“I feel terrible.”
“My throat,” mutters Steve.
“Why didn’t we cancel last night?” I sniffle, clearly sick.
“Why did we drink that last bottle of Lambrusco?”
“I feel terrible.” I moan once again. “I need coffee. Shall we get up and get caffeinated before the savages awaken?” I ask. It is 5:00am.
Steve gets up and puts on his a navy blue Addidas track suit bottoms and a Lower East Side Collective T-shirt and moves towards the kitchen as I curl up under our old comforter.
“Oh, you mean I should make the coffee and you should lie in bed and wait for me to serve you.”
“Exactly.” I rasp to him and start coughing.
As Steve goes to the bathroom, I can hear Sebastien mumbling “mama, dada, doo, doo, pee, pee” in the next room. I ignore him, waiting for my coffee, thinking about the dinner party night.
There were signs, early on, that my first stop on this quest to serve twenty-five Sunday night dinners in twelve months, would not go as smoothly as I would have liked. Firstly, Sunday didn’t work for Steve, so we had to host our first Sunday Night Dinner on Saturday. Not a good omen. Secondly, I was planning to launch the whole quest with a meal for my two best girlfriends, Kimberly and Laura, right around the beginning of spring. So perfect! So in tune with the season! So new! But alas, as my sister, the new age guru would say, it wasn’t meant to be.
The beauty, the genius, of having Kimberly and Laura as my first guests would have been that, because we speak almost daily, they understand the intricate details of my life and, as we do with those we love, they work around my eccentricities. For instance, they will travel to the far ends of the West Village/Soho region where we all live, to procure for me, say, fresh horseradish when I call at the last minute desperately pleading into the phone: “There is no way that I can complete the braised short ribs without it!” They will not call and ask if bottled will do or question my need for fresh ingredients. They will dutifully hit Gourmet Garage, Dean and Deluca, and every deli along the way. They also understand that I like to eat with my children, and the kids like to eat early, and that I have a deep fear of not getting enough sleep, and so will endure coming over at 5:00 for dinner at 6:00, and know that when they get in the door, they are going to have to entertain the kids. In exchange for this, I will feed them good, solid food, the kind they rarely have, what with take-out and dinner reservations the standard fare for most people of their class and professional obligation. I will serve them very decent wine, something light and easy––a Dolce de Alba, for instance, or a nice crisp Las Brisas Spanish white that belies its 9.99 price tag. Finally, I will kick them out and send them on their way around 9:00, which, at least the next morning, they will appreciate.
Laura is the godmother to my boys. Kimberly baby-sits our children, even though she always puts the diaper on backwards. They have listened to my endless monologues based on the following themes:
Bowel movement stories: “You should have seen it!”
Self-questioning moments: “Am I a good mother if I don’t spend every second with my child feeding them organic, whole grain, overpriced snacks and making sure they never them watch TV, no matter how sick, tired or hung-over I am? Have ruined them for life?
Tirades against the system: “How can they judge a three-year-old? How can we not be good enough for preschool? Is it worth 20,000 dollars a year to teach your kids to finger paint?”
They have endured my inability to edit myself during my annual night-out with the girls, into the glittery world of New York after-dark, when at some invariably fabulous function, I get overly excited by being out of my apartment and then drink a bunch of cocktails and talk nonstop, either insulting someone without meaning to or, gasp, talking about my kids. All this is to say that these two women, are dear, dear friends. But here’s the problem with single girlfriends: they have disposable incomes, which allow them all sorts of fabulous things that are out of bounds when you are a part-time writer and your husband is a college professor. Kimberly and Laura have exquisite wardrobes, dine at all the best restaurants and jet off to exotic locations just when you need them.
The very weekend I had planned as my kick-off Sunday Night Dinner, both women, through some sort of weird cosmic white-hipster convergence designed to upset my precarious sanity, planned to be in Brazil, staying at the same = jet-set boutique hotel, missing each other by eight hours. Laura was going with a group of good friends who happened to be travel writers and food editors and the they would hit all the best, undiscovered spots, and Kimberly was going to some fabulous Brazilian all-night wedding, having been invited by her trainer-turned-lover, the likes of whom I had not yet met, but had discerned over many phone conversations that he was indeed a decent guy. With flights, stopovers and whatever other weird time zone things I never fully understand, it means that they will both be absent. Now, not only was I going to have to listen to each of them talk about how much fun they had, both individually and collectively, they would not be here for my kick-off dinner.
