Monday, March 14, 2005

That's entertainment

I survived the dinner party on Friday night. I say dinner party, but that is perhaps overstating it just a little. It was not what you’d call exquisite dining. I can only sit six round my table in comfort – and two of those six have to sit on folding chairs. (If you lean back too far the seat flips up and you get snapped inside the folding mechanism.) So I just piled the food on serving dishes in the centre of the table and told everyone to help themselves. Or, as I explained to my mother on Sunday morning, I opted for buffet style.

As with so much in life, entertaining guests makes me very nervous. Especially where food is involved. I don’t have a great deal of confidence in my culinary abilities so decided to play it safe and buy most of the food ready cooked. Thank god for Marks and Spencer. All I had to do was heat it up. But even this is not plain sailing. In fact, I find cooking for more than two people a logistical nightmare. You need a maths degree just to work out when to put things in the oven. It’s like one of those old maths problems. If it takes 10 minutes to heat up one quiche and 7 minutes to grill one salmon fillet, how long does it take to heat up three quiches, eight salmon fillets and a bruschette. I got myself tangled in mental arithmetic – (is this what they mean by home economics?) - deducting length of cooking time from the time I expected to start eating divided by the number of guests. In the end, I gave up and just bunged the whole lot in all at once and hoped for the best. My friend D helped by bringing a side salad, advising what temperature to set the oven and telling me to get a bloody grip.

The thing is, entertaining at home is very tricky when you’re single. There is no division of labour to rely on. No “you take the coats darling while I pour the wine”. If you’re single, and hosting a party, you have to do the lot on your own. So my guests all arrived to find me flapping about like a frog in a box, darting from one thing to another. I’m half way to the cloakroom with someone’s coat when I start pouring wine. On my way to give the glass of wine to whoever asked for it when I start handing round crisps (desperately trying to avoid using the word nibbles). I never fully complete anything before randomly starting something else. By the time we sat down to eat I was exhausted and looking distinctly red in the face.

But thanks to D’s help, the food was all fine. The salmon was cooked to perfection, though I say so myself, and, more importantly, everyone seemed to have a good time. Being Friday night, I joked as to whether I should light the candles and make Kiddush. There was stony silence and then Dr P answered ‘of course’. Clearly, my guests were all expecting me to light candles and say kiddush. Frantic search for the candlesticks. I have a pair somewhere. Scrappino was quite bemused to see me lighting them. For him, candlelighting on Friday night is a bit like car accidents. Something that happens to other people. But seeing them on the table convinced me that I might just start lighting them more regularly. Why the devil not?

After first course – challa and dips – I served the main - salmon with quiches and salads. Everyone seemed to be helping themselves and enjoying the food so you’d think I’d be able to relax. But no. In addition to the mental logistics of when to put everything in the oven and the physical impossibility of being in eight places at once when guests arrive, solo entertaining also throws up the problem of keeping the momentum of conversation ticking along. You have to make sure that people are having a good time and that there is stuff to talk about. I usually try to make sure that I have the odd gag tucked up my sleeve in case there is a lull in the conversation. Nothing hilarious – just an anecdote or two to keep things flowing nicely. And a couple of times during the evening I found myself offering such a filler. But the response was not what I’d expected. The first time, I mentioned something about my recent bout of insomnia. “We know – you’ve already told us”, was the reply. Later, when I was whittering on about the dress I’m going to wear for Colin’s wedding the reply was the same “We’ve seen it already”. And then I remembered. All the guests have seen the dress on the blog. And read about the Nytol fiasco on the blog too. Suddenly I realised I had given them all a sneak preview of my best material of the past couple of weeks. Next time, I am going to have to plan things more carefully. I think I’ll decide who to invite well in advance and, if any of them read this blog, hold back a couple of one-liners or stories until after the party. Then post all the best bits (with audience responses already measured) on the blog for maximum effect.

Oscar Wilde had pretty much the same policy. He had a system of using a set number of jokes over and over again within a six week period. Whenever he was invited to a dinner party, he would ask who the other guests would be. If he’d had dinner with any of them within that six week period he would decline the invitation so that he could use the same jokes again. After six weeks was up, he’d stop using those jokes and start using a whole new set of one-liners for the next six week period. A clever system. But then, Oscar Wilde didn’t have to take the coats, heat up the quiches or light the Shabbat candles.


Blogger timecharger said...

lovely, but incorrect. the reason everyone's heard your stories is that you tell them 14 times each, in the style no doubt of your parents and theirs. it's an endearing quality though. x

4:55 pm  
Blogger R.x said...

You're right. I do repeat all my gags 14 times. You know what I need? A friend with a similar sense of humour with no short term memory whatsoever. Ring any bells?

8:40 pm  

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