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From the Cloud That Was My Dinner Party: The Silver Lining of Advice


Last night I made dinner for a group of family and friends. I wanted to make something delicious and impressive, since this was a group of pretty sophisticated eaters, but I also needed something that was not spicy (because of my parents), not bizarre (because of Sam) and not too complicated (because I was cooking it on a working day). I decided to make Amy Sedaris’s Pastitsio which is rich, and complex enough to indicate a certain level of “I slaved all day for you.” I must confess before I go on though, that I lied to you all (and I have been thoroughly punished). In the post about Sedaris’s cookbook, I stated that I “often” make the Pastitsio with her Greek Beans and a salad for dinner parties. The truth is, I have made Pastitsio several times, and I always serve it with a salad and a green vegetable, but I had never really made the Greek Beans until last night. Mea culpa. It was a culinary fantasy?

Greek Beans are green beans cooked with carrots and onions in a tomato sauce. It sounded like a great idea; all sort of healthy, and colorful, and light in contrast to the meat-filled, Bechamel-covered Pastitsio. All I know is that the Pastitsio was eaten (even seconds) but the mounds of Greek Beans on plates and in the serving bowl remained fairly constant. They tasted acidic to me, and even my father who loves me dearly said he “didn’t care for them.” I probably did something wrong, or maybe I didn’t, but bottom line is that I violated at least two of my own cardinal rules (about which, more in a minute). It certainly wasn’t a terrible dinner; the entree was fine, the wine flowed, the company was entertaining and the salad and dessert were lovely, but I can’t get it out of my head that I fed those people something that was not very good. To atone for The Greek Bean Debacle, I offer you some things that I have learned about cooking for company that should serve you well:

  1. Do not serve something to guests if you have never tried the recipe before, unless you don’t like them very much and are just having them over because you owe them a dinner.
  2. If you think something tastes weird when you taste it, there’s a good chance other people will, too. Fix it, for God’s sakes, or throw it out and make something else. An honest bag of frozen peas cooked and served with a pat of sweet butter would have been infinitely better than the Beans that Bit Back.
  3. Don’t put oil in your pasta water. I don’t care who told you to do it. It keeps the pasta from absorbing whatever you put on it for serving, which reduces the flavor.
  4. Everything tastes better when it’s really hot.
  5. Everything looks better if you have odd numbers of things on a plate, and even better if one of the things is a pile of something green and herb-y.
  6. Do not attempt to “improve” your guests by serving them things that they may not want to eat, but which you think they should try. This list includes, but is not confined to tripe, trotters, tartare, tofu, and tongue.
  7. Unless you are somebody’s Jewish mother making blintzes or latkes, try to be done cooking when dinner is put on the table. It is disconcerting and stressful for guests when the host and/or hostess keep jumping up from the table to do something in the kitchen. The exception to this rule is if you have one of those kitchens where your guests can sit at a counter and you can face them while you cook and serve and do all sorts of wild Benihana schtick.
  8. If a guest tells you, once you are actually at the table, that he or she cannot eat what you are about to put on his or plate because he does not eat meat, is on a strict diet, keeps Kosher, can’t eat spicy food, etc., and this is the first you’ve heard of this limitation, fix him with a glassy stare and say “I’m sorry for your trouble.” You may then send him home with a complimentary copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
  9. If you are pressed for time, buy a fabulous dessert from a good bakery. Do not engage in Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade garbage; most sentient beings would vastly prefer a plate of really elegant bakery cookies to some horror show involving an Entemann’s pound cake covered in pudding, sprinkles and iced animal cookies that looks like you asked your first grader to make dessert.
  10. If you serve enough cocktails before dinner and keep the wine glasses filled during, you can probably dispense with all previous advice because no one will care.

20 responses »

  1. I’m going to get the Sedaris cookbook pronto! My favorite Greek dish is Mousaka, but my spouse loves pastitsio.

  2. Amy, I think you’ll like it – be warned, though, that it is a kind of combination cookbook and compilation of Sedaris’s humor, which is hilarious but NOT child-appropriate. The recipes are great, and I use the book often, but it is not suitable for the easily offended.

  3. #10 so true, so true. Tonight I made a dessert I have never made before. Every time I do it I curse myself because I wish I had made it once before to at least adjust cooking times (my oven tends to bake faster than recipes call for). It’s a brownie cheesecake number so again, I don’t know if anyone will care.

    I still want to get this cookbook. I never remember when I’m at the bookstore. . .

  4. First of all—ha ha ha ha ha! Soooo funny-I love your sense of humor, Ann.

  5. Michelle, I hear that there are lots of wines and liqeurs that make anything taste good, but I’m pretty sure your brownie cheesecake will not require trickery. 🙂 Get the cookbook!!! At least go look at it.

