When I was a kid, having dinner at my stepmother’s parents’ house was one of the fanciest elements of my life. Their house was big and beautiful. There were always jazz records playing and vases of fresh flowers adorning side tables. A baby grand piano, not a TV, was the focal point of the white carpeted formal sitting room. And instead of eating dinner in the kitchen or on TV trays, like we did at home, we sat at an elegant dining room table set with fluted crystal stemware and china plates and cloth napkins and engraved silverware. Napkins always on laps. Elbows never on the table. After dinner, the adults lingered over dessert and coffee and witticisms. This, I thought, is what it means to be sophisticated.
When I had dinner last week with that same grandmother (whose name is Sue), I told her how much I loved those formal dinners at her house. I told her how fancy and refined they seemed to my nine-year-old sensibilities. She laughed and told me it was all part of the show: She always hoped that the fanciness of her dinner parties would distract guests from the fact that food wasn’t very good.
Now, in her defense: I think the food was fine. But now that I do think about it, I don’t really remember. When I think about those dinners, I have no recollection of actually eating. My memories center on the silverware and the glasses and the plates and the people; there might not have been any food at all. And so I say to her: Mission accomplished. I was duly distracted.
Now that I throw my own dinner parties, I use the opposite approach. I hope my food will serve as a distraction from the hard water spots on the drinking glasses, and from the bookcase cluttered with cookery books and gadgets, and from the little hole that I repaired on our kitchen curtains. I hope the food will erase from my guests’ collective memories the fact that the end of the rubber serving spoon was melted flat because I accidentally left it on the hot stovetop. I hope the food will make them forget that our cat jumped from the railing of our upstairs loft and onto the kitchen table during Easter brunch, landing right between the quiche and a pitcher of mimosas. (Yes, this really happened. And I guess no amount of good food will make anyone forget it.)
I know that Sue set her table this way because she loved us and wanted things to be as beautiful as possible for the people she invited into her home. And now, I hope that Chloe and Brian and my family and friends know that when I make the pudding and the whipped cream from scratch; when I pour you another glass of wine; when I bring a casserole to your house because you’re sick or sad; when dinner and dessert lasts for two hours; when I give you homemade peppermint bark and ginger cookies and hot cocoa mix…it’s because I love you so much. And that’s how I say it best.