We were a potluck family. A Sunday gathering family. The kind with kids running around, sucking on Warheads that made their faces pucker and aunts brandishing cling-wrapped platters of stir-fried beef and caramelized shrimp. We were loud and casual and messy, with screen doors flapping wide open and ice clattering into plastic cups that got washed and reused time and time again. We gathered and we celebrated, but we definitely didn’t do dinner parties, at least not the kind I saw in Nick at Nite reruns, where meticulously coiffed hostesses set out individually portioned plates on linen tablecloths. At our parties, there were no candles, no courses, no pressure to use the right knives or forks.
Dinner parties come in all shapes and sizes. Some are haphazard, composed of take-out pizza and chips from the pantry. Others are themed affairs that take weeks to prepare. I always thought my perfect dinner party would be a mix of the elegant ones I saw on television, and the family gatherings of my childhood—organized, but informal; elegant, yet warm. There’d be as much witty conversation as there was delicious food. We would wrap ourselves up in the good vibes of the night, like a plush coat. I thought a good dinner party would be my admittance into adulthood.
My first hosting opportunity came when I was in graduate school for creative writing in the Midwest. I was attending a charity auction our classmates threw in a basement dive bar. Everyone auctioned goods and services at ridiculously low prices—$10 for a short story edit, $5 song of your choice played by a poet with an accordion, $10 for a case of IPA brewed in someone’s sweltering closet. I may have had one too many gin and tonics that evening because I found myself bidding on nearly everything. At the end of the night, my wallet empty, yet full of promises for things I (mostly) didn’t want, I slunk away, once again bemoaning my bad choices.
"Having watched endless hours of Top Chef, I was sure I could pull it off. My first real dinner party."
During workshop the day after the auction, my friend Chris* leaned over and asked, “So, about that apple pie.” Such portentous words could mean many things in this context. An invitation to commit a crime? An excerpt from a Eudora Welty story? A meditation on American ruralism in the media? I smiled noncommittally and waited it out. Finally, he explained, “The apple pie you won at the auction. The one I’m supposed to make for you?” Of course, the apple pie! Most everyone else had forgotten their obligations from the bids, but Chris was a man of his word.
Another workshop friend, Maris*, whispered out of the side of her mouth, like a pastry-loving gangster, “How do I get in on this pie?” I invited them both over to my apartment, where Chris could deliver his apple pie, and I would cook them all dinner. Having watched endless hours of Top Chef, I was sure I could pull it off. My first real dinner party. “You know who else loves pie?” Chris asked. “Franny* and her fiance Liam*.” The more the merrier, I told them. Saturday at six.
But the misadventure begins a little before then.
After a day spent writing four sentences of an essay and catching up on nearly that many seasons of Laguna Beach, I stretch and consider that it may be time to head to the grocery store. My husband is in charge of cocktails. I notice his careful line of gin, vodka, and mixers. What a mensch.
I decide that Julia Child is my dinner party role model, though I have no evidence that she enjoyed a dinner party more than the next person. Flipping through her cookbook, I see many recipes, some of which are easy to nix: quiche Lorraine (can’t do it; lactose intolerant), crêpes Suzette (flames in a 750-sq-ft apartment seems like a bad idea), cassoulet (requires overnight bean-soaking), and beef bourguignon. Beef bourguignon it is. Who doesn’t like beef stew, especially in the frigid depths of winter like we were in? What I lack in experience, I will make up for in confidence! In a rush, I jot down ingredients and resolve to look at the recipe in full later.
At the grocery store, I pick up a sleeve of sesame crackers, a sliver of smoked cheddar from the bargain-bin cheeses, and a half-pint of marinated olives. That’ll be enough food for six, right? After all, the beef stew is probably pretty big. Maris asks what she can bring. “Nothing!” I text blithely. “I’ve got it all under control!” Snow begins to lightly dot my windshield. I’d be more worried about canceling the dinner party, but it’s the Midwest. We don’t stop anything for snow.
My first gin and tonic, flooded with lime juice, goes easy down the throat. My husband stares at the big hunk of beef on the counter and asks, “Shouldn’t you start dinner?” Oh, yeah.
Oh, no. Julia’s recipe takes a cool six hours. Dammit, Julia! I start biting my nails. I flip around for Julia-inspired recipes on the internet and find one that will take only four and a half hours. I turn on the stove and hope for the best.
To my utter annoyance, my friends are on time—an absolute first, and at the worst time. Maris comes with Chris, who holds up his apple pie tin proudly. “It’s gorgeous!” I announce, head buried in my cast iron pot, where I’m trying to sweat onions and carrots on high heat.
Maris asks, “What are you cooking?” I tell her and he gives me a doubtful look. She’s a former server at a high-end restaurant on the West Coast and a pro cook. “Doesn't that take... well, a really long time."
“Don’t worry!” I reassure her. “Go have a cocktail!”
I hear my husband turning on ‘80s rock in the next room. Is that REO Speedwagon? At least it’s not jazz.
Franny and Liam arrive, brushing snow from their coats. “We’re starved!” they announce. The storm has thickened and the roads are slow, perilous. They make a joke about having to spend the night, then hand us a bottle of wine, which is fortunate, because I forgot the wine for the stew. With a sigh of relief, I drench the seared beef and bacon in broth and wine, then push the cast iron pot into the oven. Only three hours left!
I rejoin my friends, who are gathered around our dining room table. The olives are gone. The cheese, demolished. Only a couple of crackers remain. Everyone eyes them with the suppressed rabidity of gentleman vultures. My husband pulls me aside and asks, “Is there more food?”
