September 16th: Humour!
Call Me Muttonchops
, by Stephanie Madan

I have yet to pull off a flawless dinner, but I’m not giving up. Remember that cartoon coyote, Wile E. Coyote? He’s the optimist who believes he is the predator hunting Roadrunner yet finds himself again and again racing off a cliff, being mowed down by a truck or flattened by a falling piano. That’s just about the situation here.  It looks right, it feels right, but then things happen.

It occurred to me once that adding a celebrity to the mix might increase the glamour factor of a dinner party and the dazzle might camouflage any slight missteps, leading to a 99% flawless event. I have not been able to test this theory, however, because the sad reality is that no celebrities populate my life, unless you count the aunt who trained her chickens to march around her piano while she played God Bless America. My sister reminds me we also have an ancestor who was hanged as a horse thief in New Orleans, but that’s stale news and, to be useful, the celebrity really should be alive.

Paul worries less and harbors no fear of flaws. He has more than once pointed out that the parties we attend that go off without a hitch are often the ones causing him to  suppress yawns. He says the glitches enlivening parties at our house make them better – or at least they lose us no friends.

Besides, those glitches are the threads used in weaving the evening into everyone’s happy memories. If there’s weaving involved, I would like to speak with the loom owner. Too often I order silk for a party, and end up with boiled wool. I think I am stretching the metaphor too far, but you get the idea. Still, Paul remains entirely convinced people wish to make memories, not to participate in perfectly choreographed dinner party productions.

I’m not even half convinced. I’m pretty sure more than one guest has left our house after an evening fraught with those memory-making glitches feeling a certain smugness about his or her own dinner party prowess. Oh well. Glad to be of service.

Not so long ago, I felt moved to entertain in a grand manner. I envisioned an assortment of well-dressed guests floating about the house engaging in stimulating conversation, a magic alchemy transforming the night into gold. It looked to be an easy business. In fact holding such a dinner party struck me as so effortless, I expanded a seated dinner for ten to a seated dinner for twenty.

I invited the first twenty people on whatever list of friends was at hand. It’s possible I chose the twenty whose phone numbers were the most recent ones displayed on my ‘calls missed’ IPhone screen. When I am inspired, I act. Twenty for dinner – What fun!

I was not taking mood-altering medication. I had not recently emerged from a coma that left me with lingering deficits affecting the party-planning area of my brain. There was no excuse.  Once Paul got over the shock of learning he was expected to host a dinner party of that magnitude and had expressed his annoyance more times than were absolutely necessary, my optimism began to falter. Our only hope was to receive enough regrets to work the gathering back down to a manageable size. Nope. Every invitation to this black-tie dinner party was accepted and the party date arrived with rather astonishing speed. The fun commenced.

To begin, I still maintain it was reasonable to assume that, when the chef/caterer assured me he would manage staffing, this would include vetting said staff. In this I erred. I suppose I should have been alerted an evangelist was joining the evening’s crew when one of the servers stepped into the house saying “Praise Jesus, the directions were right.” and handed me a prayer pamphlet.

As our guests arrived, they were greeted with offers of red or white wine or Perrier. It is here the weaving of memories begins: This particular server recognized opportunity and took advantage of it. As she offered the first round of drink options to guests, the conversation went something along the lines of, ‘Red wine for you, sir? Fine choice. You know Jesus turned bad red wine into good red wine. He can do the same for you – when you are ready he can turn you into a good person.’ This message, conveyed in ringing tones with perfect sincerity, was met with an understandably amazed silence by all of us within earshot.

Two points were of immediate interest: 1.Which member of the party had been so transparently bad that she singled him out for saving? 2. How wide was she planning to cast her net? Her intentions were good, of course, and it required merely a word or two from me to elicit her promise that no more suggestions of salvation would be made, yet I feared the incident would leave its mark.

I was right. The tone of conversation altered. A few guests were so intrigued by the episode that they felt compelled to carry on her good work by seizing the opportunity to speculate who among them could be considered distinctively bad. Nominations were not slow to come in. If I had not intervened with my “Frog hops into a bank” joke, who knows what would have happened.

In short, a conversation centering initially on some high-minded subject such as the Rockets’ prospects for making the playoffs (not good) deteriorated into one in which all involved had a fine time making politically incorrect remarks and being hilarious in their own minds. How often do you get to be part of that kind of memory? Salvation in black tie. I think I’m starting to get it.

The next memory-making moment was not long in arriving: To manage twenty, we seated ten at our dining room table, five at the round table in the library and five more at a round glass-top table set in a large niche of the foyer. I had spent hours on eBay accumulating enough of my silver pattern so that all the place settings matched. I had scoured websites for vintage damask tablecloths and napkins in that old-fashioned huge size. I brought out my antique wine glasses. With this in mind, I present to you the following true story.

