An experienced Manhattan hostess, the mother in law of a friend, wrote and asked me to contribute to a book she was putting together with a friend of hers. The subject: entertaining disasters. I was flattered that someone whom I imagined gave fabulous intimate parties in exclusive locales wd want me to contribute to her anthology. Could she possibly think I had equivalent experiences? I racked my brain for stories that never happened: the caterer didn't show up, the caterer brought food meant for someone else's party, a guest sat on an antique chair and it collapsed. Then I wrote this essay.
Entertainment disasters seem to fall into several categories: something wrong with the food. Some thing wrong with the guests. The space isn't working. I'm not in the mood. My husband is feeling foul. More or less, since 1976, I have been entertaining, or not entertaining, with the same man. He sees people all day long, fielding a couple of hundred emails and as many telephone calls, and when he gets home, he hungers for SILENCE. He has no curiosity about how his friends are doing, let ale people he does not care about. And he sees no need to indulge in the nineties word, "networking." He can reve up his engines for an "Emergency", but for a social occasion, his brows furrow. He doesn't even like people to drop in. Luckily, our house between Harvard and Central Squares is a classic triple decker and he hangs out on the third floor, so some times he has no idea who I am entertaining on the first floor. I am the sociable one.
So probably my biggest entertaining disaster is my beloved spouse. I often go to other people's events w/o him. I have friends of twenty years who have rarely met him and whom he rarely recognizes or remembers. Does HE really exist they ask me in a Beckett hush?
Until I met him I was very interested in cooking, because being in a kitchen is very similar to being in a darkroom. There is measuring, there is mixing, there is running water. Temperature matters. Time matters. I even collected cookbooks and methodically tried recipes, making notes on the successes and failures and the dates of my attempts. The notations stop cold in February,1968. This man of my life doesn't appreciate home cooked food. He doesn't notice the potatoes are cooked a new way. He doesn't care that I have found the perfect mushrooms. Or that I went to five stores for a certain spice. He wants to eat out!!! His idea of heaven is a restaurant. It doesn't have to be a fancy restaurant. Or even have great food. It simply has to be OUT. So who in their right mind wd cook for someone who doesn't faint before the effort of shopping, unpacking, and actually cooking??? And it follows that the person who likes to go out doesn't want to stay home and play HOST.
Over all our time together, we have had about three ad hoc dinners a year that could qualify as dinner parties in some lexicons. They were never planned and always revolved around a friend coming to Cambridge from out of town. They always involved some chaos and a mad rush to our local shop, Cremaldi's, before it closed. I always buy lots of different breads and several containers of veal marsala. I can never think of a vegetable. I shudder when I know one of my guests is a vegetarian since Cremaldi's doesn't have any/many choices for them. I've degenerated into a lousy cook. Blame that unappreciative spouse. My spontaneous entertaining would be dangerous if it weren't for Cremaldi's, a hundred feet away. My improvisations might KILL. The only vegetable I dare make myself is sweet corn and they only carry that when it is in season in New England, not Mexico. I always count on good wine appearing miraculously and making everyone happy with the attendant company, food being an afterthought.
In the years before Cremaldi's, before there was a gourmet take out in every Cambridge neighborhood, I would convince my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant to fill my cooking pots w/ food that I could heat up. I wouldn't lie that I hadn't made the food, but I was glad when people just said the food was delicious and let it go at that.
From 1968 to 1976, while going with my now husband, I entertained on my own, in my own funky style. I lived in a little house by myself in Cambridge. He lived up the street. And when he knew I had a houseful of friends he managed to have an office crisis. Occasionally, he wd come by after work, say at three in the morning. In fact, out of my nonentertaining, I wrote a book which is now a cult classic, Elsa's Housebook-A Woman's Photojournal. (You can read it in toto on my web site, elsadorfman.com) During that period, I worried most about DRUGS, about undercover DRUG AGENTS invading Harvard Square and MY HOUSE. I worried that people who were in FAVOR OF the war in Vietnam might actually try to come to my house. I hated when people I didn't know came over when I had a party with people I did know.
I wd go around sniffing, did I smell dope? Who looked like they would cause trouble? Who looked like they might work for the government? I would put my precious books on high shelves, thinking myself cautious and paranoid at the same time. There was a playground diagonally across the street, the Corporal Burns, and I wd point the complainers to it, saying come back when you've had a drag. In those days, as now, bread was a big part of my entertaining formula, along with shrimp and strawberries and chocolate brownies. The conversation was always intensely conspiratorial and the music would always start around midnight, just late enough to drive the neighbors crazy.
Perhaps my biggest entertainment disaster was when I was about 26, and a struggling photographer in a fourth floor walk-up off of Harvard Square. The whole studio apartment was less than 400 sq.ft. I had decided to have a costume Halloween party and invited people I thought I knew, people I knew I hardly knew, and people I knew even more remotely. I calculated about forty people would come. I hadn't put RSVP on the invitation, I was too shy and insecure to want to know who would really show up. I struggled to buy food for forty, bought cheap glasses at a kitchen supply place, made mulled cider, borrowed an aunt's serving pieces, actually made a turkey and a ham, and got so wound up, I forgot about a costume for myself. The mortifying result was that five people came and each was in costume. Two of the five gave me hell for not being in a costume myself when they had gone to the trouble of being a squirrel and a raccoon. Of course, what I was wearing in those days would surely qualify as a costume now. How I got through the evening and what I did with all the extra food I don't remember.
What do I remember most fondly about those evenings of chaos and friendship? The hubhub. The piles of empty food containers in my railroad kitchen. . Sitting crowded around the table. Conversation. Music Laughter Now we are older. Sadly, there are a few empty chairs.