One of my favorite things to do is to host dinner parties. It's probably one of my favorite activities of all time - so much so that it is difficult for me to explain the extent of my enthusiasm for them. But to give you a clue, I often think that one of the best presents anyone could give me for a birthday or another gift-giving holiday would be the combination of an unlimited supply of groceries with forced manual labor in the kitchen. This is because I love to cook, and to spend a whole day in front of a stove preparing appetizers and entrées for people that I care about is complete bliss. Or another clue: when Babette Harsant wins a sizeable lottery in Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud), and decides to spend all the money she won on a single extravagant meal, which she cooks almost entirely herself, I can't help but think, "Man, what a reasonable way to spend one's money!" Although I admit that if I won a $10,000,000.00 lottery, I wouldn't spend it all on food. But the only things that would stop me from dropping down the full check for groceries is my knowledge that (1) I don't find it enjoyable to cook for more than eight people without some assistance, and (2) a dinner party has to be the proper size, and although extravagance is permitted, it has to also be limited to the proper level for the occasion. I only do perfect dinner parties.
What is the proper level of extravagance? Well, it varies from party to party, but I'd guess that my average grocery bill would be about as much as it would cost to take the same amount of people out to eat at a nice restaurant instead, and some people can't understand why I go the hard route. "Why spend the whole day leaning over a stove when you could just go out to eat?" Well, the first response I have is that I love to cook, and until my fame enables me to walk into the kitchen of a restaurant and take over the operations of the place (I think Alain Ducasse has earned the right to do this), dinner parties have a distinct advantage for me. I suppose my love of cooking is rooted in my experience with my father, who was the chef at several restaurants, and so he spent most of his life cooking food. My mother did most of the cooking at the house, so I probably learned some inspiration from her as well. Further, I've worked on farms and handled fresh produce, I've been a dishwasher, a prep chef, a waiter, a caterer and even a sommelier at various restaurants, and so I've constantly had my love of cooking reinforced, especially as I learned new things at every job I worked at. I suppose my perfectionist tendencies also have had a role in my love of cooking. I am not a relentless perfectionist, but there is nothing I like more than tweaking a sauce to get just the right flavor to compliment the main dish, or to pick out the perfect wine to go with the appetizer, and so on. In short, I think of cooking as one of the fine arts, and don't consider it one step below painting, sculpture or music.
I also thrive on complexity when I cook, on the sorts of decisions that are usually left to the discretion of the kitchen in most restaurants. If I have a five person dinner party and someone can't digest gluten, another person is vegan, a third person doesn't eat pork, a forth person is allergic to peanuts, I think of it as so much more fun than a simple, "We'll eat anything you cook approach." Because under the former circumstances, I get to experiment and figure out things like the right proportion of corn meal, rice flour and baking powder to achieve the particular effect of wheat flour I require, or how to achieve the flavor of a rich beef stew with only mushrooms, seasoning, and wine. Anyway, for these reasons, it would be worth paying extra money to be able to cook the meal, so restaurants and dinner parties don't compare.
They also don't compare since the goals, and the teleology of both activities are so different. If you go to a restaurant, it may be that all the parties involved have the same goals in mind, but often they diverge. For instance, in a restaurant you might have the goal of lingering over the meal for the evening, but that isn't what your hosts are necessarily counting on. Their goal may well be to maximize the turnover of the tables, so the restaurant and the staff could make a decent profit that evening. Who wins this conflict? It's really up for grabs, and frequently your dinner will be down to two hours tops. But at my dinner parties, part of the goal is to keep people there having fun as long as possible. If the party starts at 7 PM, it should end around 1 or 2 in the morning. It is not unheard of for people to end up staying the night in my neighborhood in order to make it to the end of a dinner party. Of course, the goal isn't just to make the party last long, but to maximize it’s length in order to keep the conversation flowing, to keep everyone learning new things about food, music or their personalities, and to make the festival as memorable as possible.
Now, it takes a bit of skill to direct a dinner party to achieve these ends. You don't just have a pile of courses lined up in the other room and expect the party to work out. At each stage of the process the diners have different expectations, different goals, different ways to approach what they are doing. All these things have to be taken into account. Maybe it's worthwhile going through typical components one-by-one. Keep in mind that I don’t mean the following to be the way every dinner party should work out: it’s equally important to add variety and spice (as we shall see), but nonetheless, it is possible to discern a general framework that repeats itself often. This framework involves seven different components.