“Of course there is!” I tell him. (There’s not.) I pull out some lunch meat and slices of cheese from the fridge. I root out some stale Triscuits that I pile into the center of a plate. We’re way past the need for pretty presentation here.
We’ve exhausted all the department gossip. There’s a love triangle that everyone but me seems to know about, with details that could fill a solipsistic memoir. Chris confesses his crush on one of our classmates, an auburn-haired beauty who speaks multiple languages and occasionally writes about bugs. Franny describes her ideal wedding. It involves goats. My husband tells us about the time he got bit in the butt by a chihuahua in Costa Rica. We’re laughing so hard that we don’t notice the thick swath of snow curtaining the window.
The savory-sweet smell of beef stew permeates the room. Everyone smiles hopefully. Maybe it’s done early? I check on it, but no, the beef is nowhere close to done. When they see me arrive empty-handed, they stifle sighs of disappointment.
On the topic of Julia Child, I pull up my favorite clip from her cooking show, where she flips a goopy potato concoction unsuccessfully. It’s an abject mess, but she’s so lovely about it. “When you’re flipping something, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she advises. What more do we need than that?
“I have good news and bad news,” I tell everyone. “Which do you want first?”
Liam, a professor at the school with a beard and low patience for shenanigans, says warily, “The bad news.”
“The stew won’t be ready for two more hours.”
Groans ricochet around the room. My husband slips to the bar for another bourbon. Chris begins studying a spot on the tablecloth with such intensity that I think he’ll set it on fire.
“I’ve never been so hungry in my life,” he mutters. If good-natured Chris is turning on me, I stand no chance.
“I am so sorry,” I say, hanging my head.
“What’s the good news?” Maris asks. She swipes the last shred of turkey lunchmeat and nibbles at it delicately.
“I have Bananagrams!” I say as brightly as I can muster.
Silence. Then slowly, methodically, my guests line up behind my husband at the bar, offering up their empty glasses for refills. He smiles sympathetically, at them and at me.
No one wants to play Bananagrams (their loss), but we play this game that Chris introduces us to called Celebrity. It involves placing names in a hat and a lot of arguments over what constitutes a celebrity. (Liam’s references are obscure, but we like him too much to tell him.) We play for a long time, until someone suggests we up the wager.
“Winner gets…” Franny looks around.
“—Chris’s apple pie,” Maris completes, appearing with the tin in her hands, like a pie fairy.
Those words are magic, filling the room with new energy. The last round is our most competitive yet. My husband wins and he offers to share the pie. I am so glad I married him. We don’t even bother to slice it. I hand out the forks and we dig in, like the animals we are.
Someone has commandeered the '80s rock ballads (thank the lord) and shifted to a ‘00s dance music playlist. We’re shaking our shoulders to Sean Paul. We’re swishing our hips to Destiny’s Child. Liam asks why 50 Cent isn’t pluralized and we burst out in laughter. We scoop forkfuls of Chris’s apple pie into each other's mouths. It’s as good as promised, with soft, cinnamony apples and a buttery crust that melts on the tongue.
I wish I had a video of that dinner party. Even a few seconds. Sometimes, if someone brings up beef stew, I think of that night—all of us dancing dizzily in that tiny living room, lightheaded from hunger, trapped by a snowstorm, but so comfortable. So safe. The memory is so beautiful, it almost hurts.
Technically, the beef bourguignon isn’t melting-apart done, but I declare it done enough. I skip the step with the pearled onions and mushrooms, and ladle giant portions of the stew into bowls. The truth is, I’m not that hungry. Between the pie and the Triscuits and the floppy rib of celery I found at the bottom of the crisper, I’ve eaten enough. But I taste the stew. It’s fine, though I know I won’t be getting any protege points from Julia.
“Mmm,” my guests moan around the table, more from relief than satisfaction. They look sleepy now, maybe from the dancing, and maybe from the cocktails. They look like babies ready for bed. We finish our bowls of beef bourguignon and toast to Julia, our queen of imperfect cooking.
“You can stay here if you want,” I tell my friends. But the storm has nearly passed; out the windows, we see diligent plows clearing the roads. Everyone switches to water, resolving to get themselves in driving condition. We all feel the night sliding to a close.
My friends put on their coats and search for their belongings. Someone discovers their cell phone in the couch cushions. Another person plucks her bag from the bathroom sink. Chris’s shoes are, inexplicably, in two different rooms. I slip on a pair of boots and walk them out to their cars. The night is full of unexpected color—gold from the moonlight, with a pink flush on the horizon. There’s the haze of gray clouds and a reflection of silver-blue snow.
My friends hug me one by one as they leave. They thank me, but really, I’m the one who owes them. Without friends to share it with, a beef stew is just a beef stew. But on this night, their company turned beef stew into a memory.
Later, as I watched the dinner party episode of The Office, I doubled over laughing when Jan, one of the hosts, starts her osso buco much too late, just like I did. Though our dinner party wasn’t nearly as dramatic, I often find myself replaying the night, like my favorite episode from a show.
Since that first time I made beef bourguignon, I’ve made it again, with much more precision and thoughtful timing. It’s been a success more often than not. But I feel like Julia Child would have been proud of my first attempt, haphazard a cook as I was back then. She would tell me that friendship counts more than perfection, that the best way to recover from a flop is by moving forward. She’d say, as she did in her cooking show, “You haven’t lost anything, because you can always turn it into something else.” And I would believe her.
*Names have been changed.