One November in the early 90s, on a generally miserable day when I was hosting a dinner party, I made something fairly intricate for my skills at the time: a Middle Eastern stew full of ingredients unfamiliar to me. The whole meal was themed around the region. The only dish I was making that I knew well was cousa mashi: stuffed yellow squash baked with a tomato sauce. The rest of the menu was new to me.
I had three guests coming for dinner, and I wanted to impress everyone with my mad skills. I started the dishes well ahead of time in preparation for a 6:30 arrival. That time passed: the first guest didn’t arrived until 7:30, by which time most of the food had become mush. When the other guests didn’t arrive until 8:15, all was to my mind ruined.
Yes, my guests exhibited some gauche behavior in arriving late, but it was a group of graduate students in the arts—what did I expect? The anxiety, it turns out, was on me.
When I was in my 20’s and had people over to my house for dinner, I thought of it as a performance—I worked like crazy all day and would try to whip off the apron just as the guests entered and present them with everything made and ready to go. Appetizers and drinks already out, food set up in stages in the kitchen so everything would be perfect. I would jump up from a chair or from the table every so often to go back in the kitchen and take the roast out or start the Brussels sprouts or assemble the dessert.
If guests were late, it made me crazy. If something went awry, it made me anxious. If I got behind, it made me fret. I rarely let people in the kitchen. It took me awhile to figure out that a relaxing experience where guests get involved is a much better way to approach the experience.
Any more, I bring people into it. When they arrive, I haven’t finished cooking; I haven’t put together the appetizers; there are some things I haven’t chopped. I bring my guests into the kitchen and those who feel like it jump in and help; those who don’t stand around, drink a beer, and offer running commentary. It’s a happy, communal experience that uses food as a vehicle for human connection.
People enjoy the food more when they have a hand in it. It may seem counterintuitive to the idea of hosting, but who wants to come in and just be served? There might be some folks like that, but I’m not sure I want them over for dinner. I’ve found that people want to have something to do with putting a meal together, even if what they do is simply stand in the kitchen and fetch a utensil or potholder on occasion.
If they get involved, they enjoy it so much more because they can say “hey, look what I did. I made this!” We have fun, we laugh and enjoy each others’ company—from the very moment the guests arrive.