(1) Hors d'Oeuvres. When the party is beginning, it is inevitable that everyone arrives at a slightly different time. The quorum hasn't been assembled. Hence, I find my goal at the beginning of a meal is to provide sustenance for whoever is there, without depriving the people who aren't there of anything special. If there is wine, it shouldn't be the best of the selection. If there is food, it should not be filling enough to deprive people of their appetites, and it should also be of the nature to be consumed either over a long-period of time, or over a very short time, and there should be enough available so that late arrivals will still get a taste. Finally, since the chef is probably still cooking, the dishes should be self-sufficient requiring minimal specialty work to serve. It is convenient if it can all be prepared ahead of time.
(2) The appetizer. After everyone has sat down at the table, it’s time for me to make my first impression. And as the saying goes, you never have a second chance for a first impression. This is even more important for meals, since chances are that the first thing that is put down on the table will be the thing that people will remember most after the affair is over. Hence, it needs to be interesting, slightly surprising, and show a certain degree of cleverness that will make one’s guests feel curious about what will follow. I remember once having a dinner party in which one of my guests said that she absolutely did not like Brie, and wouldn't eat anything with it. Since she wasn't allergic to this particular cheese, I figured that it would be a worthwhile challenge to make her come to terms with Brie. Hence, I figured that her problems with the particular substance were its texture and tanginess. So I decided to produce Brie without these additions. I figured out that it was possible to whip up the Brie into a light mousse with some heavy cream, and thereby eliminate the features of the cheese she didn't like. Since whipped Brie needs a support, and preferably something with a slightly different texture, I served it on brittle crackers that I made from just sprinkling Parmesan cheese onto Silpat and baking it for ten minutes. The resulting dish had the lightness of mousse with the crustiness of hard crackers, and all without the tanginess and the strange texture Brie that is intermediate between cream and hard cheese. Of course she loved the dish and asked what it was. I was happy to announce that it was in fact Brie. For me, that was the perfect appetizer: it was light, challenging and interesting, and at the end of the evening it was one of the things that she, as well as other guests remembered most. All of this serves the purpose of the appetizer, to please the palate and to make everyone just want more.
(3) The pre-entree course. After the appetizer, it is customary to have some sort of pre-entrée course. Options include soup, salad, or a light entrée. The goal here is to take advantage of the increased expectation of what is to come next, and to provide something satisfying and slightly filling, while at the same time, not achieving the absolute creativity of the appetizer or the nearly absolute filling-ness of the main entree. Soup and salad are nice here, because they generally have reliable textures, and a certain straightforward appeal that contrasts nicely with the surprise and indirect manner of the appetizer. I have on occasion followed the Italian fashion and have served an entrée here, but one toned down slightly either in heartiness or size from the main course. Gnocchi is nice, as is a pasta dish, or a risotto. After the pre-entrée course, I like my audience to be slightly satisfied, and although not full, requiring a few moments to digest before the next meal comes. This gives me time to plate the main course. In short, the goal of the pre-entrée course is to keep people wanting more, while beginning to satisfy their long-term cravings.
(4) The main course. Unlike the earlier dishes, the main course should be filling and hearty. It should eliminate everyone's hunger, while still leaving just enough room for after courses and desert. Unlike the other dishes, it also should have several different components or textures so that diners can alternate between the pleasures of something crisp and something fluffy, or something difficult to cut and requiring minimal effort. At the end of the main course it is time to sit back and relax. It is here that group conversation flows the easiest. Conversations that began with small talk about the appetizers and food, that progressed to topics that were interesting during the pre-entree course, now should reach their fullness, before smaller groups at the table break off from the main conversation to talk amongst themselves. Wine should flow freely here (well, perhaps everywhere else too), and no one should feel rushed. Seconds should be available for those diners with more appetite, but there shouldn't be any felt obligation to eat more than you wish. In short, it’s important to give everyone what they want, and what is suitable for their particular bodies.
(5) The coaster. The little squares of pottery or cardboard that we put under our cups and glasses started out from far nobler stalk. The original coaster was a small silver dish that an object such as a wine decanter sat on. This item would "coast" around the edge of table like a coastal vessel might coast along the shore of a continent. The word "coast" also sounds relaxing, bringing to mind the thrill of coasting along a road on a bicycle and not having to peddle. I think that this is the right way to approach the immediate after-dinner item. This could be cheese and bread, or perhaps a salad, or some appetizer-like thing that guests can pick at. As the items make their rounds people have the chance to reflect on what they've eaten, and to begin to come together again as a group before the glory of the dessert. Perhaps a little more explanation is in order. During the main course people eat at their own rate, consuming the appropriate amount of food for their bodies and hunger. In the same way, conversations seem to break off into smaller groups as people pursue issues that have come up in the course of the night. You need to have some little something that can enable people to continue on their separate ways before the final pièce d'résistance lands on the table. Of course, it’s unnecessary to have food here: the last of the wine might be sufficient, as would a good bottle of sherry or brandy (the traditional coaster). Finally, at the end of the coaster, coffee and tea requests should be taken. In my house this is generally a rather elaborate affair since I serve everything from Turkish coffee and espresso, to over fifty different kinds of tea. Hence time has to be given in order that everyone can make the right decision. In short, the goal of the coaster is to keep things alive after the excitement of the meal has passed.
