Friday, July 1, 2005

A Little Self-indulgence

As I've stated in an earlier post, I recently took a food writing course from the delightful David Leite that I both loved and found rather intimidating. Below is one of the essays that I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and on and on... and that is still a work in progress until I get so sick of it I throw it away. It may not move you, but I sweated mightily over it and found it to be a cathartic piece to write - given my tendency to overdo things, as perfectionists will.

Time ceases to exist for me when it comes to planning a special meal for friends. I pore over recipes, cookbooks, magazines and my own repertoire. Weeks are spent devising a menu, making sure each course will flow smoothly to the next, lists upon lists cluttering my desk, falling out of cookbooks. Each dish must pack the “wow” factor. As a home cook and hostess, my greatest joy in this endeavor is hearing the moans and groans of pleasure from my guests at the taking of their first bite, be it dinner, breakfast, a luncheon or afternoon tea.

On more than one occasion, however, my perfectionism has run amok as I tried too hard and in the wrong direction; the error of my ways discussed in the gossipy coffee klatches of those very people whom I tried to please and, admittedly, impress.

Years ago I served on a committee to build a playground in our city park. Committee members took turns holding the meetings in their homes and my turn was approaching. Having become a recent devotee and charter subscriber to Victoria magazine, at my meeting I decided to serve tea.

Out came the flower-encrusted silver tea service. China tea cups my mother had given me years before, delicate hand painted China plates, crystal and linens came next. I baked for a week, preparing tiny tarts, cakes and sweet tea breads. Ice cubes with tiny, star-shaped borage flowers imprisioned within, filled my freezer for the herbed iced tea I would serve. In a frenzy of last minute preparation, the table was laden with the fruits of my labor: plates piled high with cakes and tarts, homemade violet jelly glistening in an ornate white china bowl sitting next to a dish of whipped cream sprinkled with fresh lavender flowers.

The pots and pitchers of tea were just ready as my first team member arrived. In the door she came, large file folder in hand, mouth engaged in talk of the business at hand when, mid-sentence, she stopped dead as her eyes fell on my table. Unable to speak, mouth agape in what I can only describe as horror, she sat down frantically looking for a place to set her folder.

“This is supposed to be a meeting,” she sputtered.

As the rest of the committee arrived, my beautiful table was met with a mixture of giggles, rolling eyes, silence, and a few murmurings of “How nice - tea.” And in that moment, surrounded by this group of no nonsense, get-things-done women, the thought occurred to me that I may have gone too far…

Flash forward: New Year’s Eve 1999. To mark this momentous occasion, ten friends are invited to spend the evening with us, dressed to the nines, dining sumptuously and sharing our way into the new century. Appetizers and drinks will be served at nine. Dinner will begin around ten followed by dessert after shooting off fireworks at the stroke of midnight. My plan for a simple ‘small plates’ menu has morphed into seven courses and I’m sweating bullets.

The hour has come. The table is set: linen, crystal, silver, China, hoards of small vases filled with flowers, candles, and sparklers at each place setting. As guests arrive, dressed in all their finery, music plays softly in the background, appetizers and drinks are served and the evening is off to a smashing start.

Dinner begins, the wine is flowing and conversation is lively. My guests “oooh” and “aaah” then fall silent, eyes wide, as I serve black-eyed pea cakes with a red pepper mayonnaise followed by tomato-fennel soup topped with a dollop of crème fraiche; a skewer of prawns and red onion, grilled to juicy tenderness, carefully balanced on each bowl. Silence was never so golden. They fail to notice my hair beginning to come undone or the stain from the sauce that somehow missed my oversized apron, marring my black silk dress.

Like a Jack-in-the-box, up and down from the table, in and out of the kitchen, I put the finishing touches on the spicy linguine with sauteed calamari as I begin the herb-crusted beef tenderloin with a red wine reduction.

One guest, yet another no-nonsense, simpler-is-better woman who, by the way, did not dress for dinner, repeatedly remarks on my frenzied activity. “Sit down!” she commands. “Why are you knocking yourself out like this?” she demands to know.
Following me into the kitchen, mumbling something about “overkill”, she stands with arms crossed, one eyebrow raised high and observes the mess that is my domain: sauce-stained lists and recipes everywhere, sink and counters piled high with crusty pots and pans, then delivers the coup de grace that is my un-doing, “You don’t have to be perfect all the time, you know.”

Blowing hair from my eyes, a slight tic makes my right cheek quiver as I deliver the grapefruit-mint sorbet to my guests, its pale green, icy crystals glistening in tiny liqueur glasses. I slip into the kitchen to plate the salads of butter lettuce topped with fans of thinly sliced pear, shavings of frozen blue cheese, toasted spicy pecans, champagne vinaigrette, small bunches of red currants tucked here and there. As I begin to pull the flans with their raspberry sauce out of the fridge, I silently fume, “This from a woman whose garden begs to be featured on the cover of House and Garden magazine? Who has time to garden like that?”

In recent years I have scaled back the more dramatic aspects of entertaining, realizing that there are some on whom the effort will be forever lost. And while I still strive for perfection, I have narrowed the scope of my efforts, it dawning on me that spending time with my guests is an important element to giving a dinner party. And if I find myself veering too close to the edge of over-production, there is always my husband, my biggest, most ardent fan, who will gently steer me away from the precipice. He thinks I'm always perfect.

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