What’s for Dinner?

Dinners I prepare for company taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I think I’m creating food destined for the culinary hall of fame; then I eat it. “Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with straight faces. But to me, the food tastes edible rather than tasty. Could the stress of preparing company dinners cause my taste buds to run away from home?

First, I grapple with the menu. After  hours of anguish and indecision, I reluctantly decide on baked pesto chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and a French bread roll; then the ensuing complications topple me into trauma. How do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while the guests munch appetizers and laugh at my husband’s witticisms?

After I finalize the menu, shop for ingredients, then chop, mix, knead and spice until the food is under control, I focus on staging: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated? And do I have appropriate utensils? Then I serve the entree with my go-to spatula that has a melted lump instead of a handle.

While setting the table, I worry that the guests seated on the corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed by the table legs; but maybe they’ll be merry from Joel’s pre-dinner comedy routine and won’t notice.

Giving up on a Martha-Stewart table, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and rush to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times has gone awry. At last, a half-hour late and disheveled, I serve dinner. The guests make approving noises; I take my first bite; my taste buds pack their bags.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Family members and friends make company dinners look easy; and I’ve yet to see them choke on their own food.

A friend of mine once invited twelve guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused offers of help. She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at an attractive table and made a grand entrance with a crisply browned turkey — which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out, “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one.” Then she scooped up the bird, returned to the kitchen, brought back its knocked-awry carcass and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of all.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

I should have her advice tattooed on my arm.

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72 thoughts on “What’s for Dinner?

  1. Oh my, can I relate. Thank you for posting this. I thought I was the only one who went through the same trepidation when I had guests: what to cook? how much time? oven space? etc. I purchased a microwave/convention oven to handle the extra oven need, but the rest still shakes me every time I entertain. I must admit though, my guests are always gracious, and we do have a good time. Thank you, again. I feel less alone.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a lovely line: “I feel less alone.” When I read it, I realized that knowing we are not alone is a gift we bloggers give one another when we share our personal stories. And you and I discover another way we are alike.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Me too. Last sit down fancy dinner I cooked was prime rib and it tasted like, yeah, braised cardboard. I think the stuff might actually taste good to other people. But by the time we all sat down, I was tired and annoyed.

    I’m not all that interested in food. I started cooking when I was 7 and when I reached 37, and realized that was a long career already, I kind of backed off. Now, cooking for myself, I cook things that will have leftovers for at least one more supper. I cook what I know I like. I imagine if I have company (ever) I’ll cook them chicken piccata because I like it. I have a table, but no chairs, seriously. I asked my friends what the odds were (in their minds) of my having a “sit down dinner” and my friend’s husband said, “I give it 150 to 1” 🙂

    When I lived in the mountains outside San Diego I had Thanksgiving dinner for my friends. A friend helped me and others brought food. That was fun, somehow, until my friend and I spent 3 hours washing dishes… I also learned smoked turkey is the way to go if one must cook Thanksgiving dinner. Argh.

    I love this, ““Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like that quote as well, Martha, and think of it every time I’m fussing about what I’ve produced. This line in your comment, describes me perfectly; “But by the time we all sat down, I was tired and annoyed.” However wine and a store-bough dessert usually taste good to me! I’m certain if I lived alone, I would cook as you do: stuff I like and enough for leftovers. But it’s fun to cook for my husband; he eats everything, is appreciative, and will pitch in and chop or stir when I need a hand. I chuckled at your odds of cooking a sit down dinner; it’s a long shot for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right, Cindy; I think it’s my need for perfectionism that kicks in as well. Also, I agree about meals served by a friend. I love them; and I try to remember that when I’m cooking for my friends.

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    • Her advice has been in my head for many years, and popped out as I was writing the post. I love it as well. And, actually, like you, Kay, I feel like I’m a much better and more confident cook now than I was when younger.

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  3. Regardless of the art-form, the artist is always the harshest critic of the work.

    Ours is always a small feast, but I see the struggles to get things just right. I love the comeback with the dropped turkey. I once set one on fire – much harder to come back from that. Still, we had tons of food and we might have drank a bit more wine that year, but it all worked.

    Eat, drink and be merry! It doesn’t say anything about admiring the tablecloth.

    Great post, Janet!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, dear, I sorry to say, Marjorie, that Little J’s comment made me laugh aloud — probably because I could imagine the same being said about some meals I’ve produced. I sympathize with your statement that you just don’t want to cook anymore. I think many women reach that stage after years of being responsible for meals every day.

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  4. Oh Janet! We are at an age where we shouldn’t be trying to give a sit -down dinner unless we enjoy cooking.
    My sister-in-law is an amazing cook, but has no sense of timing. We always have a snack before we go because we know we won’t be eating for hours as she examines every lettuce leaf before putting it in the bowl and make sure every ingredient in the salad dressing is perfect.

