Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Dinner Party From Hell: More TOTALLY RETRO Fiction for Foodies!

I STILL REMEMBER the morning I decided never to give another dinner party. It was foggy and I was hung over.

"Hal," I said. "Last night was the last time. We either decline all dinner invitations from now on, or accept them and reciprocate by taking our friends out to restaurants."

"Won't that be expensive?" he asked.

"Yes. But it's better than my going insane."

"How can cooking dinner for six make you insane?"

"I don't know," I lied. "It just does."

What Hal couldn't understand was that cooking was the least odious of the dinner-party chores. First there was the mixing and matching of guests, the careful separation of the shrilly ambitious from the quietly unassuming. Then there was the perusal of cookbooks, the search for the elusive recipe that required no more than 10 seconds preparation. This search always backfired with seduction of the most wrongheaded sort; I'd find myself stuffing six game hens with a far-too-expensive substance, then injuring myself with trussing needles, then dealing with six inevitably dried-out breasts.

Add to this the cleaning of bathrooms, the spinning of lettuce leaves, the assemblage of candles, flowers, appetizers, wines, desserts and coffees, and the last-minute emptying of the medicine cabinet in case Marilyn's husband still had that little problem, and there lay the roots of my looming insanity.

No, it wasn't cooking for six that shook me, because my paranoia always made me cook for 12. What if someone hated leg of lamb? What if someone liked it so much they had to eat four servings? What if I set fire to it? There had to be plenitude, alternatives, and excess. There had to be. To shortchange or disappoint an invited guest was unthinkable.

Hal was too male to appreciate this. The culture, after all, hadn't tyrannized him into feeling guilty for supposed domestic failures. He did, however, suffer vestigial guilt over failures of the wallet, which proved he was at least as retro as I.

"I don't think we can afford to reciprocate in restaurants," Hal said.

"Pizzas, Hal."

"We could make pizza at home for a third the cost!"

"Have you ever made a pizza, Hal?"

"How hard can it be?"

"Hard enough that everyone either goes out for it or calls out for it."

"Then I'll just make a big pot of spaghetti." Hal's eyes lit up like two blazing dinner candles."I'll do the dinner. I'll take responsibility."

I remember letting this notion sink through the hangover fog that shrouded my brain. This, I was thinking, is 1992 - not 1962. And Hal is an adult. And he is not from the generation of men that thinks it's perfectly acceptable to make spaghetti with sauce that comes from an envelope. He will understand that people require garlic bread, and that it can't be made with garlic powder.

"OK," I consented, against my better judgment. "Just don't invite anyone I like very much."

He invited the shrilly ambitious couple and two depressed singles who'd been set up three years previously to no romantic avail. "Go to an afternoon movie or something," he advised me. "I don't want you standing around telling me what to do."

"You mean like reminding you to make a salad and dessert?" I said brightly.

He just laughed. "Norman's bringing the salad," he said. "And Patty's bringing dessert."

"You're making the single people contribute?"

"They offered."

"So what? A potluck can't count as reciprocity."

"Sure it can. I'm doing the real work."

"I'd better make a vinaigrette before I go."


"Norman will bring bottled dressing. Low-calorie. With fake bacon bits floating in it. I know Norman. This is the kind of thing he does."

Hal almost literally threw me out the door, yelling after me that Norman was a splendid person for whom no woman was good enough.

When I returned from my double feature, the shrilly ambitious couple were seated in our living room lecturing Norman and Patty on what they'd bought that week while Hal poured scotch into smudged wine glasses.

"All right, I forgot about ice cubes," he muttered under his breath as I took off my coat.

"Hal's the official host tonight!" I announced, trying to clear myself of all potential dinner crimes, and taking a seat next to Patty. She gave me a defeated smile and gazed at the empty coffee table. No crackers, no cheese, nary a salted nut.

"There's no sense ruining our appetites," Hal said.

"No sense whatsoever," I agreed. "Besides, we'll need room for Patty's dessert, won't we?"

Patty's face fell into further defeat. "Oh shit," she said.

I told Hal in the kitchen that all human beings were undependable, which was why a good host always had a backup salad, backup dessert, backup everything. "I hate your uptightness," he said, leaning against a Pyrex bowl full of Norman's carrot-and-raisin salad.

"Not as much as you're going to hate that carrot business," I said, pouring myself more tepid scotch. "How come I don't smell spaghetti sauce?"

He pointed to an envelope graced with the buoyant grin of Chef Boyardee. "I haven't opened it yet," he said.

I didn't care that Hal served the worst meal anyone had since college. I didn't care that he ran out of wine or had assumed one box of spaghetti was plenty for six or that when Norman asked for bread Hal had to drag out half a bag of cold whole-wheat English muffins. What I cared about was that Hal was in no way humiliated. It wasn't just bravado, either. He said he would take responsibility for feeding his guests, but in reality he felt not one shred of responsibility for their well-being. He felt no shame, not one iota. It was brazen, bizarre, male beyond measure. He should have been wearing a codpiece.

"I don't get it," I said later. It was 8:30 p.m. Everyone was gone. "You're not even embarrassed."

"Why should I be? Everyone got fed."

"Everyone did not. They're probably out now, wolfing down cheeseburgers and cursing my existence."

"Why would they be cursing you? I made the dinner."

"Chef Boyardee made the dinner. And I'm the woman who let it happen."


"The woman always gets blamed for hospitality deficiencies! Everyone pretends they've advanced into occasionally blaming the man, but trust me - it never happens!"

"Gosh, you're uptight."

"Stop using that word around me. How much did you spend on groceries?"

"Three bucks. Home entertaining is really the way to go."

"Yeah. Especially when you don't buy anything."

The only good aspect of Hal's dinner was that we never heard from the shrilly ambitious couple again, and Norman and Patty told so many people what a horrid thing I'd allowed my husband to do that we stopped getting invited anywhere. This meant we didn't owe anybody anything, hospitality-wise.

"Except for the Lees and the Howards," said Hal. "I'll just make a big pot of spaghetti."

I knew I couldn't go through it again. I didn't have the strength, the wherewithal to distance myself from Hal's heinous acts. Even if our guests were progressive enough to hate Hal instead of me when he served them nothing for dessert, was I progressive enough to join them? My calendar told me it was 1992, but I had to admit it was still 1962 in the more damaged parts of my brain.

"Pizzas, Hal. Out."

"You're chicken," he accused.

Chicken, but relaxed. I didn't feel obliged to spin lettuce leaves, empty medicine cabinets, or cringe when food appeared. Even if I blamed myself for Hal's domestic deficiencies, I wasn't crazy enough to blame myself for a restaurant's. And the restaurant, as it turned out, was nearly blameless: The pizzas dripped Gorgonzola, the salads were well dressed, and Hal even found a decent merlot.

The problem came when Hal realized he'd forgotten his credit card and had 25 cents in cash. He stared at me piercingly; I reached for my credit card. Alas, this pizza place didn't take credit cards, and the Lees and the Howards fought each other for the check.

Hal's color was amazing. He turned redder than the merlot, redder than I would have if faced with 12 exploded game hens. He stammered, he stumbled, his codpiece fell off.

"Why be embarrassed?" I asked him on the way home. "Everyone got fed."

I refrained from further comment purely because of the expression on Hal's red face. It wasn't a look of insanity exactly. It was more like, well, you know, uptight.


  1. I would go to one of Hal's dinner parties any time. I'd probably bring my own glass, though.

  2. I guess we know why Hal is a person of the past. Got tired of red sauce on your spaghetti, huh? Are these actually from that time when you were appearing in the SF Chron and instantly became my snarky hero? Do so like a morning laugh or three.