Dinner parties and I are acquaintances, not friends. We pass in the hallway, each offering the other a silent nod, maybe a half-smile. There’s no chitchat, no hugging, no high-fiving, no asking after the health of the other’s grandma. It’s a decidedly cordial, platonic relationship, but nothing more.
Why? Maybe it’s the stress of coordinating not only an entrée and some sides, but pre-dinner nibbles and smartly paired wines–not to mention after-dinner entertainment. That moment post-dessert when phase two of the evening begins? I never know what to do. Do I bring out more food? Brew espresso in my non-existent espresso-maker? Break out board games? And, most important, can I please change into my slippers?
This is not to say that I don’t throw dinner parties. I do. But they’re infrequent affairs, the kind that happen spontaneously on summer Saturdays when the nights are long, we can laze outside, and I don’t have to clear the kids’ games and half-finished art projects from the dining room table. These forays into playing evening hostess are few, far between, and pale in comparison to how I prefer to entertain.
Once a year I throw a no-holds-barred, return-all-favors, bake-till-I-drop party. My brunch bash commences late morning on New Year’s Day and allows me to smush all the pomp and circumstance of roughly a dozen or more avoided dinner parties into one grand coffee-and-mimosa-fueled shindig during which my friends are too hungover to notice that I’m not wearing shoes and the glassware doesn’t match. In one fell swoop, I fill my karmic cup to overflowing, happily settling both retroactive and prospective entertaining debts without having to pour a single after-dinner scotch.
It also serves another purpose. It indulges my favorite pastime: pretending I own a small bakeshop on the edge of town. In my fantasy, I awake at a comfortable hour, bake until noon, enjoy a rustic lunch, and then go home, a pale dusting of flour clinging to my sleeves. This is folly, as fantasies tend to be, since the reality of bakeshop life couldn’t be more different. (As someone who’s spent a few months in a professional bakery, I can tell you straight up, I’m not at all suited to the physical demands required by a non-fantasy bakeshop — the long hours, the lugging of sugar sacks six times my weight, the shuffling in and out of frigid walk-ins.) But each December, for a limited engagement, I want to return to that place in my heart where I exhaust all my pent-up energy and bake until I keel over. I want to be The Giving Tree of brunches on New Year’s Day. And then come January 2nd, I want my life to return to normal.
Even though the affair requires a sizeable effort, it’s gotten quite a bit easier with time and practice, mostly because I’ve learned to take pleasure in the lead-up and to lose myself in the production, from the menu planning — frittatas! quiches! pastries! — to the prep. Come mid-December, I pull out my tattered notes from brunches past, smooth their creases, and remind myself of what worked especially well in prior years (made-from-scratch croissants, my espresso chip scones, a giant platter of sliced kiwi) and what needs to be fixed (I always, always seem to brew too much decaf). One year I made waffles to order. Another year I turned out crepe after crepe after crepe. Then I make a mother of a shopping list, jot down which friends can loan me their baking sheets, update my invite list, and stock the fridge with orange juice and Champagne.
And then, a few days before the party, it starts. The mussed aprons, the flying butter, the blaring music, the frenetic but not unpleasant chaos. I fold puff pastry. I pleat pastry crusts. I tuck scones in the freezer. By late afternoon the day before, it’s all done. It has to be, because we spend New Year’s Eve at the home of my dear friend Lisa, who can always tell by my hair and my darting, crazy eyes that my day has been long and that I’m tired, but that I’m good.
When the morning comes, somehow, it all works. People are happy. They eat. They drink. They laugh. The kids run around like maniacs, the adults settle deep in their chairs. And I’ve lived a little corner of my dream. The New Year begins in earnest.
May 2012 be wonderful to you and your loved ones. And may all your dinner parties be thrown by someone else.