The Grown-Up Table

Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”

Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.

The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher

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dinner for six, chez bentley

Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.

I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher

 During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect one decent dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.

Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.

Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads randomly, to reflect the candlelight.

Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order, listening to favorite tunes. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.

My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too. It is a highly desirable life skill to embody the role of a good guest.

Gabrielle’s words from a NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my thoughts and experiences.

GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…

WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts or our friend Alec’s chronic clumsiness [Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.

Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.

GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.

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GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.

GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.

At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients or preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.

A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Our children are adults now and the best ones to tell what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults well known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.

I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

 

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the best dining room view in the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

Bags of Laughter

When laughter helps without doing harm, when laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is laughter that causes health. When laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love…lifts sadness and severs anger…when they are made bigger, made better, more generous, more sensitive, that is sacred [laughter].

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES

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Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my legs. Unknown author

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips. Unknown author

Laughter is part of the universal human language. Everyone speaks laughter. Laughter exercises the diaphragm, the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. It’s a workout! Laughter is yogic. Nothing works faster to bring the body and mind back in balance than a good laugh.

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Laughter is cathartic. The good feeling from a big laugh remains, lifting your mood for hours afterwards.

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I was recently weakened by a bout of tear inducing, out loud laughter.  It took over my  whole day. Bursts of laughter broke free for hours afterwards. It made me feel great.

The source was a story written by Alec, a friend with a gift for spinning a comedic phrase.  This time it was a personal to my experience of having lived in Germany as well as having made a rather specific request.

Alec knows there are things I miss from Germany, so he always offers to bring “a list” when he and his wife drive to Paris. This time I tacked on “one more thing” and felt that a detailed description was needed:

…Oh, there is one more thing you could bring. It’s very lightweight and packable, but you have to go to the Oberursel Altstadt to find it. On the main street is the One Euro Store. Not everything there is one euro, but it’s a cheap junk store you should know about anyway.

Inside, they have these little cloth shopping bags that come wrapped in a little cloth carrying case. The nameReisenthel is on the side label. They cost more than one euro, about 4.95 each. They are brilliant. I use them daily or give them away to family and friends, doing my “green best.

I only like solid benign colors. Black, blue, green, brown. No patterns or foofy florals.  6-10 bags if you find them…

I received the following email from him the day before they were to arrive:

On A Mission for Wendy

I loitered outside the dollar store in the winter cold, waiting until the store emptied before I approached the owner.

Uncertain of his level of English, I said with some hesitation, “Guten Tag. I am shopping for a woman-friend who lived here six years ago. She asked me to pick up some packable lightweight shopping bags she used to buy in your store.”

He remained silent so I continued, “They’re made by Reisenthel. She gives them away to be environmentally friendly. Do you still carry them?”

He stared at me and I wasn’t sure if he was mentally translating what I said from English to German or was wondering if I was crazy enough to think a dollar store carried the same merchandise over such a long period of time.

He gestured to a box that had packable shopping bags in a floral pattern. Apologetically I said, “Um, she doesn’t really want a floral pattern.”

Again, the stare as he said, “She wants to be environmentally friendly but doesn’t like flowers?”

He had a point, but I stood my ground. “I think she wants to be fashionably friendly to the environment.”

This time his stare lasted even longer. He scratched his head. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking about whether he had other bags in the store or if he was beginning to understand why a person like Donald Trump could be elected if Americans were all like me.

He opened a cabinet and handed me a slightly larger shopping bag-inside-a-bag, this time in basic black. The tag indicated it was manufactured by “Schneider”.

Now it was my turn to hesitate. Finally I got up the nerve to say, “Um, this is a Schneider bag, but my friend really wants a Reisenthel bag.”

I felt completely stupid. I said “Reisenthel” like it was some kind of designer brand from Bloomingdales or Saks, but the shelves lined with cheap bric-a-brac reminded me I was far from Fifth Avenue.

By the look on his face, I feared he was going to hit me with one of the dozens of snow globes within easy reach. Instead he just blinked. It was one of those blinks where the eyelids remain closed long enough that I could have slipped out of the store. Maybe he was offering me an out, but I stayed. I was on a mission for Wendy.