We were all seated and the salad course complete. The menus at each place announced the coming course as baby lamb chops surrounded by infant carrots sautéed with cinnamon and cardamom, flash-seared squash blossoms and purple fingerling potatoes stuffed with organic chive goat cheese.

Part of this was accurate. The vegetables lived up to their promise, but the baby lamb chops were missing. It seems our esteemed chef or some thrifty underling had modified the meat order in a drastic way. In the baby lamb chops’ stead, presented to us on my grandmother’s delicate Limoges china plates, was mutton. Definitely mutton. It may have been of similar vintage to the tablecloth. No sterling silver knife exists capable of cutting that meat.

It is relevant to acknowledge here that I failed to check the stability of the glass-topped table in the foyer. I emphasize that I have never heard anyone advise a host to evaluate the stability of a table before a dinner party. Is there an actual rule about this? There should be.

The five of us at the glass-top foyer table began to cut into the mutton, trying to disguise our unanimous failure.  When one earnest guest pressed down more vigorously than the rest of us, the glass top began a slow dive toward his lap, ushering along with it my grandmother’s plates and our wine glasses, with the miniature orchids and crystal votive candle holders not far behind. Alarmed, he abruptly ceased in the cutting efforts, thus permitting the glass top to pop back into original position. This pop also popped quantities of wine out of glasses.

We did manage to retrieve our respective plates, silverware and wine glasses well before they could leap off the table, so it looked like a win, but we could only count it as a draw. We were hungry and now a meaningful proportion of the food and drink once situated on our plates and in our glasses resided on the white damask tablecloth, one of my eBay vintage finds. Did I mention this was a black-tie evening?

I am one of those people who actually enjoy perusing etiquette books, especially the ones concerned with appropriate fonts for calling cards and how to address the butler who receives one at a private ball. I probably, therefore, possess more knowledge than is typical regarding obscure points of etiquette. Even so, to this day I have never encountered any section in any etiquette book that provided guidance on appropriate action when confronted with the truth that I had served our guests obstinate meat on a tilting table. I had to go it alone.

The mutton, the least welcome item on our plates, had remained stolidly in place. I suggested that we synchronize our mutton-sawing motions. This was a group of educated professionals; the idea was deemed feasible and we put it into action. All I can say is, synchronized sawing was not among our group strengths. We would all prepare to bear down on our meat simultaneously and then one of us would start hiccupping or feel moved to propose a spontaneous toast to pretty much anything at all, including the mutton.  Among the five of us, not one had the strength of character to insist that we stop fooling around and get it right. And we never did.

So, we were lamentably unsuccessful and the table top continued to tilt every which way. Eventually we abandoned the mutton, and, at least at our table, the bread and baby vegetables remaining were savored with the true gusto of people who had every reason to fear they might not be fed that night. We called for more wine to console ourselves.

Meanwhile the dinner going on in the library was proceeding, dare I say it, flawlessly. The guests introduced interesting subjects for discussion. They were informed and sophisticated. They were all beautiful and handsome, and sensitive, too. If the mutton appalled them, the subject nevertheless remained unmentioned. Restrained yet agreeable laughter wafted our way from the library several times. I was thrilled that at least one-third of the party was technically successful.

The ten in the dining room were conducting themselves with reasonable dignity, though explosions of laughter from time to time made me wonder if I should have checked the stability of that table, too. On the other hand, Paul was in there and I’d seen him in action. He could hold his own.

Astoundingly enough, the library guests eventually took exception to the fact that they had not been seated at the tilting table which they perceived as the evening’s live entertainment – and insisted on joining us and generally disrupting an already hopeless situation. Before you knew it, everyone was up and wandering around.

I went with the flow, found a seat at the dining room table and began to recount the tale of the tilting table, with dramatic reenactments interjected by my fellow glass-top table survivors. I reached the conclusion of the tale, and, as I posed the rhetorical question ‘What else can possibly go wrong?’, I spread my arms wide and  swept one of those antique crystal glasses, still holding red wine, down the middle of the table, shattering it and imposing fatal damage on that other eBay vintage damask tablecloth.

Paul’s conviction that memories matter more than perfection may be right. I hope so. I’m just thinking: If memories are the threads that combine to weave the fabric of successful dinner parties, we should soon have more than enough to start talking about replacing those tablecloths.


Stephanie Madan is a writer who found her bliss slowly, slogging first through loveless relationships with information systems, real estate development and law firms. She now writes a regular column ‘Just Desserts’ for My Table, a food-themed print magazine. She is the proud inventor of a patented food-heating system that, as far as she can tell, excites the admiration of nobody. Her writing specialty is sober reflection on times she has had every intention of behaving perfectly and has still managed to humiliate herself.  How this works for a food magazine is complicated, but, then, isn’t everything?

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