EACH OF THESE columns that I write is about one thing that I’ve learned in the last year, or they have been, at least, since I posted the first one three weeks ago on my birthday. Much harder than realizing I can’t afford to live in an expensive hotel, that I don’t have to reply to everything, and that, to paraphrase war correspondent and erstwhile Hemingway wife Martha Gellhorn, life is short but the days are very long indeed, is the sad fact that being everywhere all the time is an effective way to lose sight of where exactly one is headed. I was feeling rather ingenious a few months ago when I decided to stop meeting people for “drinks,” every night, which is really, taken in volume, just a good way to be “always” drunk. Rather, I decided, I would say no to the vast majority of invitations, and on a very, very small scale, begin entertaining at home.
This new streak bubbled along with some success, and myriad experiments with infused cocktails, until last Friday, when I found myself monitoring the terrifying situation of two ducks roasting in my oven at very high heat for hours, during a heat wave, and intermittently setting off the fire alarm. Dinner, when it was finally on the table, was sublime, and my guests, a painter who realized her true calling was to become a jewelry designer while buying stones in India, an extremely savvy up-and-coming novelist, and an old friend who used to drive me around in his Ferrari for long, philosophical discussions before he decamped to Buenos Aires, which is exactly what I would have done, seemed delighted and lingered well into the evening. I especially enjoy it when the guests have little to nothing in common, at least on a superficial level, and cannot talk about work in great detail. We discovered, however, that half our party shared a birthday, an observation that I doubt would have emerged had we stuck to industry talk all night.
Occasionally there are parties that are just proper crowded cocktail parties, the last of which led an icon of publishing to send his regrets, well, regretfully: “What a sexy guestlist though. If it were the 70s, it would have been a spectacular orgy.” There was also the Cinco de Mayo dinner, and the one earlier this week, devoted to matters of the heart and aided enormously by my new sixteen-inch tall Italianate candelabras and a towering vase of delphiniums. Something about only having a partial view can be exceedingly beguiling. Cooking for more than six, though, has its particular challenges, unless you can come up with an enormous pot and a signature dish. For one, it requires a lot of food, which must all be prepared at once. I never had any interest in being married until a few months ago when I thought how nice it would be if someone were there to answer the door and mix drinks; a real teammate beyond another set of hands: William Powell in My Man Godfrey, or William Powell in The Thin Man, or just William Powell.
For the time being, I’m the jack-of-all-trades, and so I return to a treasured shelf of domestic doyennes for guidance across the years on how to manage. There’s Madame Dariaux’s Entertaining with Elegance, which lists things alphabetically, advice on everything from bachelors to the correct ratio of staff to guests, and Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food, which taught me how to roast and which I turn to nearly every night for the basics. A few others fall in and out of favor depending on the mood and the season and the evening, including Tamasin Day-Lewis’ Supper for a Song, which I consider indispensable for its practicalities and sheer effervescence (she once wrote an essay on the pleasures of champagne that I tore out of the magazine and re-read periodically, it was so refreshing and human and transporting), and Escoffier’s timeless culinary handbook, and then there is Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s My Dinner Party Book.
Margaret was a remarkable debutante who married well a few times and, as some English readers of a certain age may have already noted, was embroiled in a sensational sex scandal that basically boils down to some Polaroids of her, recognizable only by her trademark pearls and quite clearly having a good time, being offered as proof of her villainy in the Duke’s divorce case. The best part, of course, being that the only camera of its kind in England at that time was said to have been on loan to the Ministry of Defence. But that’s all gossip. The fact is, Margaret sounds immensely fun, and when I read that she had penned an entertaining guide called My Dinner Party Book, I had to track it down immediately. To be honest, I don’t recall much about it, although I look at the spine at least once a day, and always when I’m need of inspiration. My favorite recollection, if I remember correctly, is that she was quite fond of a restaurant in her apartment building. I love it for the point: that it’s not about the food, or the table setting, or the cocktails, but rather the spirit of the gathering. Fun people give fun parties, and aren’t afraid to be daring once in a while, even if it means ordering in the main course, as I recently did.
I’m having half a dozen friends for dinner on Friday, and one is coming early to pass the time in only that way that your very best friends can –– you just want them around while life is happening –– and another has promised to come then, too, and although I usually say drinks at seven, dinner at eight, I can imagine everyone arriving at 6:15, which is fine by me. What will I make? I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ll have to consult a guide or two.