So while frick-and-frack were getting bikini-waxed and drinking sophisticated and fruity, but not too sweet, drinks poolside, I was sweating in dirty yoga pants and an old t-shirt, getting the house organized, ingredients procured and children napped, with a sore throat, gulping generic Ibuprofen and preparing for my dinner guests: another preschool family. I figured it was time to branch out. Make new friends. Afterall, the whole point of this quest, which I had felt so exuberant about only a few days ago, was about that seemingly clichéd, but all too important, idea of building community. Although magazines and politicians and leaders talk about “It takes a village,” what does it really mean? In a world of fast food and cell phones and blogs and 24 hours news—all things that I indeed like and partake in, but none-the-less can be alienating in their own ways—perhaps this simple act of cooking fresh food for others, for returning to the table, to sit and talk, to commune, if you will, could be my own way of giving back. And yes, political action is important. The environment is important, but in some ways, these ideas are abstract, outside of the day-to-day activities of my life. I am blessed with enough space to host a dinner party in a city where almost no one has them. My family has imparted in me a deep love of cooking and an almost obsessive tendency towards the preparing and consuming of food. These Sunday Night Dinners are my small way of giving back.
There is, of course, another, less selfless motive. As I enter further and further into the world of mom, of soccer, babysitters, Bob the Builder and playdates, these dinner parties are also my safety net to the world of adults and ideas. I don’t want to let the part of myself, the intellectual side, the part of me that is part flamboyant hostess, part provocateur, part social-mixer, die out now that I have children. While some women and men get that type of satisfaction at work, I don’t. As a freelance writer, I work alone, usually at the Israeli café across the street from my apartment, where the only other people there are the strange, slightly anti-social, relatively un-bathed freelancers like myself. We do not form a community.
The family we had invited consisted of Amy and Peter, and their two sons Webber (age 3) and Beckett (age 1). Amy doesn’t eat meat, which was another sign that things might go askew. We had gone over the confines of her vegetarianism in a series of emails where I had to ask my least favorite question: Do you have any dietary restrictions? When she answered yes, however politely; I was crestfallen. See, I am a person of the flesh, in particular, the pig. I come from people of the pig. The French, we like our pork, our ham and our bacon. The reason is simple: pork makes anything tastes incredible. Pinto beans with a ham hock go from good to unbelievable. Broccoli rabe, which is green, a little bitter, and a little crunchy, becomes even electric, greener and fresher, with the addition of a wee bit of pancetta. Call me piggish, but I can think of nothing better for a Sunday night dinner, even one held on Saturday, than pork loin, slathered in Dijon, and roasted with apples. It is cheap, easy and delicious.
On the other hand, I never cook fish, which is the one meat Amy eats. It seems fussy, makes the house smelly (and with four people living in 1000 square feet and an unventilated kitchen, stink is always a factor). I know it’s good for you, what with the omegas and fatty acids, but we take a fish oil supplement, add flax seeds to breakfast cereal, and mostly avoid sea creatures. However, part of this year-long quest is about hospitality, about creating community by serving others. Afterall, the party is not supposed to be about me, but about “we.” Fish would be served.
Peter works for a wine importer so I had sent him the menu a week ahead of time for wine pairing. Changing the plan, one of my favorite pastimes, was not an option. This also meant, that although I was sick, I would still be drinking, because this was the whole point of the night, and let’s face it, I really don’t have the personality to say no to a wine tasting.
So there were some things to feel if not anxious about, well then tentative. The other thing, the real thing, is that Steve and I barely know Amy and Peter. Our kids get along, though, and we seem to move in almost-similar worlds. Amy is a feminist organizer and a writer. We have been at book readings together. Steve, who has been a community organizer in the East Village and Amy know some people in common. As I mentioned, Peter works in the wine industry, which is ostensibly why we had invited them over. I was looking forward to talking about the business with him, hoping to pitch a freelance article on wine importing.
Two hours before they were supposed to come over, I looked around our apartment, which at that moment had about one hundred pieces of Thomas the Tank engines and train track pieces around the living room. I scanned the toys scattered on the carpet. What would they think of the obnoxious Lightening McQueen cars that make loud noises? (Very un-cool in the East Village preschool mindset where wooden, silent, educational toys are de rigueur.) What would they think of our Neo-Victorian, dark-library-style decor and the copious amounts of floorboard dirt we live with?
That’s the thing about having people over—it strikes a chord of vulnerability. In New York, you could know someone for ten years, and never once see the inside of their apartment. They could be hiding a toy soldier collection or chopped bodies—and you would never know. Maybe there is a reason for all this secrecy. Maybe bars, restaurants and cafés help us portray an ideal version of ourselves, one without the self-help books and dirty toilet seats and carton upon carton of Chubby Hubby in the fridge. All I could think about, on the eve of my first dinner party, is that I don’t know if I want to open up our own imperfect lives to Peter and Amy, who to be perfectly honest, I felt a little intimidated by. Amy has an Ivy League education and two hit books and started a feminist foundation and gets paid to jet around the country to lecture at college campuses. Peter is quiet and sardonic, to my loud and needy. They own instead of rent. They have a car. She has a personal assistant. Their children are better behaved then ours and their homemade Valentine’s day cards trumped our homemade Valentine’s day cards, even though I am supposed to be the famous online punk rock crafter and she is the big feminist organizer. I was feeling more and more sick and overwhelmed, and decidedly un-community-like.