    Eric – wait? There’s more? (She said, humorously).

  6. Ok, I’ve stopped laughing and will comment on your ten “commandments”
    1) I violate this rule all the time and have paid the price. Many times.
    2) I always taste-test. Dale never does. His mistake.
    3) Exception-boiled lasagna noodles-they won’t stick with a bit of oil in the water–from Lidia’s Italian Table.
    4)Except Salad
    5) True- I call it the Japanese aesthetic.
    6)Very true except when I have guests that have tried to “improve” me–turnabout is fair play.
    7)I have this bad habit-drives Dale crazy–won’t let me put anything on a menu now that I have to “go tend”
    8) Did someone actually do this? Great response!
    9) Yes, absolutely a great idea.
    10) You betcha’ “burp”

  7. This is awesome, especially about Sandra Lee (I never trust a skinny cook)
    The only thing I have made from the Amy Sedaris Cookbook was the “Stoner Popcorn” (popped in Bacon fat..definitely not Kosher)

  8. Good list. I concur.

  9. Eric, I’ll give you the lasagna noodles if Lidia says so. There ARE hot salads, you know. As for the haughty reply, no, no one actually said that, but I’m waiting for my chance….:)

    Rhoda, she is not only skinny but there’s something so, I don;t know, anti-passionate about her that bodes poorly for a cook. She certainly looks like she might be capable of “nasty,” but not “passionate.” As for the Stoner Popcorn, not kosher – but good?

    Mary, thanks!

  10. You know, I always used to put oil in pasta water because someone told me it increases the surface tension of the water to prevent foamy boil-over, which, of course is remedied by turning down the fire a little–Lidia says “never never never put oil in pasta water” for the same reason you cited, but she said the exception is lasagna noodles so they don’t stick together and the baking process with sauce counteracts the absorption resistance for those.

    Hot salad? you lawyers always find a loophole, don’t you?

    Love this list so much-thanks for sharing it!

  11. I love the list!! May I add one?

    Don’t feed your guests too much before the meal i.e. appetizers! Let them come to the table hungry….not thirsty, just with a good healthy desire to eat the foods you spent all that time preparing.
    I made the mistake of doing several “gourmet apps” at my last dinner party and by the time we sat at the table for dinner, no one was hungry enough to enjoy the meal.
    ps..You set a beautiful table!!!

  12. This was excellent. Funny and insightful at the same time. Now…where is your subscribe button so I don’t lose you?

  13. Trisha, you are entirely correct – honestly, I give so few dinner parties of a “grownup” nature these days that appetizers (and real cocktails) seem to fall by the wayside. My parents either had or attended a dinner party every Friday and/or Saturday night of my young life, and I would LOVE to give parties like that, but it seems that everything is now family-centered. I love my kid (and other kids) but I’d love to be able to invite people to dinner…without them. As for the table – it’s actually my parents’ house, and for my mom it’s a pretty lowbrow table – paper plates!!

    Wendi, thanks for coming by!! I just added an RSS feed button; it’s right under the add on the right. I’m honored that you want to find me again. 🙂

  14. Thanks! Found the button and have subscribed. By the way, this post was found because a friend of mine linked to it on Facebook. It’s always nice to know how new readers stumbled by.

  15. Great tips! Having a calm sense of humor is what makes entertaining enjoyable…

  16. Wendi, thanks for letting me know! It is kind of important for me to be able to track that way. Thanks again for subscribing, too!!

    Debi, I’m not always that calm, but I always have a sense of humor. 🙂

  17. Thank you for the proper response to #8. I was dumbfounded when this happened to me. I wasn’t allowed to tell the uncle-in-law what I really thought because it was a holiday. I did resort to filling my wine glass once or twice while cooking the additional meal.

  18. Suzi, your response shows great restraint. I might have been tempted to break the bottle over his head, or at least poison his bland/kosher/low-fat/vegetarian alternative dinner.

  19. Love the list of rules, especially about not jumping up and down during dinner. I don’t think my Grandmother ever sat down all the way through Christmas dinner – it used to drive us crazy. Though now that she’s gone, we’ve realized that Grampa will always need at least 5 things that are not already on the table.

    • The jumping up thing is veeeeery difficult to stop. I just know that as a guest, I feel guilty and anxious when my host or hostess is running around like a mad thing, and that as a hostess I find myself losing all of the enjoyment that comes from spending time with people when I’m…not spending time with them. As for your Grandma and Grampa, I am not sure that was a dynamic that could have been corrected by this plan. 🙂 My dad, who is the sole of graciousness, will still say “I don’t suppose there’s any butter on the table….”


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