My mother loved her dinner parties. She hosted them regularly but alas, since she was an excellent cook and hostess, she wasn't invited back that often - bad for her but wonderful for my sister, brother and me as we reaped the rewards at our own dinner party before the guests arrived by sampling every delicacy my mother concocted... and she had talent. But we had the most fun with the pre, during and post party activities.
First there was the shopping: all three of us would accompany mom to the grocery store in her hair rollers and kerchief and distract her from her necessary preparations by conning her into buying us mallomars and TV dinners - anything to leave her alone while she shopped for god's sake! Then there was the cleaning: when my mother was having company, you couldn't live in the house - anywhere. All of us, including my father, weren't permitted to walk into the living room that she just vacuumed for the third time that day, let alone sit on a couch. It's a wonder that she had as many dinner parties as she had since the drill was always the same: she would literally kick my father out of every room and he would whine back that it was his house after all and where was he supposed to read his paper? Added to that mix was my brother who took every opportunity to rile my mother up even more just for the hell of it by touching the table she just set or the flowers she arranged or worse still, anything on the stove because my brother had an uncanny ability to then make those things drop... and break... and just cause total chaos, much to the delight of my sister and me. He'd act up, we'd laugh and he'd get hit - it was a tradition, a ritual, a routine that never wavered and he'd never learn. And Mindy and I, well, we would just survey all of mom's dinner party touches, clucking about the tall colored tapers and the little round flat chocolate mints that were arranged in concentric circles on the candy dish at every party while making mental notes to do the exact same thing when we grew up!
Ah, when the doorbell rang and my mother screamed at us in hushed whispers to "get up those stairs right now," then the fun really began. Somewhere after the first course, all three of us would tiptoe out of our rooms to sit on the steps in our center hall colonial, while we snickered, whispered and giggled at the adults making total fools of themselves as they ate and ate and drank and drank. And lo and behold, during those few hours, my mom's pre-party mania would miraculously slip away and she would actually excuse Lillian for staining her perfectly pressed linen tablecloth with beef stroganoff and ignore the red wine stain on the beige rug that she would have to "afta" first thing Sunday or fluff off the cigarette burn on her upholstered chair because in those days everyone smoked. Even when my brother would be discovered sneaking into the kitchen to grab a piece of bread, the dinner party spirit would reign supreme and once his presence was acknowledged, we were all invited downstairs for a little while to chat with Jackie and Vinny and pick on the leftovers, even take dessert upstairs. And with all the fussing and prepping and cooking and serving, the dinner party was a declared success, my mom the Martha Stewart of the 70's. Best of all, we kids didn't have to lift a finger to clean up a mess that we got to enjoy and didn't make!
In later years, I had lots of dinner parties too and alas, like my mother, didn't get a lot of invitations in return. Some of my guests had the nerve to scold me for entertaining them so generously, telling me not to expect anything like what I had done when I came to their house for dinner, maybe 6 to 12 months later. The few invitations I received in return even included my kids which certainly changed the rules of the game, and honestly, some of the fun was gone. The tide had definitely turned and it's obviously still not returned, even in a recession! Maybe the pre and post dinner party mania is just too much to bear in an already stressful world but for me, it's still the best game in town: planning the menu and experimenting with new recipes is fun, the spirit festive, there's a reason to clean the house and the appreciation from your guests is uplifting, so I continue to plan, prepare and host dinner parties. It's really not so bad if you like the people you're entertaining and a little help from the husband/wife/kids goes a long way so try it and you may like it. I'll help too with these stories and advice, direction, recipes - just ask Val.
Marcella's tagliatelle bolognese has made its appearance as a first course at many of my dinner parties and I now happily provide the recipe. Here's a menu for one of my classic dinner parties in which it was served, with the corresponding recipes as well. A long story like this deserves a reward!
Using an earthenware pot like Le Crueset or copper dutch oven (which I usually use), melt together the butter and olive oil. Add in the onion and sautee until translucent and slightly golden.
Add the celery and carrot and cook for a few minutes till softened.
Add the ground beef and salt, crumble with a wooden fork and cook until the meat has lost its rawness. Put in the wine and turn up the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is evaporated.
Turn heat down to medium and add the milk and nutmeg, cooking till milk is evaporated.
Puree the tomatoes and add to the pot. Like my grandmother, I puree my tomatoes with a food mill. Because the seeds and skin can cause the sauce to be bitter, she believed in using the food mill instead of the blender to puree the tomatoes, and she was right.
When the sauce start to bubble, turn the heat down and simmer slowly. Cook uncovered for 3-1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
Season if needed and toss with pasta to serve.