At 6:00 the dishes were not clean. Steve was organizing the ingredients for his risotto with asparagus, peas and mint, a recipe from Jamie Oliver, which I thought would be great, but Steve seemed unsure. I was still in my yoga pants.
“Chicken broth? Can I use it?” Steve asked.
“Hmmm,” I stopped what I was doing, wiping a dirty hand on my dirty yoga pants and wiping a few dirty hairs from my brow. A conundrum.
“How about we don’t tell her,” said my husband, the ethicist.
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, the whole point of this quest is about hospitality, serving others,” I answered. “I don’t think we should lie about these things.”
“But,” I continued, knowing the chicken broth would add a richness that water never could, “She did mention she eats the occasional steak, henceforth, the chicken broth is in.” Moral dilemma resolved.
I arranged the cheeses I had purchased at Murray’ s Cheese Shop on a special platter so that they could come to room temperature. Cheese, especially cheese from Murray’s Cheese Shop, is one of my secret weapons for a good dinner party. Murray’s combines a European appreciation for milk fat and bacteria with an American obsession with conspicuous consumption. It was one of the first shops in American to take cheese-making seriously and has imported artisanal cheeses from around the world for the past ten years. Three cheeses, one soft, one nutty and one slightly funky, are perhaps the ideal way to end any meal—and leave guests feeling taken care of.
I love going to Murray’s. Oh, the cheeses, the delicious, delicious cheeses! Earlier that morning, I had made my pilgrimage down Bleecker Street. In the store, the selection process was difficult, as it always is, with hundreds of cheeses to choose from, but with two kids along about to break a forty-dollar bottle of extra virgin olive oil, I had to be quick and decisive. Since the menu we were serving veered towards the Italian, I went for a creamy, hardly-sharp Gorgonzola, a nutty Piave, and a wine-soaked Ubriaco.
After selecting the cheese I had gone to the fish store, where the live lobsters entertained my boys and I deliberated over the fish. Steve doesn’t like scallops. Mussels didn’t look fresh. Wild salmon was out of our budget, which I should note; I had already blown at the cheese shop. Finally, with the impatient fishmonger staring me down, I went for the scrod. I would roast it with some herbs and call it a day.
Later, waiting for our guests, we were starting to think bad thoughts. No longer was our couples-only dialogue full of hope and promise, the possibility of a new, cosmopolitanism with our dinner parties. We had drifted from: “OK, we can do this, we really shouldn’t cancel. We always cancel. It’s why we never see anyone.” And landed squat into: “Shit, we already bought the fish, it’s too late to cancel! Why didn’t we call this off earlier! We’re too sick! It’s too much! I just want to watch the new season of MI5!” (For those of you yet to discovered it, MI5 is a fantastic British spy series; a more intelligent, dark and subtle 24, if you will.)
There is a feeling I have when sick and tired, one that has been much more pronounced since I’ve had kids and suffered the sleep deprivation that occurs in the early months with newborns where you never get more than two hours of sleep at a given time, which can only be described as feeling underwater. It’s as if you are floating through your life, watching things go by, but unable to access the part of your critical mind that you desperately need to. And then it is too late. The kids are crying, or the roast is burned, or the laundry wrinkled, or the writing assignment late. This was the feeling I had at 6:15, when I realized we had no parsley, and my children were circling me in the kitchen, like hungry sharks, reminding me that they had not eaten.
For some reason, I had asked Amy and Peter to come at 6:00 or 6:30, which is strange, because I always serve dinner at 6:00, in order to placate my children, knowing that they, intense creatures of habit, will not eat unless the whole family sits down together for dinner and without food, they are prown, as I am, to temper tantrums and melt-downs. We run a tight-scehdule in my perhaps misguided attempts to avoid all psychotic emotional outbursts. However, in my eagerness to be liked, a quality I am ashamed to admit dictates more of my activities than I would like, I had asked them over later because I knew this suited their lifestyle. I wish I could say it was hospitality but clearly it wasn’t, because no one in our family does well at night. We are an early to bed early to rise kind of clan, and without strict attention to these rules, the whole system breaks down, which can be good for no one, guests included.
So in the midst of cooking and getting dressed and wrangling children, Steve and Sydney had to go out for I sent for parsley. I opened a bottle of white wine, and as it slid down my very sore throat, I felt its magic begin to work.
