Top | Kitchen Limbo

The hostess with the leastest

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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Over the years, I’ve tried to become the near-perfect guest to my friends (near-perfect because I rarely stay and do dishes). I’ll encourage getting together, remind the friend that her (choose one) big house/backyard/ converted basement reigns supreme for gatherings, then offer to bring the ingredients for cocktails, perhaps a bacon-leek tart for an appetizer — and dessert? Of course I’ll bring dessert! In my desperation not to host I have, more than once, brought not only the entrée, but most of the dinner. 

The beauty of this scenario is that it allows me to do two things I like — cook and schmooze — without the other disagreeable tasks. That nonsense includes cleaning my house and hosting.  

It would be OK if I just cleaned my house and hosted, but too often I translate “clean my house” into “finish remodeling the bathroom,” and hosting becomes an opportunity to cook an ambitious menu gleaned from anything but Real Simple magazine. While this might have been OK during the B.C. (before children) years, in the A.D. (accelerated dementia) era it’s a formula for disaster. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=355 caption="Does entertaining give you nightmares?"] 

OK, maybe “disaster” is too strong of a word. But I’ve realized that to persevere in cooking that five-course meal I had so much fun imagining earlier in the week (alone on the couch with a glass of wine and a heap of cookbooks) has its price. Few meals are worth spending an entire day cooking and cleaning, watching my stock plummet in the eyes of my family. To devote so much time to a single meal means no afternoon walk, no sneaking back to bed to read [%bookLink code=0060554487 "The Little Grey Men"] to my son, and none of my daughter’s camaraderie since she walked out when I snapped, “Fold, not whip!”

People who come to my house for a meal know they will be fed well and entertained, but I’m not sure they ever feel truly at ease, sitting at the little blue table with their knees up to their ears. I'm not sure, either, that I like providing the entertainment as I zigzag from stove to counter, laughing in that slightly unhinged way.

For years, I blamed it on my house: It’s not good for entertaining. When I read those articles that declare, “It’s fun to invite your friends into the kitchen to cook with you!” I think, “Fun, like cancer?” Fun in my kitchen would be a party with sledgehammers and shots of vodka.
 
While I may be exaggerating the worst parts of my house, what’s true is this: I don’t really like cooking in my kitchen with other people. In part, that's because of the layout and the lack of counter space, but it's also because of my own level of distraction. I can talk and sip wine at the same time, but I cook alone. To combine hosting, cooking, and conversing requires a level of multitasking that escapes me. 

I marvel at my friends who are such great hosts. I’m offered a drink shortly after arriving, welcomed into the kitchen and asked about my day, encouraged to take my glass of wine to the couch by the fire. Why isn’t their hair wet like mine always is, why is the table already set, why are they moving so slowly — relaxed — like stoners in the bulk aisle at the grocery store? Why aren’t my friends more flawed, like me?

What’s flawed, I realize, are my own expectations. The house, remodeling aside, will never be clean enough for “company” (hi Mom). I take that back. It will be clean, but not neat. Over the years, the children’s artwork has edged out the Italian pottery on the plate rail, and the couch looks exactly like what it’s become: a large scratching post for the cats. When friends say, “Your house is so cozy!” I hear “One step up from swine.” And I cringe when I watch a guest set his drink down on a pile of books — this is so not Dwell magazine! 

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It’s those damn magazines — I no longer subscribe to Martha Stewart Living — that have ruined it for me, putting unrealistic pictures in my head about entertaining. All too often I think, “We should have so-and-so over,” then I look around and think “Nooo . . . too much work.”

If I’ve learned anything over the years, from my own missteps and watching others, it’s to simplify the meal. Do as my friends do: Serve grilled Kobe-beef hot dogs with coleslaw and beer. Turn soup into a meal. Make a salad and spread out newspaper for crack-it-yourself crab. Grill steaks and have your flunky friends bring the rest of the meal. 

I’m a late convert to advance prep. I finally realized that one of the reasons my hosting friends can be so relaxed in the kitchen is because dinner is already made: the lasagne is in the oven, the salad is prepped, everything is ready except for cutting the bread. I can be calm, too, slicing cheese, but not stirring risotto or searing fish. 

Two strategies emerge: Cook food that doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare, or, if a more complicated dish is too irresistible, spread the prep work out over several days. 

[%image pudding float=left width=350 caption="Chocolate mousse is a great make-ahead dessert for entertaining."] 

I tried the latter strategy recently. On Friday afternoon, I made chicken stock. Saturday morning, I prepped all the ingredients for chicken bouillabaisse and put it in the fridge to marinate. Then I washed the salad greens, juiced tangerines and Meyer lemons for cocktails, and made chocolate mousse. By noon, the dishwasher was running and I was feeling smug.

Where the next five hours went, I’m not entirely sure. I only know that in the hour before our guests arrived, it was the old helter-skelter: stashing piles of mail in a drawer, washing the kitchen floor, jumping in and out of the bath. Luckily our friends were late (one host’s pet peeve is another’s godsend), which gave me time to put a fire under the bouillabaisse, turn on some music, and set the table.

I felt like a rock star, if only for a brief moment. I’d pulled off something heroic: entertaining without the usual chaos. The trick now is to do it again, which I'm planning — once the dinner invitations dry up.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is Culinate's food editor.


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