New York Press' Gut Instinct: (Dinner) Party of Five

Good advice, all around.

Every so often, I’ll glimpse an episode of Mad Men and think, “Heavens, I would’ve made a handsome, happy 1960s housewife!” As a kept lady, I’d spend my days wandering around in bright, loose-fitting frocks, puffing unfiltered cigarettes (“Extra tar for an extra-healthy baby!”) and popping Valium as if it were movie-theater popcorn. “Be a dear and make mommy a drink—and don’t skimp on the gin,” I’d tell my children while, with a functional drunk’s practiced precision, I’d plan the day’s highlight: the dinner party.

Happy days! While preparing a meal for four, six or eight may cause some cooks to erupt in cold sweats, I relish the task—even more than hypothetically fantasizing about cross-dressing. Or going out to dinner with friends.Which might be this article’s most salient, lucid point. At its core, I have no qualms with restaurant dining. Who doesn’t like being waited on hand and foot and fed delicious foodstuffs? Just like masturbation, though, dining is best done alone.

I know, I know: I’m missing camaraderie and conversation, and other words that begin with c. But see, dining with friends always ends as badly as a stroll through a minefield.Think about it:You just had a lovely meal, with impeccable service and food, and enough alcohol to facilitate human interaction.This experience ain’t cheap, underscored by the bill’s arrival. Initially, everyone avoids eyeballing the tab, as if it were a midget leper or a small, blinding sun. Eventually, a brave soul—usually the meal’s alpha male, who typically possesses the math skills of a boulder —will glance at the invoice and say something terrible, like, “Why don’t we split this evenly?” Have more unjust words ever been spoken? An even-steven split is patently unfair.

Someone always glugged an extra drink, or ordered well-aged steak instead of the inexpensive vegetarian entrée. Diners will always pay more, or less, and one unlucky soul will hold the bill and a stack of crumpled greenbacks and proclaim, “I think we’re short 10 dollars for tip.” It leaves a beautiful evening with a bitter finish.

To avoid this, one magnanimous soul may cover the bill. Not me: I can’t sell enough plasma to express such largesse— my friends’ tastes, if I may, are too rich for my blood. Instead I turn to the dinner party. It’s not something to fear, like nationalized health care. The meal’s success is predicated on two very simple tenets: divide the labor, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.

I like to divide Team Dinner Party into two teams. The first will handle cooking the food. I like a menu that’s heavy on vast heaps of foods that can be prepared ahead of guests’ arrival, such as soups, stews, salads, roast meats and baked pastas. Do you want to slave over the stove when company floods through the front door, bearing gifts of delicious, delicious booze?

(Important point! Instruct your guests on what beverage to bring. You don’t want to be stuck with five bottles of Yellow Tail and a carafe of Carlo Rossi. You will drink it. You will regret it.)

The second part of Team Dinner Party is what I like to call “look and feel.” It entails tasking artistic types to set a table and the mood—perhaps with candles! This is not my strong suit. If it were up to me, I’d set the table with Taco Bell sporks and shreds of my ancient ironic T-shirts (perhaps WORLD’S LARGEST SOURCE OF NATURAL GAS?) as napkins. Luckily, my girlfriend went to art school. She puts her $80,000 education to good use in decorating the table in a novel and appealing fashion.

“I have a complete set of wildlife-themed dinnerware,” she told me excitedly one evening while I was furiously breading and frying up eggplant parm (a dinner party crowd-pleaser). She displayed a bowl featuring a bald eagle. Even more endangered, however, was my patience. “Hon,” I said, my hands encased in floury goo, “the look-and-feel team has no place in the kitchen.” She slunk off, grabbing a carved wooden owl to serve as the centerpiece.

Unexpected touches like the owl really wow guests, serving as conversation starters before alcohol kicks in. And as long as there’s enough booze, any dinner party will be a success. It’s not tough. Everyone arrives with low expectations. Serve anything more enticing than prison gruel, and you’ll be showered with enough compliments to require a raincoat. No one’s coming to dinner to post a poor Yelp review. Or, sadly, wash the dishes. Consider it the cost of not splitting a bill.

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