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

The Memorable Not-So-Great Birthday

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It was a birthday to remember. Our daughter turned 22 before Christmas 2006. We were overseas in Germany; she was in Colorado. There was no opportunity to bake a cake. Instead, I invited her on a mother/daughter adventure after the holidays. It would include some fasting and detoxifying, the Deutsch way. It was an opportunity to study foreign nutritional practices before completing her undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Food Science. She said okay because, after all, I was paying. As it turned out, she would have preferred the cake.

malteser-clinic-of-weckbecker_128_2_1280_720_5_1403698681A friend told me about the Malteaser Klinik in Bad Brückenau. She seemed to know a lot about it without having been there. Her details were factual rather than descriptive. A naturopathic German physician pioneered a treatment plan to maintain, or restore, optimal health. It included many detoxifying therapies. It was medically supervised. It was located next to a forest. It had spa-like attributes—indoor pool, gym, sauna, hiking trails. There was free time to bond and have fun. However, we were underprepared.

I registered us for a five-day “Therapeutic Fasting Classic”. It was their most popular package. Normally clients stayed for 7, 10 or 21 days, under doctor’s orders. The plan [translated from Deutsch] included:

  1. Fasting drinks, fasting broths, etc.
  2. Best medical attention: two physician contacts per week
  3. One supervised ergometer training
  4. Daily Kneipp therapy
  5. Daily colon therapy
  6. Daily Kartoffelsack or feucht-heisse leberpackung [hot-humid liver potato sack]

Even with a good dictionary, not everything was entirely clear. During check-in, it was explained that fasting is an optimal way to rest and restore the digestive organs from processing solid food. Animals do it naturally, as in hibernation. Undisciplined humans [like us] pay clinics [like this] to tell them how to do what animals do instinctively.

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dinner

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lunch

pineapple-and-carrot-juice-recipe

breakfast

That evening, in the communal dining room, places were already set with hot tea and one tablespoon of solid honey, served with a tiny spoon. It took the edge off since we had not eaten since that morning. Then we realized this was the entire meal. Nutritionist daughter said the honey was to give our brains some carbohydrate in order to function while fasting. Breakfast the next morning was a glass of fresh carrot juice. Lunch—a bowl of clear broth with freshly chopped herbs to sprinkle on top. Refills allowed, with extra herbs. Q4mU6.St.117Dinner was the same as the night before, except tea flavors changed daily. Between meals there were stations with unlimited water, tea or a faux coffee made from barley. Daughter suffered from abrupt caffeine withdrawal headache, not helped by sympathetic doctor’s brief temple massage and, “It will go away soon.” She looked at me crossly, but remained silent.

Each day was scheduled around “meal” times, morning therapy appointments, and an afternoon potato sack ritual. Kneipp therapy is designed to toughen the body by alternating hot and cold water to various parts of the anatomy. After a timed soak in warm water, the targeted area is immersed in icy water for 30 seconds. Circulation is encouraged; the immune system and bodily functions are strengthened. The logic seemed sound. Reality was slightly more shocking. The first session was full body immersion in a tin bathtub filled with very warm water. Lovely. tin_bath_yorkExcept, shortly after you relaxed into the water, it was time to get out and be sprayed front and back with very cold water. Three times in the warm tub, three times out for an icy shower. kneippAfter the cold-water-hose-wielding Frau did her thing, a small lament surfaced, “WHY, exactly, are we doing this for my birthday?” Point taken, but we were already there. And we had no car.

Thankfully, daily Kartoffelsack liver detox had its’ high points. While we sipped broth at noon and tried to chew the fresh herbs, a hot, damp sack of cooked potatoes was being put into our beds. Back in the room, under the duvet, we placed the towel wrapped sack over the right side of the torso. Shortly afterwards, a dream-like state of semi-consciousness took over, with vivid imagery. It was strange and pleasant at the same time. After the first day we began to hurry through lunch, anticipating warmed bags of smashed potatoes to help our livers and fuel surreal dreams. As they cooled, we roused enough to push them to the floor. Then, without speaking, rolled over into a heavy, drug-like sleep. We did not know the principle behind this therapy, but it never disappointed. It was a good way to pass a few hours.

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Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 1986

By the second day, caffeine headache was gone, attitudes readjusted, and therapies were at least tolerated. Open communication was important because it was necessary to do some “inner work” as well as support each other through the nonstop, aching hunger. After the potato sack nap, afternoons and evenings were a long stretch of time to fill. I brought the book Perfume by Patrick Süskind. It’s a dark sort of story set in France in the 1700s, dealing with murder and the sense of smell. It proved to be highly entertaining, even humorous when read aloud. We played endless rounds of Scrabble, Backgammon and card games. We listened to music. I watched German game shows on TV, answering questions for the contestants. We walked to the village in late afternoon dusk to be distracted by the shops. We worked out daily in the gym before tea/honey suppertime. Comedy proved to be one of the best diversions. First season television episodes of the American version of “The Office” provided such laugh out loud pleasure that we savored two, or more, each day. By the third day, adaptation set in. Appetite diminished. We were genuinely full after bowls of broth or tea. We had more energy after “rest hour” with the potatoes.

On Friday evening we were ushered to an area of the dining room screened off from the fasting crowd. A table for two was set with linens and candles. The Clinic Director lit the candles and made a little speech congratulating us on completing the fast. We were cautioned to re-enter the food world carefully in the upcoming days. They served us soup, slightly thickened with lentils, onions, carrots and savory herbs. There was a plain piece of toasted bread. Taste buds reawakened. Every flavor was discernible. There was joy in feeling texture in the mouth. We chewed and swallowed slowly. The next morning we breakfasted on a kind of warm, nourishing gruel with a glass of apple juice before being picked up.

That evening, back in the home village, we went out for a restaurant meal and talked about the experience. We had gone there knowing next to nothing about the German approach to health. That was definitely the adventure part. The not-so-great birthday part was simply that it was not an ideal choice for a healthy 22 year-old. At the time, I thought any adventure, even an “unusual” one, would be more meaningful than something tangible. It was certainly memorable, but understandably forgettable as a gift. Since then, with our far-reaching geography, family birthdays are special when we can simply be together. With cake. Without broth.

WALDORF RED CAKE–Especially for Birthdays

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  • ½ C. butter
  • 1 ½ C. sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 oz. red food color
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 2 T. cocoa
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 C. buttermilk
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. white vinegar
  • 2 C. + 2 T. flour

Cream butter, sugar and eggs. Add cocoa and food coloring. Add buttermilk alternately with dry ingredients. Stir in vanilla and vinegar well. Pour into 2 greased 9 inch round cake pans. Bake 350F. [180C.] until done~30 minutes. Cool on racks before frosting.

FROSTING

  • 3 T. flour
  • 1 C. milk
  • 1 C. sugar
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1 C. butter

Cook flour and milk over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Set aside to cool. Cream sugar, butter and vanilla until fluffy. Blend creamed ingredients into the cooled flour mixture. An electric mixer works best. Spread frosting on bottom layer of cake. Cover with top layer and complete frosting. Enjoy with loved ones.

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