A new year is upon us and with it the expectation of self-improvement. Another three semesters and I’ll be out on my own, expected to impress bosses, parents and potential partners with something other than charm and a slovenly appeal. Unfortunately, college has left me without any ability to entertain. All I can do is eat prepared food, purchase kegs of beer and wait for someone else to clean up after me. Facing actual social occasions, what is a boy to do?
I turn to two kitchen masterminds for advice: Martha Stewart and Julia Child. I would have liked to interview them, but neither was available for comment. Still, they’ve left plenty of wisdom behind.
I’m going to throw the perfect party. They’re going to tell me how.
Let’s start with decorations. Lest I forget, gay men everywhere love crafts. I should be good at this. Any fete of mine should be decked with festive wreaths and prize-worthy bouquets. The “Mean Girls” poster is coming down, and I’m putting up some modernist prints.
Sneaking a look at the Q&A section of Martha’s Web site, I find the following exchange. “What kind of material is the bow that you have shown in the most recent member e-mail newsletter?” Martha Stewart Inc. Crafts Editor Miller Opie responds, “It is made with real fine silver. The silver is so thin that it acts just like thread and is woven like a silk ribbon. But unlike silk ribbons, it can tarnish.” Further down the page, Miller recommends some “special glitter” — made of glass — that can cut you.
On to the food.
I’m looking for some basics, maybe something that can be prepared with only a hot pot. I think about mashed potatoes. They’re good for any occasion. And they look hard to mess up. But Martha’s food editor, Jennifer Herman, has upped the ante: “While fresh mashed potatoes for 26 may seem a bit daunting, it really isn’t.” Oh, thanks, Jennifer. “I myself,” she adds, “just made mashed potatoes for 20 last weekend.” I suspect Jennifer is mocking me.
I scrap the potatoes idea.
What about an hors d’oeuvre? This is it, I think, the essential for a cocktail party, and also a good drunken nosh. I evaluate my hors d’oeuvre making skills: nachos, chili dip, pretzels. Well, okay, I can’t make pretzels. But I can serve them.
“I was going to make a vegetable dip but I want to do something a little fancier,” writes one Martha fan. “Any suggestions?”
The answer comes from Jennifer, who is starting to look like the devil in disguise. “I was all excited to answer this question because I was going to tell you that THE best hors d’oeuvre is our recipe for brown sugar gravlax. Unfortunately, it takes 3 days of curing in the refrigerator to make.” I run screaming from the Martha Stewart Web queendom. What the hell is a brown sugar gravlax?
It’s Julia’s turn.
As a person, Julia seems more up to my speed. After all, she quipped that her recipe for well-being was “red meat and gin.” Now there’s a party concept worth trying. I open up Julia’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I fear the French might push toward the fancy, but there in the introduction is a beacon of hope. “Train yourself to use your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments.” I sigh, a sigh of love. Julia also recommends training yourself to handle hot things. Putting two and two together, I wonder if Jennifer Herman can mash potatoes for 20 with her bare hands.
“Like most cooks,” writes Julia, “I tot up the limitations first and then look at the remaining possibilities.” My limitations are great. I’m wondering if I could make a brown sugar gravlax on my George Foreman grill. I pop open a beer and lean against the counter to relax.
Beer! What do these ladies say about beer? As I see it, a good ale is a staple for life. Julia recommends beer as part of picnics and with cold meats. In a scene cut from her most recent TV series, she even urged Jacques Pepin to have one, implying that it went better with sandwiches than wine does. In Martha Stewart’s book on entertaining — the self-described “most sumptuous book on entertaining ever published” — beer gets a single, unenthusiastic reference.
That does it. A party with Martha would be about as cheery as a Ph.D. thesis in evil food mismanagement. Julia, on the other hand, managed to imbue the world of fine cuisine with some crafty flexibility. And she did it all without going to jail.
I drink my beer and turn the pages of Julia’s cookbooks, soaking up phrases like “perfectly satisfactory alternative” and “budget cuts of lamb.” She tells me how to make a chicken pate that won’t melt or spoil, that can look nice on a platter for hours at a time. She tells me how to make salads that can comprise any course. She’s not above toast.
“If you do not find the right quality for a dish you had planned on,” Julia writes in “The Way to Cook,” “change gears, and pick another recipe.” There are, of course, plenty to choose from. I can see my party now. Good beer, Julia’s cheese fondue, berry trifle, fruit on sticks. I can whip this stuff up in 15 minutes. My hands have been in the fruit, but no one saw me do it.
Bon appetit, indeed. n