Published on July 26th, 2012 | by Rebecca Long0
Feeding Friends: Feast For Body and Soul
Everyone has to eat at some point, in theory, and someone has to cook the food. I’ve cooked tasty dishes for one and for two since I was a teenager, but I’ve found that it’s much more satisfying to share what I’ve learned about cooking with the people in my life, in the form of “dinner parties.” When I was younger, I thought of dinner parties as something more bourgeois than proletariat—perhaps forbidden within my social caste, or some such nonsense. I don’t even have a dining room table, for chrissakes!
Turns out: people don’t care so much. The food should be tasty, since that’s how the party’s billed, but it’s really about fellowship. Who to invite? I invite the people I can afford to. So, in general, it ends up being a smallish revolving cast of cohort characters and co-conspirators, folks who help me out when I need or whose company I enjoy. I wish I could feed 20 folks at a time (I’d love that!), but I’d need a kitchen bitch and a dishwasher (human or mechanical) for the night. I do what I can, when I can, and none of my friends should ever feel excluded cause of my limited means. It’s like my friend recently said when we were talking about the expense of the art he makes, “It’s my job. I have to do it.” I feel like (when funds are findable) cooking for the people I love is my job.
When I invite people I try to make sure they either know each other or have a high likelihood of getting along—people meeting new people can be fun! If you have roommates, or a guy-on-the-couch, don’t forget to mention your get-together, as (presumably) they pay rent as well. And neighbors…if you’re not going to invite them, try not to annoy them. My invitations have all been casual to this point, via phone and text. But I’ve been considering Facebook. Email’s an option, as well as handmade postal invitations for special occasions.
There are several stages of the dinner party experience. Be realistic: Do you have help? Are you, in fact, a superhero? (And does your superpower help you dice vegetables?) Doing dishes sucks, y’all. Delegation’s an option if you have a mate or (free) child labor. You can always ask one or two attendees to come over and help for a bit before other guests arrive, but remember you want these people to still be your friends when the night’s over. It’s important to remember why you’re having a dinner party in the first place—so you can cook for others. I’ve gotten bogged down and had to ask guests to help before (thanks, Ellie and Charles, for helping my birthday dinner happen last year!) but I didn’t like doing it. The definition of hospitality is “the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers,” or “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.”
Cost and menu should be considered in tandem. Every party is different, but since you’re inviting people to your house to eat, you should provide them with a plate full of balanced nutrition. If you don’t overdo it, you can cook four courses for four people for about the same as your portion of the check at a restaurant with haughty prices. See what vegetables are in season, check out farmers’ markets, see what’s already in your pantry, and then start searching for recipes. To pay for groceries, you could put out a tip jar (which is certainly not always acceptable), or have a potluck (when you suggest that guests bring a dish). Or you could just show some genuine hospitality. If you’re planning several weeks ahead, you can spread the grocery bill over several pay-periods. And people in Oxford seem to grasp the concept of B.Y.O.B. pretty firmly—that’s never been a problem.
It’s important to choose recipes that are scaleable. Working in commercial kitchens has taught me a lot. One of the most important things here, though, is that doubling a recipe often takes little additional work, maybe just a bigger pot and five minutes more chopping. Make sure you have enough food—if you have leftovers, you already have lunch for tomorrow. And, as aforementioned, you’ll have a food to fill plates for that random couple that shows up late, or seconds for the hungry men in the corner. (Plus, it’s embarrassing to run out of food!)
My Momma taught me as a girl how much an oven, or just two burners, can nullify the benefits of an air conditioner in conditions like these in a Mississippi summer. So, in addition, cooking larger batches of recipes keeps your dwelling from rising to desert-like temperatures quite as often.
A written schedule is an essential thing—Mr. Spock would call it logical. I write down all the steps of each recipe in order and figure out how long each step will take. Then I start piecing together how the evening’s tasks have to go, to get everything done on time. Please heed the following advice: allow enough time for every step, and then a few extra minutes for prep here and there. I never do get food ready on time, so I’ve found that people are happy with drinks and crackers for a little while, but they didn’t come over to starve (the exact opposite, in fact). Do as much as possible beforehand. But, while many dishes’ flavors heighten overnight, just as many dishes must be made fresh before guests arrive. Do what you gotta to provide good grub.
There’s so much to consider when you’re trying to make folks feel welcome in your home—how to genuinely keep them entertained is the first thing. As soon as folks arrive, try to put something, anything, in their hands to sip on. And ideally, at this point, it’s nice to be able to offer an easy appetizer, something to whet appetites until dinner is served…we’re talking cheese and crackers here.
The atmosphere is up to you. Some people go to lengths with themed parties, but I haven’t yet had the forethought. I’m pretty pretense-free inside my own home, but dinner is a good reason to tidy a bit before guests arrive. (And remember that when folks eat dishes prepared in your home, you are responsible for the cleanliness of your food-preparation area and not making people sick!)
As far as ambience, you can easily plan an evening that makes guests feel comfortable. I’ve made playlists for get-togethers, but sometimes I’ll just pick an album and stick with it. I’ve played movies in the background that I want everyone to see, like Harvey, Interstate 60 (starring everyone—Google it!) and Hackers, plus stuff we’ve all seen like Monty Python & The Holy Grail. And, of course, zany awesome stuff often happens after a few beers and passes of a whiskey bottle…I’ll never forget the friends who have grabbed my guitar and serenaded the room with talent, or impromptu “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along sessions after dinner.
It’s like Amy Sedaris said, “I really don’t like going out. I don’t like restaurants because I don’t like the idea of someone, a waitress, being responsible for my evening. I like seconds, and more, and lots of conversation, and I’ve always hated the idea that in a restaurant an evening just ends. I find that incredibly depressing.”
I’ve never had a depressing dinner party. In fact, I find them to strengthen spirits in general. Earlier this year I made an amazing five-course vegetarian meal for a guest of honor who played hooky. Not to be discouraged when I received his message, I immediately doubled two of the recipes I was making, sent out a few late invitations, and served eight of my friends until they were full and happy.
I believe I’ve had a successful dinner party when it comes time to clear the plates away and I find that nearly everyone has emptied their plates twice, and that they’re all laughing and having a good time. Breaking bread with others has (since the invention of bread) been associated with what Southern Baptists would call “true fellowship”—something we all need to feel more human. So…who’s cooking dinner tonight?