I’m having people over for dinner next week. I can, like few others, make a three-day weekend of planning a menu. "Please don’t let it rule your life," Phil warns, "or I don’t want to have people over."
"Well, then you should have married someone else because this is what I do." He still doesn’t get it. He sees menu-planning as a distraction. I should be writing. Instead, I’m devising. I’m plotting. I’m trying to compose a menu that will look impressive while remaining quite simple to tackle.
"Well it doesn’t get easier than make-your-own-sundaes for dessert," I say thinking of all the fun toppings I could offer: crushed peanut butter cups, graham crackers, twix pieces, miniature marshmallows… oh and of course a homemade fudge meant for profiteroles.
"Of course there’s easier. It’s called buying a cake." But I don’t want to buy a cake. "Stephanie, I know you think make-your-own-sundae sounds clever or creative or whatever, but no one cares! You’re the only one who gives a shit." I don’t, as it happens, think it’s clever. I think it says, I’ve cooked and can’t be bothered with dessert. And I care. It matters to me. So what if no one else cares? It makes me happy. If I want a create your own night, what’s the big deal? "You waste too much time" seems to be the big deal. There are always larger issues masked behind these arguments. I hate when I have to feel his stress and it somehow equates to my having to change. No one gives a shit? I do. And that should be enough. Ice cream for everyone! Or more likely, the company will bring a dessert. That’s certainly one way to clamp an argument.
As for the rest of the menu, of course I could paw my way through one of my Charlie Trotter books, but come now. I don’t have the time nor inclination to cull 82 ingredients for one entree. Still, I treasure my time with cookbooks, articles, and recipe web sites. He believes if cooking is done properly it’s done efficiently, effortlessly. My grandmother, for instance, could manage to tent a table in tasty morsels without a moment’s notice. She had a proper pantry, was masterful with leftovers. And I’d agree, great chefs are impressive in their ability to surprise us with the ordinary. I’m not arguing. But it’s a different task at hand when you know company is coming. You have the opportunity to plan, to assemble, to scribble out ideas, to delight your guests. And mostly, you have the opportunity to share with others the thing that excites you most. It’s a gift being able to share something you love.
The worst of it, I would say, is cooking for those who simply eat to live. Their bodies are machines, and food is simply fuel. Sometimes they forget to eat. I don’t like these people. At all. I like big characters with stories who gulp wine and spin tales and ask for seconds. They’re appreciative of the work that went into it, the thoughtfulness, the smallest details. The plates you’ve chosen, the linen napkins and the delightful napkin rings with their whimsical motifs. The tumblers for the wine, in lieu of long-stemmed glasses, setting the mood. The music you’ve selected. It’s an orchestra. The flavored butter you’d made days in advance. The way you took care to see all your vegetables were cut uniformly, into distinct even pieces, delicate little jewels. This is lost on Phil, and on most actually, but it doesn’t make me love it less. It’s so much a part of my enjoyment, the planning that goes into a meal.
And lately, here’s what I’ve discovered: there aren’t enough (any?!) books out there paying attention to impressive, yet manageable, menu planning. Sure, there are cookbooks dedicated to easy meals; get dinner on the table in less than an hour. But where do you turn when your in-laws are coming for dinner? When it’s the first meal you’re cooking for him? When you’re meeting his out-of-town friends for the first time? Where is the cookbook that tells you which music to play, which cocktail to serve, and how many hors d’ ourves to make? We’re talking manageable yet ridiculously impressive meals, right down to a killer dessert. And I don’t care if some of it is semi-homemade (a la Sandra Lee). A book that will tell you how to just make it look fancy, even though it isn’t. With the use of cookie cutters and molds, or that one ingredient that will change the way they look at the entire dish. A book that tells you to add truffle oil to the white pizza appetizer (and that tells you to buy the dough, not to make it yourself). Yes, it should have menu ideas for the bigger occasions, but much more to the point: it should make small days the occasion. Anniversaries, just because you’ve been working so hard, because you kicked ass in soccer, because no one should have to put up with that friend of mine who’s been sleeping on our sofa menus. Maybe the star of one menu is the entree, and with another, all your time is spent on an impressive dessert. The point is, the book isn’t out there. And I’m doing something about it!