Sunday in the Park
October 7, 2008
I have learned, over the course of my life, one’s performance depends greatly upon one’s audience. You have to be nimble enough to play to the crowd, as they say.
This was certainly true when I was a very young wife (despite the current trend, I think 19 is a young wife) and counted my entire culinary repertoire as Toll House chocolate-chip cookies. Adding the walnuts then was a walk on the wild side with my in- laws. In time, not too much time, I decided I wanted to wow my new family with yet-to-be discovered skills in the kitchen. I made a mean faux beef Wellington by stuffing a loaf of French bread with meatloaf. I made a stroganoff with heavy cream. Sweet heavy cream. I soaked berries in Grand Marnier because, well, why not? My guacamole, a California rite of passage, became a staple at gatherings. I developed certain confidence around my side of the counter. I progressed to full dinner parties.
After my divorce at the ripe age of 26, the only thing I kept was the cookie recipe and the dinner parties. Even working full time with two small children, I took a strange pleasure in polishing silver and ironing linens and picking out the right flowers for the table.
By age 29, when I moved to Park City, the silver and the linens went by the wayside, the cookies stayed and the dinner parties included pot lucks. I learned the real success of an evening wasn’t how I performed in the kitchen but how the night played out at the table. Serving fabulous food mattered little if the guests were all of one mind, or in the case of one memorable holiday of little mind at all. I mixed up the guests and started really enjoying entertaining again. A second marriage provided, initially, some great evenings with a mixed salad of guests. But after time, the meals and the marriage became too difficult to maintain.
I have been single now for longer than my two marriages combined. My dinner parties have become the stuff of "remember when" except, of course, for family meals. Mostly holidays, but the occasional Sunday supper. Pre-grandchildren, this meant a kind of free-flowing, extended evening, when there was no real order to the dining except long, thoughtful conversations about movies and books and, sometimes, politics. My adult children took turns cooking and, despite the fact they existed in their youth mostly on frozen pizzas and Chinese take-out, they became accomplished cooks in their own right.
As the babies arrived, mealtimes changed again. High chairs and sippy cups and hurried bites between non-crying/fussing moments. The actual meal needed to be quick, on time and easy to both digest and cut up into tiny pieces.
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With our youngest family member now the ripe old age of four, we have restored some civility to dining. We can set a table and all eat off of the same dinnerware with the same silverware. The stemware is divided between plastic and glass, but there are linen napkins again all around. I know if I make certain dishes I am not guaranteed a grateful audience, but the odds increase.
This weekend, when I knew the kids and their kids would be staying for Sunday supper, I planned just a bit. Thought about what belonged in the center of the dining-room table. I settled on polished rock slices from my grandparents’ days as rock hounds and tiny sprigs of changing fall leaves. Pasta always brings a smile, so I decided to up the odds and make meatballs to "go with." I haven’t done this in years. And years. I have no earthly idea how I ever made meatballs stick together before. But the seven-year-old helped me pick rosemary and oregano from the garden and was very excited about putting the "green things" in the sauce.
The homegrown tomatoes (from a friend’s home) sautéed down to a simple sauce and I kept frying up the meatballs. I overdid it a bit. Maybe a lot. I made meatballs for many, many, more people than were gathered at that tiny table. But the four-year-old had asked for meatballs and I didn’t want to disappoint. He loved them. Everyone ate well, but he LOVED the misshapen meatballs. In fact, when he was finished and I was bagging up the extras, I asked if he wanted them to take a meatball sandwich to his little "school" the next day. He looked at me with a smirk well beyond his years.
He enunciated for me so slowly and carefully. And I laughed out loud.
It’s been a long time since I felt I could easily judge a dinner party such an unmitigated success.
There are such treasures still at the farmer’s markets around the state. Ripe local peaches and heirloom tomatoes and chilies on a string. Gather up the harvest and throw together some elements of a meal and invite others to bring their talents to the table. This is the time to linger over the linguine, and be mesmerized by the merlot. Time to gather friends and remember the best part of any dinner really isn’t really the food but the food for thought. If high praise follows, like the guests asking to take a piece of the centerpiece home, know that you have orchestrated a four-star success. It isn’t much on the one hand, but it is sometimes more than enough, to highlight an otherwise ordinary Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.