There are few things I once liked better than hosting a dinner party for a group of people. Whether celebrating a special event, introducing an out-of-town guest to a group of in-town friends, saying goodbye to someone moving away or simply pulling a few people together to test the results of a new recipe, I loved getting the table together, selecting the dishes and flatware, pondering over the wine, envisioning the cocktail hour and thinking how the evening would be topped off by an amazing dessert. Then something happened.
I don’t know the exact date, nor do I recall one specific event, but when I was washing up from the last dinner party, it occurred to me that I don’t want to do it anymore. First came the vegetarian. I was okay with that. When the meat tray was passed around, I would follow it up with a platter bearing a vegetarian option. It turned out that the carnivores were a greedy lot and emptied the platter before it reached the strictest of the vegetarian guests.
She’s now a vegan, so I’m asked what stock I used for the sauce’s base. Was it chicken or vegetable? Then a few more vegans popped up, so no enriched béchamel for them. Little did it matter, as she has intolerance for lactose. Not that I want a gassy guest with a low rumble worrying my other guests, but what am I to offer her? Cheese-less vegetable pizza? That’s completely out of the question now that the poor thing has discovered she’s non-celiac gluten-sensitive. Cheese-less, wheat-less pizza is just a bunch of vegetables and sauce on a plate. Thank goodness for the tasty kale and lentil salad that one of my healthy friends recently served me. I now have a useful recipe. Just beware of the sudden impact of good fiber.
I’m not insensitive to those with heart conditions, diabetes, various intolerances and allergies, but I’m not equipped to serve so many special orders from my small kitchen. Katherine loves a great piece of beef, preferably grass-fed, antibiotic free and humanely slaughtered. However, don’t serve her wine because it makes her sneeze. Tyler likes the same with the wine, but no potatoes in any form because he can’t handle the carbs. Bob is okay with all of the offerings, but prefers beer even though beer is not on the evening’s menu. Tammy is allergic to alcohol in general, so no berries macerated in Frangelico strewn over rum cake. I think I have a small ramekin of chocolate chips for her—imported, not domestic, which she once said taste like wax.
Deanna doesn’t want anything too spicy, and Annie wants it exotic. Deanna can’t have sugar and Annie can’t have seafood. Deanna has never tried seafood and fears she won’t like it, and Annie can’t resist a good piece of shrimp even it means a little swelling. “I have Benadryl in my purse!” she exclaims before popping a tail into her mouth. All I have to do it hit “send” for the phone to dial 911.
Patricia loves it all and has such a good time, but after she receives her next invitation, she calls me three times during the week of the dinner to request I seat more guests on her behalf. I refuse once I find out that each has an aversion to something I’m planning to serve. Linda doesn’t eat cheese because she thinks everything besides Kraft American Slices smells like feet. Joann likes pork, but she calls me to say her husband won’t eat it if it’s been cooked with anything “exotic.” Since when are cloves and pineapple exotic? He will eat pasta, however, if the sauce isn’t too deep of a red, but Bart will only eat pasta if stuffed with his preferred blend of meats and cheeses. The sauce, however, must match the region of his pasta, and trust me, he can tell.
“Is the chicken free range? If so, could you tell me where the farm was located, and how much daily exercise the chicken got on a regular basis? Oh, if it’s not too much trouble, could you provide the age at the time of death? I don’t want to mistakenly eat one of those birds who took hormones and lived less than a month though it was the size of a naturally matured bird.” There’s no chance you’ll make such a mistake, as I’ve just rescinded your invitation.
Whatever happened to extending an invitation and having it accepted without a lot of falderal? The dinner was the entertainment, and it was supported by good conversation. When I started hearing everyone saying, “I don’t like…” “I can’t eat…” I WON’T eat…” and “I ABSOLUTELY HATE….!” I considered having people bring a dish and serve it buffet. In that instance, I would be merely providing a venue; not providing you with a great evening of food. Even if I gave in, some guest would change his or her mind and bring a duplicate spinach dip, leaving the third choice of appetizer as baba ghannouj. This is a failure since Mike and Steve hate eggplant. The worst would be to see someone walk in with a grocery store cake under a plastic dome. I can’t think of anything dryer unless it’s an old sponge left in the sun.
I considered going to wine and snacks (not just cheese out of sympathy for the lactose intolerant), but three people joined AA one year, another has issues with tannins and Bob—and now Mitchell—will only drink beer. Bob will drink anything with hops, but Mitchell will only drink micro-brews from acceptable sources.
It’s not as though I’m serving blood sausages, paté and rabbit—all acceptable delicacies, but when someone starts tampering with the menu and making special requests, you’d think I’d initially offered alligator burgers and pickled rattlesnake.
Some argue that America’s Gilded Age was filled with robber barons who had no redeeming qualities, but aside from the long list of shortcomings, including the purchase of politicians and employee exploitation, they did transform the United States after the Civil War through the rest of the 19th century. Great advances were made in railroads, the use of steel, aluminum and natural gas—things we rely on today regardless of our opinions about their vast fortunes and what they did with them.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published in England and reflects the multi-course dinners contemporary with America’s robber barons. A suggested menu for an April dinner for ten persons includes a first course of gravy soup, salmon and dressed cucumber, shrimp sauce, and fillets of whitings. The entrees included lobster cutlets and chicken patties. The second course was roast fillet of veal, boiled leg of lamb, and ham garnished with broccoli. Vegetables were also served. The third course was duckling, compote of rhubarb, custards, vanilla cream, orange jelly, cabinet pudding and ice pudding. Can you imagine anyone being invited to one of the grand mansions of a Rockefeller, Vanderbilt or Carnegie and saying any of the following?
“Gravy soup? Whoever heard of that?”
“Is the salmon wild or farmed?”
“Could I have the dressing on the side?”
“I’m allergic to shellfish.”
“What’s a whiting?”
“No lobster for me. Did I mention my allergy to shellfish?”
“Chicken patties sound processed to me.”
“Veal?!? Where’s my coat?”
“Boiled lamb?!? Is there no baby farm animal you won’t cook?”
“I don’t eat pork, but is the broccoli cooked with the pork or just served as a side?” “Are the vegetables organic and are they locally grown? May I see the certification?”
“Duckling? Another helpless baby animal. You people are monsters!”
“I hate rhubarb!”
“I don’t do dairy.”
“Jelly is full of refined sugar.”
“No dessert for me. I’m trying to avoid the ‘white death.’”
I’m not saying that a multi-course diet rich in animal protein made America great. Certainly America’s obsession with fast food proves that this type of diet slows us down on many levels. However, if we have too many food issues, we’re missing out on celebrating friendship and life’s joys. The addiction to electronics has already separated us from each other, and we must do what we can to reconnect.
For those who receive an invitation, please accept and prepare to eat what is offered. Don’t insist on special treatment, and you’ll just have to figure out what you can and can’t eat. One night shouldn’t kill you, but if it does, isn’t it better to go out of this world having had a great experience with friends and loved ones than sitting home alone, night after night with a bowl of quinoa pilaf?
©2014 Patrick Brown