    I’d settle for laughter and good company over a perfect meal any day. And now we have moved to an apartment with a tiny kitchen – but lots of cupboards – I don’t even try to do sit down dinners!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think there comes a time when we can gracefully exit the sit-down dinner business, Sally, and I have pretty much done so except for the closest friends or family members when laughter and good company rule. I too, have a relative who produced marvelous food, but all you could hear was the grumbling of the guests’ stomach as they waited forever for dinner to be announced..

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  5. Great post Janet. We tend to be too critical of our own food, especially after ll the trouble getting it onto the perfect table. We have been frequent party givers all our married life (71 years). Years ago I developed a system which still works, and all stemming from my first turkey in 1946 while entertaining elderly great-aunts. The bird simply jumped out of the oven onto the floor in the kitchen and one auntie grabbed a towel and while cuddling it in her arms, called out that dinner was served. Again as in Julia’s story, everyone had a good laugh. Happy Thanksgiving Janet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kayti, and I hope your Thanksgiving is splendid as well. From reading your posts, I would have guessed that you and your husband hosted folks in your home often, treated them considerately and enjoyed doing so. I’d also bet that your ability to laugh at yourself and with others was part of your success.

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  6. This is beautifully written and I feel your pain. So strange, isn’t it? I too stress over deciding what to cook for a crowd. Yet I cook twice a day for myself with pleasure, and the decision is made when I open the fridge. Family groups are easier with contributions all round. But why are we anxious? We can cook, and they come for our company not cuisine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you, I cook quite happily and even creatively for my husband and me and enjoy every bite; I don’t know why we’re anxious when, as you say, the people we invite are usually those who like us and we like them. It’s a mystery to me.

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  7. Yep, I’ve dropped a turkey too — in front of my perfect hostess sister-in-law. We laughed — called the three second rule — and decided we weren’t going to eat off the bottom of the bird anyway… Timely post. I’ve always disliked hosting Thanksgiving even though I love cooking. There’s just something about these big pressure holidays that do me in… and on that note, Happy Thanksgiving…

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    • I’m surprised by how many of my readers have had turkey disasters. But, then, they are big, unwieldy birds, especially when you’re feeding a crowd. High pressure holiday meals are also my downfall..and on that note, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving as well. May we both be in pressure-less situations.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I was serving a chap once, and the steak slid off the plate, skidded down the counter plap into the trash- he laughed, fished it out and ate it. Your meals are probably wonderful. Visiting elders one hot day, we gave up drooling over K.F.C. ,for their lunch invite- a quart jar of ancient beets, garnished with pet hair! I sat, gagging on the porch as my friends ate it. No turkey disaster could horrify more..beets. Great post thanks Janet.

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    • What a fine chap he was! My sort of fellow. Nothing puts me off food more than hair, human or pet, being found in it. And with ancient, bottled beets: unbearable. I would have gagged as well, but probably would have forced it down since my mother taught us it wasn’t polite to turn up our noses at food offered us by others. As always, you made me giggle, Sheila. I love your comments.

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      • The hole house was gross, the yard an acre of dead grass and roasted dog mess, I sat on the steps with a cat missing an eye, most of it’s tail, ears frozen off, two teeth, chronic mange…and still more appealing than the jar of beets.

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      • Oh, Sheila, you make me laugh ore than anyone I know. The idea of the cat you describe being more appealing than your dinner is so very funny. Thanks for making my day once again.

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  9. Oh my ! I live in my tiny little flat and rarely cook for others. I should really invite people around from time to time, but I have things I would much rather do than cooking. I do enjoy food cooked by other people though. I am sure your food is just fine.

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  10. First, let me say that I find your cooking wonderful Janet. I always like what you serve and I am always impressed with your choices! My problem is that my food usually tastes good, but my presentation is always questionable. I do think most people appreciate someone else’s cooking (I know I do) and wine is a great way to enhance whatever is served!

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    • You are so kind, Janice; but cooking for JL and you is like cooking for Joel and me: fun and stress free. I like planning what I think you’ll like and preparing it, because you always eat with gusto and appreciation. And, yes, our conversations, the wine and JL’s lemon drop martinis make everything taste good!

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  11. Great post AB you brought back so many ghastly memories. When we were first married over forty years ago we lived in a tiny flat and duly invited our first guests for dinner. As they knocked on the door the turkey slid out of the oven and across the kitchen floor. Naturally we applied the five second rule and manhandled it straight back in. To this day the guests were none the wiser and we’re thankful that we didn’t break a leg ‘cos we spent the whole night slipping round the greasy kitchen floor!

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      • A few years ago I thought that I’d vary Xmas dinner and went Spanish. We set up our big 3 ring burner on a plastic table and I set to stirring the world’s largest paella. You should have seen my nephew’s face when Xmas dinner started to melt gracefully into the plastic table!

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  12. I learned to cook for company from my Great Aunt Kathy. Being the wife of a Lt. Col., my Great Uncle Fred, there were plenty of dinners served to officers at their home. She always used the KISS method [Keep It Simple Stupid]. Almost all of her “company” meals were one-dish meals. Some were done on the range, some were baked. All gave her time with the guests.