(6) Dessert. Now the group needs to come together before the pièce d'résistance: the dessert. The goal of a dessert is to be the icing on the cake, the one flavor that you want to be left lingering on everyone's pallets. Sweet and pleasing flavors are great, like chocolate, sweetened fruits, or creams and custards. This is the flavor that guests will have as they either go home or continue to talk and relax. I usually go for things that are impressive, overwhelming, and intoxicating. This could be everything from a five level Dacquoise to a simple box of chocolates. In short the goal of the dessert is to leave sweet flavors lingering in the mouth.
(7) Finally, there need to be provisions for everyone who wants to stay a couple more hours shooting the breeze. In one of my best dinner parties, this is the time everyone went out on the porch to drink sherry and enjoy the stars. Sometimes, a movie might come out here (or perhaps after the coaster), or some favorite pieces of music can be listened to with the sort of concentration that only comes from sitting with dark skies. Coffee and tea are convenient because when they run out, more can be made on demand. One of the great advantages of a successful dinner party is that you have a group of happy people to shoot the breeze with.
Of course, there are other things to keep in mind. I like to approach the whole evening with some sort of theme. For instance, one dinner party had a mushroom theme, and in almost every course there was just a little bit of mushroom prepared in a slightly different fashion. In the form of a tart for the appetizer, raw and dowsed with vinegar in the salad, and the gills of the portabellas were reduced in a liquid and strained to make the background pallet of the sauce for the homemade portabella and goat cheese ravioli. Although many of my guests may not have noticed it, the whole evening was an experiment in the various different ways a mushroom can be prepared. I think of these sorts of details as the things that really elevate a meal to an art form. Other nights I've used single spices to link the meal, such as curry or pepper, and on more than one occasion it has been garlic.
I suppose that one of the other neat features of a dinner is that it is ephemeral. It is enjoyed at the moment, but like the banners that Cristo flew in New York, they are only retained in people's memories.
Now, I should say that the inspiration for today's post came from two fronts: both from my interest in cooking, as well as my interest in dating. Here’s where the real fun starts. A few days ago I was spending some time trying to figure out what sort of restaurant to take my latest date. At first I did a few searches on the best restaurants in the area, but decided that it would have felt very awkward having a first date at some stuffy restaurant where you have to sit in a particular way and thereby increase the inherent awkwardness of the first meeting. So I needed to find a slightly more casual, relaxing sort of restaurant. I then began exploring restaurants in Chicago, and I admit I got carried away. Until this moment I suppose I never realized just how many terribly interesting restaurants I haven't been to in town. And the recipes and reviews of the restaurants were intoxicating. I finally narrowed it down to a few that I really wanted to try:
Le Lan - the new restaurant opened by Arun (One of my favorite chefs in Chicago whose Thai recipes are so good that not even Charlie Trotter messes with them when he uses them in his cookbooks) Anyway, this one of the restaurants I'm most curious about.
L'Etoile's emphasis on seasonal foods, prepared in a style that really brings out the inherent qualities of the ingredients.
Blackbird- one of the top 50 restaurants in the United States, but not quite as expensive or snooty as Trotter's or Everest.
North Pond - a really pretty little restaurant on the north side of Lincoln Park, which has the attraction of adding moonlit strolls to a satisfying meal. I have to say that if the reviews of the place are correct, the dinners there must be truly inspired, because the head chef combines things I would never consider combining! (e.g. venison can work well, but do you really need to add a chickory coffee reduction?)
At the end of the search I was ready to pick one of these places, and then I realized that in coming up with this list, I completely forgot about how important it is to pace a relationship, since just like dinners, it’s possible to take a relationship a little too fast or a little too slow. But it struck me that the analogy with a dinner went even further than this, and that I was about to make the mistake of replacing what should be an appetizer with a main course. Perhaps parallel to the seven stages of a dinner, there are the seven stages of a relationship? It seems to be a thought worth exploring. So let's give the analogy a try.
