My dinner table usually resembles an early automobile factory, or at least the aftermath of an IKEA shopping spree. I’ve gotten in the habit, over years of feeding guests with allergies and dietary needs that are unpredictable and widely varied across the board, as well as supertasters like my husband, of presenting the various parts of a meal as separately as possible. In many cases, the segregation extends to dividing the ingredients of a single dish into many serving containers so that salad becomes a salad bar and entrees become DIY designer projects to be customized on every plate. I don’t mind helping people put their food together or serving it to them to order, but I have long since learned that one dish does not suit all eaters and it’s silly and wasteful to force the issue. It may seem like a foolish extreme, but it’s become comfortable for me. Two year olds should, in fact, also like dining chez moi. And since I’m often prone to thinking rather like a two year old, I suspect any such event could be quite the adventure all ’round.
Thus, whether we all work our way through a buffet line and create our culinary variations on our own plates as we go, or we sit at table with an assemblage of small containers sprinkled around like so many car or furniture parts in every available spot, everybody had better be hungry enough to fend for themselves, or get a helping hand from someone else who’s able to build them their ideal dishes from the bits provided there. It makes for a whole lot more dishing-and-passing of a whole lot more little bowls, plates, platters and jars, but then–well, being at table with me is bound to be something of a project, anyway.
Last night’s dinner was somewhat typical in that way. Small parts of the meal like side dishes and condiments are so easily omitted when one is serving oneself that I never fear to go ahead and serve them as-is. So we have haricots vert already slathered in beurre noisette, a relish of ground cranberries and mandarins in maple syrup, bakery croissants and butter all ready for the taking. Or yes, for the ignoring. I made up last evening’s main dish as a whole before putting it out to serve, because it has so few ingredients the removal of any of them would amount quite nearly to asking the diners to make the whole meal themselves. Which I am not in the least averse to doing, in principle, but didn’t feel was necessary in this case.
So the pasta–wide egg noodles–emerged from the kitchen fully dressed in their cream, lemon juice and zest, pepper and smoked salmon. Mom and Dad S having shipped us a succulent Washington Christmas present early, we thought it prudent to dive right into those tender, moist pieces of Sockeye and pink salmon before they tortured and tantalized us for too long. Since our guests brought us a bottle of superb champagne, this was clearly the destined dish to accompany it! Also, as it goes almost without saying, it’s one of the world’s simplest entrees to make, and therefore a favorite in the arsenal of the Kath of Least Resistance at any time when such great smoked salmon is available. I did go so far as to serve the garnish of fried sage leaves separately, knowing my spouse’s disdain for “Green Stuff”; he’d be quite happy if all herbs just disappeared from the face of the earth, or would be at least until he realized that some of his favorite foods actually do rely on them for their distinctive flavors.
It was the salad’s turn, as is often the case, to be divided and conquered by the individual diners last night. In keeping with my fetish for combinations sweet and savory, I chose to accompany a bowl of freshly torn romaine lettuce with the following, from which everyone could pick and choose their proprietary blends: a bowl of cubed red Bartlett pear and super-sweet mandarin oranges–the seediest, by the way, that I’ve chopped up in years, but as fresh and bright and juicy and candy-like as any I’ve ever had, to make up for the inconvenience; toasted pine nuts; diced and candied orange peel; crumbled feta cheese. The dressing, also to be added or bypassed at will, was an easy blend of two parts of blood orange infused olive oil (fabulous stuff from Stonehouse) with one part each of mixed mandarin/lemon juice (leftovers from the salad fruit and pasta sauce), soy sauce and maple syrup, plus a healthy shot of fresh ginger juice. Easy peasy.
Now, lest you imagine that I am some sort of cruel beast that would make all of my guests take care of themselves completely . . . oh, wait, I am. My idea of being in a hospitable environment is someone else’s idea of being left alone.
I am quite happy to spend time with friends and family, as long as they are tolerant of my not being an attentive hostess in the any sort of normal waiting-on-you-hand-and-foot mode and know that I crave large quantities of time to spend not honing my admittedly limited set of social skills. I keep strict private ‘office hours’ between bedtime and late morning so that most people needn’t be exposed to my internal dragon lady, she who rules whenever I should be recharging my emotional batteries in silence. At bedtime, I’ll gladly show y’all where to find any breakfast groceries, pots and pans, clean linens and spare toiletries in the house, have my husband train you how to use the TV remote, hand you the house key and the garage door opener, load up your bookshelf, keep the newspaper out for you on the kitchen table and the coffeemaker stocked on the counter, hunt you up a crossword puzzle collection or a pack of playing cards for solitaire, and give you my spare coat, hat and gloves to borrow for a cool-weather walk, but please wait until I emerge from my cave before attempting any interaction.
And know that I’m just not very good at reading minds when it comes to culinary preferences. Even if I know you’re a vegan or keep Kosher or are deathly allergic to whole grain toast, I don’t necessarily know what you really love or hate to eat or how you like it served. If you can choose your own food and manage assembling your own meal out of the provided parts, we’ll get along swimmingly. Even the Generalissimo, the Duchess and the Dalai Lama would have to fend for themselves at my table. I bet you’ll do well enough too.