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    • I appreciate the wisdom your Great Aunt Kathy possessed and you adopted. After reading your comment, I believe simplicity is the key for dinner enjoyed by both guests and Janet the cook. I’m going to adopt the idea of one-dish meals for future “company” efforts.

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  13. dear Janet
    I do love your columns. Gosh we put such expectations on ourselves don’t we? Nowadays I try to remember that my guests are coming to see me and enjoy a meal they have not cooked as you say and I try to keep it simple so that I can relax (after a fashion) and enjoy the company.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I appreciate you for reading and enjoying my columns, Lynne. After writing the column and reading the comments, I’ve realized the wisdom of how you now think about cooking dinner for others. In the future, that will be my mental attitude as well and I will keep it simple. No more fancy dishes that take lots of time and work and make me anxious.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh man oh man! You could very well be describing me in our early days of “just married” entertaining! I would be so worn out by the preparation, I was mentally wishing the dinner over when the first guests arrived!

    I also used to wonder how my mother managed to entertain so magnificently and seemingly without any effort. Through the years, I have noticed she never sits down during the meal, but is constantly flitting between the table and the kitchen. And once everyone has been fed and watered, she sits down to a table of almost comatose satisfied diners.

    In considering what kind of hostess I want to be, I’ve decided that maybe having potlucks are the best; that way, the stress of preparation is shared; and my guests seem to love contributing to the spread anyhow. So, win-win all around!

    I love the 2nd Turkey strategy – I will certainly keep this filed away for the day I actually cook a bird in my kitchen!

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    • My mom entertained easily and confidently but not often. My mother-in-law entertained all the time and more haphazardly; but she didn’t let fiascos upset her and enjoyed herself so much that everybody else did as well. I suppose we all find our way to an entertaining in a way that suits us. I agree with you about potlucks: easy, fun, everybody helps. That is how my step daughter is doing the Thanksgiving dinner we will be enjoying Thursday.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Tim and I just enjoyed our Thanksgiving left-overs. It was only the two of us this year but we had turkey with all the trimmings. I have to confess though that Tim did most of the cooking and everything was wonderful.
    However, I’m getting to an age where I appreciate the camaraderie of the holidays more than the cooking.
    Loved Julia Child’s wise words!

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  16. Haha! This is very familiar, though if we have guests, I tend to leave the cooking to other half, get out of the kitchen, and leave him to it (having, early on, seen his dad cook and not allow anyone into the kitchen while he did it). But if I do have to cook, I’m afraid guests get a weird mix of whatever I’ve managed to find in the ‘fridge and also managed to throw into a frying pan. I’m usually more bothered about the house than the food… we had family over a few weeks ago and as they sat down, I realised that one of the seats was missing a cushion (as the chairs are too hard without them). Or the day the only thing I forgot to dust was the telephone and my sister arrived without her mobile and just HAD to use it…

    Not as bad, though, as my mother who, one day, at a big family dinner (about 30 people) completely forgot the chicken that remained in the fridge…

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    • You are fortunate to have a husband who can and will do the cooking and would prefer to do so by himself. Joel doesn’t like to cook because he finds it impossible to have everything ready at the same time. I also fuss about the house, so I laughed aloud at your mishaps. And I loved the story about your mother letting the chicken languish in the refrigerator. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my foibles.

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  17. Hi Aunt Beulah
    I’m sure you have heard we Aussies love to put another shrimp on the barby ( bar-be-cue), and it is true, our weather here in our region lends to an outdoors lifestyle. Dinner parties are very informal although I like to set up our outdoor table, usually similar to something I have seen in a magazine. Then again it never looks the same, Christmas will be a challenge this year. I am happy to marinade steak, lamb, ribs, peel shrimps ( prawns in fact), stuff chickens, turkey’s you name it. My hubby then cooks it on the barby..
    I whip up a few salads, put out some bread rolls and she all comes together goodo in the end..we all tuck in!!
    Fullproof usually only once I bought fuel rocks for the barby instead of just the heat beads….I nearly blew us all to smithereens, hubby had a mildly burnt face with no eyebrows left and his fringe was singed and his heart was barely hanging in there it had such a fright..
    I am never asked to buy, in fact I must have nothing to do with the barby and I am happy, very happy about that.
    DINNER is mostly barbecued something in our household, we dine outdoors pretty regularly.
    Salads and bread is my forte, and sweets..
    Pav, Cheesecake, Muffins, we get beautiful fruits here so fresh fruit salad is great and easy too..
    We have turkey every Christmas and so far I haven’t had to get the other one..although I once smothered a turkey with butter and it burnt to a crisp, inedible poor buggar in the end..I could not serve it up once, let alone twice.
    Love your story as I always do Aunt Beulah, hope you and Joel are well, lots of love and big hugs from
    Annie in Australia 🌴🌞🌊❤❤❤❤

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