For a little apertivo, I put out salami, olives and a loaf of stirato from Grandaisy Bakery, the most chewy, crunchy, outrageously delicious bread in the world, as good as any we had in Florence. (“This is why we live in New York,” says Steve every time we visit the bakery a few blocks from our house.)
I chopped one small orange chili pepper. Jamie Oliver’s recipe for roasted cod called for the addition of red Thai peppers, but the overpriced, slightly dirty, grocery store next door was out, and I was feeling too sick and overwhelmed to handle the throngs of tourists and black-clad Soho regulars populating Dean and Deluca, perhaps the most fetishized grocery store in the world. (It is white and steal, full of imports, with opera playing, models lurking around with non-fat lattes and milk selling for six dollars a half gallon.) So I settled for the tiny, round Scotch-Bonnet chili at my quasi-ghetto grocery store.
Just then the doorbell rang. They had arrived.
Immediately, Amy offered to help. Like good guests, they brought wine and desert. Steve came back with Syd and the parsley. We opened a bottle of Cascina Morassino Langhe Nebbiolo 03, which was red and smooth, with just the right acidity to cut through the fat of the salami and olives. Exhausted, Steve and I sipped our wine and took a minute to actually talk with our guests. One glass and a few slices of salami later, we realized that it was almost seven and our children still had not eaten; instead they were refusing salami and running around the apartment like a bunch of wild wildebeests, in behavior I would have never dreamed of performing as a child when my parents or grandparents would throw one of their formal dinner parties. Clearly I had to do something. I got up to heat up some leftover pasta for the four boys. Amy, ever-the brilliant organizer, helped out telling the boys it wasn’t that they weren’t eating with us, instead they were having a picnic!
Steve and Peter retreated to the kitchen. Steve started the risotto and Peter to began to handwash the dishes in the dishwasher and dry them because, we had discovered, we didn’t have enough clean ones. The men talked about building stuff and other man-talk while Amy and I shoveled pasta into our kids’ mouths. Somehow, the gender division already began to take its place. I was meant to talk to peter, but more pressing concerns, like warding off evil unfed child spirits became more important.
The problem with our dinner menu, was two-fold: there were not enough appetizers to tide everyone over and both the first and second courses both required last minute work. So while the kids went off racing with their cars and started to throw leggos at one another, the adults ate risotto, and I left mine to go back to the kitchen to rub the oregano, chile and parsely mixture onto the fish, slathered it in olive oil and roasted it for 12 minutes. While I was doing this, Beckett started screaming, needing a diaper change, Sebastien stole Sydney’s train and they started crying and I yelled at Steve to “Go help out the kids, will you!!!!!!”
Finally, diapers were changed, tempers were mellowed and the adults were seated once again. I served the fish with an aioli I had made from scratch earlier in the day, and salad. I took a bite of the fish, excited to finally eat. It was the most spicy, burning, fish I had ever tasted. Peter and Amy politely gave their compliments. I slathered on the aioli and suffer through the fish, while gulping the wine, a lovely white Vigneti Massa Derthona 05' which at this point, I can’t even taste because my taste buds are fried. Amy and Peter are totally relaxed and low-key. They go with the flow, but I still feel uneasy and nervous.
I served the cheeses, my last hurrah. At this point, when I waxed on and on about the gorgonzola, it felt a bit forced. If Laura or Kimberly were over, we would talk about the cheese for at least twenty minutes. The ratio of creamy to funk would be analyzed, and ways to pair gorgonzola would be discussed. I felt as if I was talking too much. Peter opened an amazingly light Sorelle Bronca Proseco, which was cold, effervescent and clean. Steve and I talked about our time in Bologna, the waiters at that one trattoria, the pasta, the sparkling white in carafes.
Then the kids started up again. I suggested a bath, and Amy went to administer it. I tried to remember the last time I cleaned the bath-tub. Steve started the dishes. I went to the fridge to get the Lambrusco I had been saving for a special occasion. I opened the sparkling, super-grapey, red wine and served everyone, including Amy, who was confined to the bathroom on kid-drowning patrol. Finally the kids came out in their jammies, looking so cute, and I turned on the TV for them, asking Amy and Peter first, if it is OK. Wallace and Grommit seemed the most sophisticated thing we had—it’s British afterall––and the parents settled into preschool gossip.
Then it was 11:00, three hours past my kids’ bed-time and two hours past my own. Peter and Amy started packing up the kids, as I sat in my chair, feet up, exhausted.
One down. Twenty-four dinner parties to go.
Edited to add: As of September 25, 2007, we have now become good friends with Amy and Peter. I really had no reason to be so intimidated! They are quite lovely.