22 April 22, 2003
At one point there were three cooks--all male--stiring big bubbling pots of
risotto for our Easter dinner last night. Risotto is not a traditional dish for our Easter
family celebrations, but my sister-in-law had decided to "go Italian" this
year--and what better dish to go Italian with than risotto?
It was a big deal. There was a huge bowl of chopped mushrooms which had been carefully
chopped before we arrived. There was an equally large bowl of chopped onions. It was a
slow-cook process and everyone took turns checking in to see about the progress of the
The whole meal (there were also 2 legs of lamb, a huge cesar salad with home-made
croutons, and a green bean salad) had been lavished with care. My sister-in-law throws one
hell of a dinner party.
She decorates her house to the 9s at Easter time and finds the cutest figures to
decorate the table. For a couple of years in a row, white bunnies hid behind big glass
bowls of floating candles (when I first learned about floating candles and what a nice
thing they were).
This year, though, it was an Italian theme. Though there were 15-20 of us (or so) for
dinner, she'd managed to find the perfect plates and bought enough to serve all of
us--three different courses. The white bunnies had been replaced by adorable brown bunnies
and in the place of the bowls of floating candles, she had large standing bowls of fruit
and glasses with tall breadsticks standing in them. The look of the table, combined with
the tapestry and paintings all depicting Italian themes, and the opera CD playing in the
family room left no doubt about the ambience she was trying to create.
I'd like to learn how to create an ambience. If "chaos" is an ambience, I've
been wildly successful. Martha Stewart I ain't. My idea of ambience for a casual dinner
(which we rarely have, for obvious reasons) is to push all the stuff on the table into one
pile so the extra person at the table won't have to eat with elbows resting on a stack of
catalogues I'm going to go through some day.
My mother was telling me about working with a committee to make centerpieces for the
dinner tables for a fashion show she was helping to coordinate. I didn't quite picture the
look, but it had something to do with live plants, cocktail umbrellas and wire.
At the recent roast-a-doc for which I was the photographer, Dr. G's wife and her
committee made wonderful centerpieces out of coconut sand, and orchids, creating the luau
theme she was going for. A year or two at Easter, my sister-in-law used squares of sod,
with real grass growing on it and hid the Easter bunnies and the eggs in there. It was
really unique, and quite lovely (despite the flying insects that were hiding in the
I have sometimes been known to take a big candle, plunk it in the center of a table and
try to drape some cloth around it and call it clever. I did spend several months watching
Christopher Lowell and heard him talk over and over again about how "elegant"
you can get by varying heights of candles and draping marvelous things over them.
Mine always looked like a pile of laundry that someone laid some candles down in.
Somehow "elegance" was never quite a word I would use to describe it.
I have finally gotten Christmas table decorations down to a science. We went to
a Christmas party for Walt's office a few years back and the hostess had done a lovely
thing with some artificial greenery and votive candles. It worked so well I've copied it
every year. I know it's time for a change, but untill I go to another fancy dinner party,
I'm fresh out of ideas.
I am a little more competent in the kitchen, however. I can whup up a 7 course
Chinese meal for 12 people while hardly breaking a sweat. I am not afraid to try new
things out on guests, because we entertain so seldom that I never have a chance to perfect
them before a guest comes to dinner.
Heck, I can even make--and have made--risotto. I will not say it was a howling success,
but it was made with the utmost care and in the best spirit of Martha Stewart.
I have this dream. It's a dream of a house where there are no tsatskes. Where all the
dishes and the silverware match. Where tablecloths and napkins match. Where there are
fresh flowers and candles on the table. Where the table always looks lovely and at
dinnertime the meal is as pretty to look at as to eat.
Then I wake up, open the freezer, try to decide what I'm going to make with another
frozen chicken breast, and hope that the pile of junk on the table (which is still covered
with the tablecloth from Christmas) doesn't fall over into the dinnerplate while we're
But once in awhile I get to go out and see how the other half lives, and have risotto
and breadsticks while little bunnies look at me with big, luminous eyes.