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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