at Suzenna's house on those Sunday evenings when she does her dinner parties. While I do find Laurie and Suzenna's skills admirable, I know that I would have nothing to be embarrassed about when they come to my house, if left to my own devices.

O.K., so I do like to show off in the kitchen but remember: I only cook for people I like. I'm hoping that the remodel will make working in the kitchen easier so I spend more time there. I'd like to have people over for dinner and conversation, without the television on. If I intimidate some of the people in our circle of acquaintances, that's not really the intention (unless its a new way of counting coup, in which case I'll make notches in my new counter.)

If you don't think you can compete with me in the kitchen, you can reciprocate for dinner by taking me out to a good restaurant. I'd be happy to suggest one.


Len Wein said...

Okay, honey, done and done. Once the kitchen renovation is complete (hopefully during my lifetime) I'll be glad to let you cook to your heart's content and even leave the TV off. It's summer rerun eason anyway.

M. C. Valada said...

If you give up something for Lent that isn't a real sacrifice, you don't get points toward Heaven.