DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jul 11 2014

Dictating Dinner

by Dea Anne M

We had our 4th of July celebration at my house on the Sunday after the holiday and invited several of our friends. The plan was to grill ribs and serve compatible side dishes with ice cream for dessert. Well, one of our guests “announced” that she would be bringing pasta salad. Now, it’s going to make me sound ungracious, but I’m embarrassed to say that gratitude was not my immediate reaction. When I’ve invited people over, I tend to want to control every aspect of the menu. I want to orchestrate the meal from beginning to end and I always have a precise idea of how I’ll do that. It’s very much an ego thing for me. I’m proud of my kitchen prowess and I’m afraid I don’t often want to share the spotlight. Wow, just writing that makes me wince a little bit–still I found myself muttering (to myself), “If I had wanted it to be a potluck, I would have said that’s what it was.” Then, it hit me–the point of the gathering was to relax with friends and enjoy each other’s company. Sure, I wanted the food to be good, but that wasn’t the main point of the gathering. A dinner doesn’t always have to be a virtuoso display (although sometimes you might need or want it to be) and sharing is a good thing. I actually enjoy potlucks too–although I haven’t entertained that way for a number of years.

…and I have been entertaining for a while. I started to wonder–how has entertaining changed through the decades? Perhaps the collection at DCPL would at least suggest some answers. Starting a few decades back, I present my own speculations forthwith.

The 1980’s are known in the popular mind as the Me Decade, a time of extravagance and over the top indulgence. To me, nothing reflects the spirit of the age better than Martha Stewart’s first book, Entertaining (1982).  That’s marthaMartha herself on the front jacket looking surprisingly demure in a high-necked, ruffled blouse. Inside, you’ll find ideas and menus for a variety of gatherings from a “Neoclassic Dinner for Eight to Ten,” to a “Clambake for Thirty,” to “The At-Home Wedding.” No potlucks for Martha! Here too, you’ll find Martha-style 80’s classics like snow peas individually stuffed with Boursin cheese (decoratively piped in, no less). These parties are obviously a lot of work–unapologetically so–and you probably won’t be doing all the cooking yourself (not to mention the serving). But maybe you want to do it all yourself and maybe you’re clean out of ideas for entertaining–not only at your country home in the Hamptons but also at your Manhattan townhouse and your Caribbean vacation rental. What a dilemma! Lucky for you, Lee Bailey’s Good Parties: Favorite Food, Tableware, Kitchen Equipment and More, to Make Entertaining a Breeze by Lee Bailey (1986) is here to help. You’ll not only find recipes for Sausage Baked Pasta and just about any vegetable puree you could ever hope to consume but also a game plan and suggestions (firm suggestions) on the proper serving ware for each menu. You’ll want to think twice about serving your Oven Fried Fish on anything other than Limoges porcelain.

Apparently, the 80’s just about did us in because by the 1990’s, not only had we become insanely busy–we were all absolutely exhausted as well. Or so one would runthink from such titles as Parties: Menus for Easy Good Times by Melanie Barnard and Brooke Dojny (1992) or Entertaining On the Run: Easy Menus for Faster Lives by Marlene Sorosky (1994). Barnard and Dojny’s book promises “no culinary one-upmanship” and provides menu suggestions for “When Time is Short” and really–wouldn’t that have applied to everyone? Sorosky’s book promises that her “Round Moon Japanese Box Supper” or the “Grilled Paella Party” will fit perfectly into our “speed of light lifestyles” and she assures us that we can all entertain, even while on the run, without running ourselves ragged at the same time. Good to know.

Style was the word of the hour for the early 2000’s and this consciousness is well reflected in entertaining guides from two still publishing magazines Esquire Eats: How to Feed Your Friends and Lovers: A Manual for Men by Francine Maroukian (2004) and InStyle Parties: The Complete Guide to Easy, Elegant Entertaining by the editors of InStyle (2006). “A man’s place is in the kitchen,” Moroukian declares on the back of her book, and as you read her very…er… authoritative text (authoritative as in “likely to be obeyed”), you realize that this isn’t merely a suggestion. Get into that kitchen guys and get cooking! Don’tinstyle worry though, no one is about to ask you to put those frilly little pants on your lamb chops. Instead, you’ll find such brawny fare as Double-Fired Porterhouse with Classic Steakhouse Rub and Southwestern Pork Tenderloin along with surprisingly practical cooking strategies and hosting tips. InStyle Parties presents perhaps a more “girlish” approach to entertaining. You’ll find menus here, of course, for a luau, an Oscars Party, Baby Shower and the like, but also copious information on flowers, wine, decor and, maybe best of all, full-page color photos of glamorous (and stylish!) celebrities hosting their own parties.

Moving into the latest decade, we might observe that simplicity in entertaining simpleis highly desirable. I guess I didn’t get that memo–but maybe I need to give it some thought. Seriously Simple Parties: Recipes, Menus & Advice for Effortless Entertaining by Diane Rossen Worthington (2012) promises to keep us in the kitchen as little as possible, and Cornelia Guest’s Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking and Easy Entertaining by Cornelia Guest with Diane Reverand (2012) is a bit different in that it provides what looks like a practical, and delicious, guide to vegan entertaining. I’m not vegan but my thought on viewing this one was “Well, it’s about time!” Quite an elegant book too.

Fast. Easy. Effortless. Simple. All these seem to be the key words, the promise–spoken or otherwise–to selling an entertaining guide, and I find myself somewhat perversely imagining alternative titles. How about Kitchen Martyr: Parties that Will Keep You Away from Your Friends All Evening and Require Many Days’ Worth of Really Hard Work! Or maybe you’d like to see Exertion Entertaining: Menus that Prove, Once and for All, to Friends and Family that You Mean Business! Well, probably not. Anyway, while in no way desiring to recreate the “Martha decade” in my own entertaining, I’ll probably continue to go the more elaborate route with my dinner parties. Perhaps though, my barbeque experience will provide an ongoing lesson on letting go a little. Who knows, maybe I’ll throw an actual potluck sometime soon.

Do you favor potlucks over dinner parties? Holiday buffets? Maybe you like to meet friends at restaurants. What is your favorite way to entertain?

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