(1) The hors d'oeuvres. It occurs to me that the part analogous to the hors d'oeuvres are the initial moments of contact. These might be the telephone calls you need to have in order to set up the date, or perhaps a posted profile on an online dating site. It’s important to know that this is not dating in a proper sense, but rather the first few off moments that you and your date will share before meeting one another. Hence, these first conversations should be casual, and they have to fit comfortably into one another's schedules. You also don't want to reveal too much here, since you haven't even met the other person. She or he might be completely different than you imagine him or her to be, so it’s important not to be too invested in your ideal. But it's convenient if some aspects of the date can be prepared ahead of time.
(2) The appetizer. I think the analogue to the appetizer is the first few dates. Like the appetizer in a dinner this is your chance to make a first impression, and you (almost) never have a second chance to make a first impression. The whole goal is to make a lasting impression in the other person's mind, but to do it in the light-hearted, flirtatious manner. There also should be some surprise, but without too much commitment. Hence, unlike my initial inclination to go to one of the best restaurants in Chicago, I should have been aiming for something a little less: a particular restaurant that you like very much, and that you can depend upon for its food and atmosphere, and that maybe is a little quirky. I often go to first dates at the Fox & Obel in Chicago. The place consistently has very good food, but it’s presented in a rather causal light-hearted fashion. It's a café in a grocery store, after all: but the atmosphere is more like a restaurant. I suppose that in lieu of a first dinner, this might be the time to meet in a coffee or teashop. The goal is to play with those first few sentiments that each of you brings to the table. All of this serves the purpose of the appetizer stage of a relationship: to please the palate and to make everyone just want more.
(3) The pre-entrée course. Chances are that the first date or two was a little awkward. Ideally, you've gotten over that awkwardness and the two of you are off to wonderful things. Some physical contact would be nice here. I think that this is analogous to the substance component of a meal. Maybe I reveal my gender in saying this – I'm a man after all – but I hardly think that only one sex is interested in a little action here. The thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t all the substance of a relationship, or at least not all the substance of a good healthy relationship. Another aspect of the substance part of the atmosphere is meaningful interactions: you’ve got to go past the small talk. During the appetizer stage everything might have been confined to small talk about the restaurant, the location, how the two of you met, etc. But in order for a relationship to really work, the conversation has got to be more meaningful, and hopefully now that you're completely comfortable with the other person, this will be easy. Any question or issues that you think is significant or interesting in your own life can kick it up a notch. I suppose more important than what the questions are, are how they are approached. There’s got to be seriousness from time to time, the actual interchange of interesting and meaningful thought. All of this is substance. And what's more it’s at this stage, the substance stage, when the relationship seems to break free of the gimmicks that brought the couple together in the first place. No longer is it the fact that you're dating a lawyer, or a doctor, or that someone likes the Animaniacs, or that he’s just a gorgeous hunk. Now the relationship has to go beyond any particular features of you and yours. I once had a dinner party in which a guest was asked why he was dating the woman he happened to be dating, but who could not make the party. The expectation was that he'd rattle off her abilities, or features of her personality that he liked, or interests they share, all in some easy and digestible format. But he couldn't name any particular things, and was honestly tongue-tied. Many people thought that this was indicative of his lack of meaningful connection with this particular woman, but I took it to be a sign that they had reached a rather deep and meaningful stage in their relationship, and so it seemed to suggest to me the strength of their relationship rather than the weakness of it. For it was no longer the case that the meaningful parts of their relationship were determined by particular superficial features of their personalities, but it was something that transcended either of them in the strict sense of the term. This is substance. This is the first entrée. Part of the goal of the pre-entrée course is to keep people wanting more, while beginning to satisfy those long-term cravings.
(4) Main Course. So, there is already some substance, and with the main course this only grows. The couple has gone beyond the superficial he-can-do-this, she-can-do-that sort of mentality. Conversations have become deep, and perhaps the initial excitement of coming together has diffused into a background sense of contentment and belonging. But at this stage it occurs to me that the practical nature of the relationship begins to emerge even more forcibly. Chances are the couple is living together, or at least spending a lot of time at each other’s apartments. In addition to the romantic sides of their relationships, the practical nature of the relationship begins to come through. Love is now expressed in routine day-to-day activities ranging from the preparation of meals, to the cleaning of the toilet. Sure, there’s still interest and creativity, but these practical things have to be dealt with. Also, it's important for the couple to deliberately spend some time apart. Just like the conversation during the main course of a dinner begins to fragment but come back together, one's love relationship divides sometimes and comes together at others, but more on this in a moment. Things are more complicated during the main course, and the stakes are a little higher. A lot of people end up bailing at this point. Maybe they took things too fast and are satiated by the time the main course comes around. Or perhaps the flavors of the appetizer and first-entrée mix poorly? Perhaps there is another dinner party that looks like more fun? I suppose there are now restaurants that only serve appetizers, maybe some people think its better to stick with the small things. But even if the main course is a lot of work, it can keep two people afloat for years on end. In short, it is important to give everyone what they want at this stage, and what’s suitable for their particular bodies.
