The Dinner Party
I sat with my back against the drafty Victorian window, my gray wool sweater being lapped through the pane by Long Island Sound’s November winds and my ears like a beach, caressed by waves of conversations swelling in the kitchen. I had anchored myself that Saturday night in an ideal corner spot where I could observe all the dinner party’s guests as they waded in groups of two or three. First and foremost there was our hostess, a whip-smart, knowledge-takes-no-prisoners professor who hailed from the halls of Columbia and UCLA. She brimmed with stories of her days in ACT UP during the ’80s AIDS crisis, the pains of cutting through Heidegger’s works (was or wasn’t he a Fascist?), and would answer most of life’s important questions with a lyric from one of Patti Smith’s songs. She was an unstoppable force and dear friend who was living in a sprawling red-chipped Victorian home downtown who also happened to love hosting dinner parties.
Also in attendance were various Gender or Film Studies professors from Yale, shockingly quite plain as they bobbed around the kitchen with their Merlot-lacquered smiles and conversing about humanity’s most pressing issues such as Home Depot paint colors. Certainly there were the English professors from various Connecticut universities who you dreaded as the conversation would ping-pong about authors until the professor brings up some obscure writer that they know you certainly don’t know and therefore call literary checkmate and prevail.
Then there was J., a dingy in the center of the cotton-white kitchen with impeccable barbershop brown hair, fitted v-neck sweater, and grass-green morning eyes. At that time, he must have been 29 or 30, a blue ribbon pedigree kid and pre-med student who had flown up from Baltimore where he was in his second year at Johns Hopkins. J. was a tall and confident know-it-all, the quintessential Hollywood heartbreaker, the favorite son, star athlete, and the dinner party guest who always thought his star shined brightest when presenting the most expensive Shiraz.
Maybe it was the Shiraz after all (for that year everyone was washing life down with Shiraz exclusively) or perhaps it was the cigarette I was smoking that he drifted over to me with a half-crescent smile. “Got a light? Mind if I join you?” My 21-year-old self looked off to the sides and over to the hostess who was still overrun by casserole dishes, then over to the Yalies most likely engrossed in a conversation about the city’s lack of parking spaces, and then they circled back and docked on his ivy eyes. “Sure, if you’d like,” I said rather cooly yet coyly and ashed my cigarette into the windowsill ashtray. “By all means.” “Thanks. I saw you earlier and couldn’t imagine why you were sitting alone. You seemed a bit.. sad – and at a party! What is your name anyway?” His voice faded and returned back to that carnival-kid smile. Then the softest of soft cashmere grazed the back of my hand and my eyes slightly closed and flickered like lanterns. “Hey, I think dinner is ready. She put us next to each other, too. Looking forward to it. See ya in there,” and he drifted away where the dining room was waiting to swallow his figure up like Jonah and the whale.
The crowd migrated into the dining room where the apricot chicken took center stage and was outlined by sweet brown rice kugel, zucchini ratatouille, and mandarin orange beet salad. When we had cleared our plates, the party continued well into the morning hours. Later, the classic tactic of making a pot of coffee to kindly say, “thanks for coming but time to go,” never seemed to be effective at her place, either. The wine continued to flow, the cigarette smoke coming off people’s lips like Swiss mountain fog as we debated writers colorfully, our loudening voices ricoheting off the one hundred year old hardwood floors, and the music continued to play on and fill the room encompassing us like a warm cocoon.
And as for J.? We had hunkered down on a couch together and soon became a restrictive and private dinner party pair. We talked about France, where I had just moved back from, his favorite subject: body anatomy, what Baltimore was like in summer and that I should accept his offer to join him one weekend and see it sometime. “You’d be my private guest,” he encouraged. I sheepishly smiled, nodded into my chest, and ran my warmed fingers up the stem of my glass nervously. And we sat – and we sat – and we laughed. I felt a beam of apprehensive excitement fill my stomach like a sun. I no longer could see the other guests as our boat for two drifted away high on the waters of newness.
Every party must come to an end, though; every moment has a closure, too. Every meal eventually gets finished. Everyone says “goodnight”.
Dinner parties are funny that way in the sense that food connects you and all your senses, it connects you to people, to yourself. The dinner conversation can make you vulnerable or can make you intoxicated by thought. The wine gives you liquid confidence to speak to others that seem untouchable, unattainable. For one evening you are given the gift of learning, tasting, debating, or, if you’re very fortunate, loving.
And as for me? I never did make it to Baltimore.
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Before you begin the following recipe, learn how to make your own dough here.
- Pastry dough (appx 2 cups)
- 5 large eggs
- 3 heads of garlic, cloves peeled
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp pure maple syrup
- 1 tsp rosemary
- 1 tsp thyme
- Ground black pepper
- 2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
- 2 cups baby spinach
- ¾ cup sour cream
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- Preheat your oven to 375 F (190 C) and place your baking rack in the lower third of your oven. Roll dough out over a floured surface then over your tart baking dish. With a fork, gently make vents. Cover with parchment paper and cover with either weights or beans and bake for 10-12 mins. Remove partially baked pastry shell and set aside.
- In a medium sauce pan, bring salted water to a boil and add the garlic. Cook for appx 3 minutes or until soft. Drain. Heat oil and return garlic to pan. Sautee until slightly brown and add 1 cup water and vinegar. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 12 minutes. Add the maple syrup, thyme, and rosemary. While your garlic is caramelizing, whisk 5 eggs rapidly and add the sour scream and heavy cream. Salt and pepper for taste. Check garlic and remove from heat.
- To assemble: add cheddar to the bottom, cover cheese with baby spinach, then add your egg mix, then add the garlic with remaining syrup. Bake for 35-40 minutes at 350 F (170 C) until golden brown. Let cool.
- Ideal for an appetizer or pair with a salad and crisp white wine as a main course.