Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Good-Enough Entertaining

Last night, I cooked the Food Gay birthday dinner. When anybody in this crew has a birthday, the rule is they get to pick a Menu, and pick a night, and I will make whatever dinner they want (within my culinary skill set -- I don't think anybody wants me to make them Pâté).

While this is a tradition leftover from my childhood, in adulthood, it was revived by my friends Mare and Kimmy. Mare (who now lives in Oregon) used to make chicken n dumplings for my birthday (which I love, but can't make) and Kimmy makes me lobster (which I love, but won't make -- I get the better deal because she only wants Sweet Potato soup, which is easy, and doesn't involve killing any prey). Last night was Pot Roast -- and as specified, I didn't tart it up one bit -- it's more or less the exact same pot roast my grandmother would've served you 50 years ago -- cooked from 8 am to 6 pm. (I did throw in a leftover glass of wine that was sitting on the counter, and she was Baptist, so that would be about the only variation.)  Chef Tom brought along this gorgeous concoction, because he and Michael obviously know you can't arrive for dinner without bringing along lunch for your hostess for the next day.

I used to be a little afraid of cooking for Food Professionals (ChefBabyBrother being a notable exception -- the poor kid ate my home ec "Oscar Meyer Casserole" experiment and survived to go on to culinary school), but I forced myself to get over it around the time I met my friend Kate. She cooks for everyone from Sheiks and royalty on down (and once named a cherry-vanilla rice pudding after me), and while she always gets invited to all the Swanky McSwankerton stuff in town, I worried that people (like me) left her off the more casual guest-lists -- like say, Sex and the City Sundays, or Superbowls --out of intimidation).

We've always lived just a few blocks apart, so eventually, when I'd run into her at the Disco Kroger, I'd start saying, "Kate, there's a pot of chili on the stove if you want some," and eventually, she started coming over. The food was never fancy. Sometimes the house was a mess. Often, the dogs were busy killing something in the yard (which might put some guests off their appetite, but Kate's English, and hearty). And it wasn't unusual for a major MoneyPit repair to be in process, complete with exposed wires, or slate roof tiles sliding onto the porch, or a Bobcat noisily digging a ditch for a new sewer line or water line or some other line that never ever involved the new kitchen/bathroom facelift I always wanted to put money into, but never got to.

And that was the paradox of that house -- I bought it, at least partly, if not mostly to accommodate the big group of friends and family that I knew and loved and wanted to surround myself with -- and then I didn't want to let them in it. Because, even though it was huge, it was never good enough (in my mind, not theirs). Along the, way I met friends and boyfriends who were intimidated by it, and others who were positively embarrassed by it -- it was still the same house. My standards were profoundly internalized (and fairly ridiculous, looking back).

From the moment I moved in, I had these great ideas for how it should look -- and then I would have everybody over, and wouldn't they be impressed. Last weekend, my designated straight was looking at a collage of pics my friend Scott made me and I noticed the photo of me in that frame is from my 30th birthday party -- which I hosted in my backyard, mostly because, again, I didn't want to let anyone in the house. (And I had lived there for years by the time I turned 30.)

In fairness to me, the place really was a fixer-upper -- it was a hundred years old for Chrissake -- but its bones were solid. I just always saw it for what it needed rather than what it had.

Kate was one of my relatively early experiments where I began to force myself to remember that people were there for good company and good food and they didn't care if I served it with the right silver or the right dishes, or if we ate it on the right furniture. I realized if I waited til I had all the right stuff to accommodate these fancy theoretical people (who bear no resemblance to the kind, generous, non-judgmental people I know), I was never going to let anyone into my life (much less my house).

It takes a long time to fill up a house that big, and get the feel of it, and about the time I did, I sold it, and moved to this place (about a third the size). And the process just started all over again. The kitchen's too small, I whine. The Hot Sorority Visigoths next door make way too much noise; it sounds like a frat house half the time. The old living room furniture didn't fit into this new living room, so there's really no place to sit, and so on. In reality, then, as now, nobody cares.

Because, in looking something up for my Mom last visit, I was going through old photo albums and ran across an Easter Brunch photo from right before I bought the last house. That place was a one-bedroom, shotgun style apartment, with mauve carpet and linoleum. But you don't see any of that in this picture. In this picture, what you see is about 20 laughing, happy people crammed onto a deck that is way too small to even accommodate their combined weight, crowded around card tables in folding chairs -- eating ham. They sure look like they are having a good time.

I suspect they all believed it was good enough. And it probably was.


  1. Good is something worth appreciating. In the book of Genesis it is written that when God had created all that God created, God took a step back and said that creation was, "good." It wasn't amazing or awe-inspiring or unbelievable -- it was "good." We tend to get caught up in hype. Big words elicit a response, but, the things that we call good are usually simple and memorable; like a shared pot of chili surrounded by conversation; an overstuffed deck of friends, or perhaps a pot roast served with a touch of love.

  2. Being one of those 20 people, I distinctly remember the Easter brunch, the friends, the laughter, the warm spring day - not so much the house. Thanks for the wonderful memories of that occasion and many others in that same humble abode!