I‘d like to propose the notion of breakaway entertaining.
I’ve endured plenty of entertaining disasters to gird the foundation for this idea. For instance, a dinner party 10 years ago, where just maybe I was being a little too solicitous.
“You know what you can get me?” said a glaring Dutch dinner guest. “A drink… for you. Seriously.”
Then there was a tree-trimming party where I got the bright idea to use holiday cookie-cutters to make individual raviolis. But with 30 people coming, I really ought to have started the pasta dough sooner than an hour before the party began. Not a fun way to cook or socialize – and more breakdown than breakaway entertaining.
On too many occasions, I’ve labored to turn out the perfectly executed meal – flavors, ingredients, temperature, colors, contrasts, wine pairings, and always with a sinking feeling that it fell short. Once while stressing over a menu, a trusted friend and fearless cook turned to me and said, “It has to taste really bad before people won’t eat it.”
In that statement, an anvil got lifted off my chest, and I found some freedom to relax. I also regained a little perspective over why I’d even bothered to have a dinner party in the first place. (Thank you, Bruce Rosenbaum.)
For me, breakaway entertaining isn’t about settling for less or resolving myself to mediocrity. Rather, entertaining in breakaway style is an invitation to let go of perfection or oppressive ideals sooner in the process as a way to enjoy my guests and the sociability of the moment.
Isn’t this the real reason we invite people into our homes and cook for them?
Cooking shows and magazines are filled with pointers for how to make entertaining less stressful. But breakaway entertaining isn’t about 30-minute tricks and shortcuts. Here’s how I picture it:
• Do as much in advance as possible. Not just prep—everything cooked, baked, reduced, and grilled before guests arrive. Few dishes need to be served piping hot; meat, fish, vegetables, and pasta still taste and look appetizing at room temperature.
• Don’t overload the menu. A one-dish entrée like a casserole or stew, coupled with a hearty green salad and a nice wine works wonders. A simple dessert. And you’re done.
• Ask for help. Maybe that means asking one or two people to come an hour early to help plate the food, make a last-minute grocery run, or just fluff the table. Or maybe it means when guests ask if they can bring something, you say yes and assign them a dish.
• Remember your priorities. Your guest list is more important than your grocery list. Don’t make what’s on the table more important than who’s around it.
Entertaining can and should be about the food, but not to the exclusion of the joy, lightness, and authentic pleasure to be found in one another’s company. Great food lives in the moment. And so does the chance to connect with and enjoy that same moment with friends and family. The flavors or textures of a great dish can never be recalled as clearly as who laughed the hardest 20 years later. By then, everyone’s forgotten that amazing sauce, or that average soufflé.
Since the era of entertaining with servants is long past, let’s officially abandon these impossible ideals about the perfect meal — or how it all is supposed to look. Simple and flavorful is an easy recipe to entertain with, and much more likely to create the desired result: Mutual delight.
Terry Sweeney may be the only writer and editor in Los Angeles with absolutely no affiliation to the entertainment industry. Technology and the Internet pay his bills, but cooking, farmers’ markets, and eating out are what feed his soul. He can be reached at [email protected].
Photo by Ken Surabian.
(Editor’s note: guest posts are always welcome — send your breakaway-related ideas to Eric)