Finally, he opened his eyes and said, in an accent grown heavier with each exchange, “And what, may I ask, is so special about a Reisenthel bag?”

Luckily for me I came prepared with an email from my friend. I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly read aloud what she wrote. “Um, well, she says here that, ‘They are brilliant.’

He squinted at me, considering my words. Then he repeated very slowly, as if offering me a chance to take one of the small green pills prescribed by my psychiatrist, “These bags. They are brilliant?”

Rather than hold his stare, I looked back at my friend’s email and blurted out the first words that caught my eyes. “She says here they should be benign”. Then, realizing how incredibly stupid that sounded, I tried to make a joke with a forced chuckle, “But I assume all of your bags are benign, right?”

For the first time he looked at me with something other than pity or spite and said with clear relief, “So you want nine bags?”

I looked down at my shoes. It took only a moment to realize my joke had been misunderstood. I looked up and then again at my friend’s email with the very explicit directions of what she wanted.

Drawing upon an inner strength, built from more than 20 years of living overseas, battle-tested by language and cultural barriers from Asia to Europe. I looked him straight in the eye, and said…

“No. I’ll take ten…Danke.”

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It doesn’t happen nearly often enough–this kind of mirthful laughter that tickles to my core, and ripples throughout the day. I laughed until I cried. Then I laughed all over again–thanks to my friend.

…and a great family laugh too…

Other antics by Alec told here: Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

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fine-looking pesto ingredients

Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.

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lara and friends, dihua jie, early 2000s

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dihua jie market, every chinese new year

In our Tien Mu neighborhood,  we ate in local restaurants that served delicious, and always freshly made, Chinese food.  Still, you signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins the size of a piece of toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting were standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we often did in our favorite haunts. But it was far from cozy.

Desire breeds creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends in conversation around a candlelit table set with pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend pleasure. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes. Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to it as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops, where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.

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tien mu grocer, of the mom and pop variety

There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking and our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table outcomes rather than his in the kitchen methodology. Which tended towards the euphemistic “bull in a china shop”.

It’s a fact that Alec operates on a very high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger pangs in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast, always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends this way—with delicious home-cooked food. He not only cooks and bakes, he makes his own jams and condiments. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried very hard to make us love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never really ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.

At times, Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were the norm. When Alec was sous chef, things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot. Over the years, the kitchen table was reworked with a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. Guests were mostly unaware and always charmed by the cuisine. The table was designated firewood by the time we left Taiwan.

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alec and mark, chez ulfers’ cuisine, late 1990s

When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in a kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their apartment foreshadowed the eventual doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time. Six or eight of us were chatting amiably while final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash followed by a muffled wail stopped conversation. Splayed out on the green marble tiles was an enormous kettle of just combined spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely repressed laughter. Using the well-known culinary 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Table-side, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto-pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.

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Hualien marble floor, made in Taiwan

My all-time favorite recipe of Alec’s, and certainly the most memorable, is his version of homemade pesto. Served immediately on hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner, I secretly hoped it was on the menu. Because basil was inexpensive and available year round in Taiwan, it often was.

There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s super easy and very versatile. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts or sandwiches, used as a dip, or as an incredible base sauce for homemade pizza.

It’s only optional whether you use it to polish the kitchen floor.

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toast pine nuts in un-oiled pan

ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO

  • 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
  • ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
  • red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat

Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P.  Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, even roasted butternut squash! Chopped cherry tomatoes make a colorful garnish.

Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container, with a thin film of oil.

I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.

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line-up of the usual raw ingredients

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prepared for food processor or mortar and pestle: oil, garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan

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out of food processor—the color of green marble

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dilute with hot water before adding pasta

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stir into pasta and reheat slightly

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garnish with chopped tomatoes, sprinkle of parmesan

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a glass of champagne makes anything better

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our local tien mu buddhist temple, taipei, taiwan

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temple dragons

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taroko gorge, taiwan, source of hualien marble