Can you see us sweating? Me, in my apron. My husband, Peter, in jeans and a T-shirt, though our dinner guests are due in 19 minutes and the kitchen looks like a crime scene.
Only now do I realize with a jab to the heart that the goat cheese I had pictured hiding in the back of the fridge is a figment of my imagination. To substitute, I dump Walmart mixed nuts into a Mexican dish—lipstick on a pig—and fish out olives I bought three weeks ago from Whole Foods. Aged olives, I tell myself. A delicacy.
Peter ferries down a fleet of glasses to the island: white-wine glasses, red-wine glasses, champagne flutes. We look like alcoholics with a Pottery Barn account, which is, actually, not far from the truth.
“I need to get dressed,” I say. “You need to get dressed.”
Peter is not listening. He is cleaning water marks. His inner perfectionist blossoms when it comes to stemware.
“They’ll be here any minute,” I say, my voice strained.
“They’ll be fashionably late,” Peter says, with more hope than conviction.
“They’re never late.”
Actually, they may be. Our friends fall into one of two camps. Those who arrive on time—at 7 p.m. sharp, they press their noses against our front door like shoppers on Black Friday—and those who arrive late. They text. They apologize for the dog, the babysitter, the nap that ran over. They are coming! Kissing emojis.
Oh, and they can’t bring vanilla ice cream after all. Sorry!
We run upstairs to change. Peter showers, debates which shirt. I wriggle into something black. No time for makeup. No time for that anti-aging mask to reduce the appearance of fine lines.
“Remind me why we do this?” I say, spit-cleaning my dress. “I forget.”
Peter buffs his shoes. “Because we don’t like to drink alone.”
[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]One night led to another. Almost 20 years later, we are the dinner-party gurus of our social circle.[/pullquote]I know why, but not exactly when, this dinner-party habit started. We were young. We had small children. Going to restaurants was a stressful and expensive production. It was easier to invite people to our house than watch our children fling french fries and down $7 Shirley Temples. So we hosted a dinner. One night led to another. Almost 20 years later, we are the dinner-party gurus of our extended social circle. We throw a dinner once a month, sometimes two. We also have a holiday party where people dance wildly to David Bowie and ABBA and knock Christmas ornaments off our tree. Thank God no one takes pictures.
All this makes us sound more social than we are. We are college professors at DePauw University, writers, comfortable spending many hours alone, monks with laptops, but when you live in Smalltown, Indiana, you have to make your own fun. Our friends are the most fun we know. Witty. Affectionate. So damn happy to be invited over, to be cooked for, cared for. Candles lit. Toasts made. Food served. Food cleared. Dishes washed by someone else. It’s like a dream. We are the dream makers.
Preparations take all day, in part due to our family’s weird dietary restrictions. I’ve been a vegetarian (who eats fish) since high school, but two decades ago, I started eating bacon because, well, life is short. (Waiters at Café Patachou look puzzled when I order the Cobb salad, “hold the chicken,” but we bacontarians are a principled bunch.) Peter eats fish, but not seafood. He also rejects some meaty vegetables, like eggplant, mushrooms, and artichokes. My son, Lincoln, 14, avoids most veggies, seafood, and, amazingly, bacon. If you drew a Venn diagram, the only things all three of us eat are pasta and corn flakes.
So we have to make a lot of dishes. Peter cooks a meat object that I don’t touch. I cook a vegetarian dish that Peter will eat but Lincoln often won’t. We cook a starch. We fix a salad. We always make a dessert: an apple tart or lemon cake or chocolate mousse. Once the dessert is in place, I relax, figuring all’s well that ends well. So what if we overcook the chops? Let them eat cake!
My husband is an oenophile, which I can’t even pronounce. Any Barefoot bottle is fine for me, but he knows all the grapes and noses and gets tips from kindly sommeliers in wine stores in Indy and Bloomington, who never fail to remind him there’s a discount when you buy a case.
We don’t ask people to bring wine, but I ask them to bring other things. When I lived in Utah, I used to mock potluck dinners. “Come on over for dinner. Oh, and can you bring a meatloaf?”
I have learned to give specific directions, especially with people who don’t cook. You can’t say, “Bring bread.” You have to say: “Bring that boule of bread on the bottom shelf called Pane Toscano that costs $3.99 at Kroger.” We have a dear friend who brings terrible desserts. We now ask him to bring beer. We have a friend who brings terrible wine. We ask her to bring flowers. We ask some people to bring nothing at all, like our Italian friend with six children, who should never have to cook another day in her life, but always arrives bearing five different presents anyway because in Italy no one leaves home without a box of Baci.
The evening’s schedule doesn’t vary. As bossa nova coos, we mingle around the kitchen island and nibble a yummy hors d’oeuvre that some kind soul has brought. (The only hors d’oeuvre I know how to make is guacamole.) I learned the hard way not to cook things that require a last-minute fuss—like risotto—but there is still, always, inevitably, a last-minute fuss, accompanied for me, but not Peter, by a hot flash.
Peter seats people. We plate. Lincoln serves. And then, finally, the golden moment, much like the photographer’s golden hour, when you finally sit down. We toast. Everyone says nice things about the food whether it deserves it or not because we’re all so happy to be together and forget about national politics and global warming. Instead, we talk about our kids or gossip about our enemies or hear travel tales of lost wallets and malevolent Uber drivers or stories about woodchucks and Vegas. We eat marinated steak and spanakopita and tzatziki and rice and a salad and lemon cake and ice cream and chocolates and mandarin oranges, and Peter brings out this brandy with a whole pear inside the bottle, and everyone rolls around their chairs, too stuffed to leave. God help us if someone reaches for the “Kumbaya” guitar. We’ll be there all night.
“You guys make it look so effortless,” says Melinda, the literature professor with the stud in her nose. “You’ve got it down.”
We don’t have it down. We just do it up. True, our kitchen, once again, looks like a crime scene. Knives tossed helter skelter. A bloody cutting board. Frosting smears. Empty wine bottles. Who cares? The mess will keep.
The truth is throwing dinner parties is good for our marriage. Peter and I are reminded that we make a good team. We work together to make the apple galette. We work together to open all the doors and windows when the spilled apple filling burns along the oven floor, sending up black clouds of sugar smoke. When the guests finally totter off into the night, Peter does the dishes. I clear the table, put away food, wipe counters. I mop. (I like to mop. I like to walk barefoot on a clean floor. My life is a mess, but my floor is not.)
Afterward, we lie in bed, exhausted, and hold hands. We’ve been on the go for more than 12 hours.
“I thought they would never leave,” I say, more proud than annoyed.
“You think people had fun?” Peter asks.
I tell him they did have fun. I tell him that we are never throwing another dinner party for the rest of our lives. Two weeks later, we miss our friends. We make up a fresh guest list, check the fridge for chèvre, and sharpen our knives.