(5) Coaster. The first time I tried to write this post, I was thinking all big-picture, so I was looking for the coaster as an after-dinner sort of affair, and since dinner is the substance part of the relationship, the obvious place to look for the coaster were in those days after kids have left for college. That's a plausible way of pushing the metaphor. But, at the same time there are coaster moments even in the prime of one's life. That is, Bob Nozick notwithstanding, there has got to be some variety of intensity to a relationship. One can't be deeply obsessed with someone 24/7, and no matter how much two people are in love, they're going to eventually need some time apart. Often our society is structured in sort of a way that this is inevitable. Both members of the couple - or maybe in some circumstances only one - go off to a job during the day, and thereby spend some time with other people. Or, if two people are working at the same job, one has to go for a solo drive every now and then to unwind. Further, there are going to be times when other women and men begin to look interesting, or when one would rather spend a night out with the guys rather than an intimate evening with one's significant other. Successful relationships have to find ways of dealing with these moments. Perhaps it's being able to live a fantasy life through your significant other, or perhaps it's just letting the other person work things out. Don't get me wrong, when I say that a man will get interested in other women or vice versa, I'm not advocating infidelity or anything - although who knows maybe that is a real option for some couples. Personally, I find it difficult to even be attracted to someone who is seeing someone else, and I know enough about open relationships to know they aren't the ideal thing for me to be in. Anyway, blame my intuitions on my Catholic upbringing if you want. The point is that there will be times that a relationship will fragment, and each person will do his or her own thing, but it’s important to still preserve a sense of unity. In short, to adopt the metaphor, the goal of the coaster is to keep things alive even after the excitement of the meal has passed.
(6) Dessert. What is the dessert of a relationship? Well, to quote the English translation of Sex and Lucia (i.e. Lucía y el sexo), "It's full of advantages." Some of these are obvious - a decent sex life for instance - but some are not so obvious. I'll let you fill in what would be the dessert stages of a relationship. But I will add that there seem to be obvious corollaries to coasters. I mean, just as there are times that you drift apart, in a good relationship there will be times to come back together again. I remember fondly a moment when I saw someone I was dating across a lawn, and I thought to myself, "Damn, that gorgeous woman is dating me." Moments like this can keep a flame alive. In short the goal of the dessert is to leave sweet flavors lingering in the mouth.
(7) Shooting the breeze? And yes, there are moments of just shooting the breeze. I remember my parents having long conversations every night before they went to bed, which I could actually overhear through the thin bedroom wall. At the time I actually found it annoying, since despite the fact that they were whispering the conversation did keep me up. But in retrospect those conversations about a day's activities seemed an important part of their relationship, and I know that such pillow talk has always been an important part of just about any meaningful relationship I've been in. Maybe here the metaphor and the reality converge. One of the great advantages of a love relationship is that you do have someone to shoot the breeze with.
As I write this it also occurs to me that sex itself can take very different forms, and that for each of the courses of a dinner, or stages in a relationship, one might be able to find a correlative sort of sex. But, I've rattled on long enough now, so I'll leave it to you to figure out how to apply the analogy to your sex life, except to say that there definitely seems to be a difference between appetizer sex, and dinner sex, and if you can't make those sorts of distinctions then it occurs to me that you probably have a very unrealistic sex-life. But, hey, if it works, go with it.
Well, this has been an interesting little exercise in analogies. I suppose the last thing to say is that although I've described some analogies here, things almost never happen according to some exact plan, and it is far better that they don't. Sometimes I'll throw a dinner party that will be composed of a single course. Other times there may be far more than seven components to a meal. Sometimes dinners have to be rushed to make a movie, and so the sacue can't be made perfect. Similarly, some couples manage to start out in a deep and meaningful relationship from their first one-night stand, while other couples might not feel really comfortable with one another until late in life (Tevya's relationship in Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind here, "Do I love you . . .") Sometimes a couple's first role in the hay can be deep and meaningful, and sometimes the fact that it's not is the point. I suppose all of this is to justify my initial thought that when you choose a restaurant for a first date it should probably be an appetizer affair and not even a pre-entree affair. But what do I know, I'm still single. But I'm working on it. I have yet to find the catch of my days.