If there’s one activity I’ve missed more than maybe any other thanks to this pandemic — it’s hosting old friends for a delicious meal and hours of great conversation.
Finally, yesterday, we did, and a married couple — both journalists — came up, and with us outdoors, with lots of breeze, it was pure pleasure!
They live in the city but we hadn’t seen them in six months, and a parent had died in June and we had a lot to catch up on.
We baked a salmon and I tried out two new recipes from my Gordon Ramsay cookbook — a green bean/almond salad with honey/mustard dressing and a fantastic cooked lentil salad with roasted zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes.
Plus our favorite champagne and a bottle of sauvignon blanc and two gorgeous creamy cheeses and baguette and chocolate cake…
The weather was perfect and, with the change of seasons, the balcony was still in shade by 4:30 as they left…it had been sunny by 2:00 p.m. just a few weeks ago.
Our friend was a Times colleague of Jose’s who since re-trained as a medical yoga instructor. Her husband is mostly retired but does translation work. We’ve all covered major stories, have lived in different countries, have shared memories of work and our families.
And I’m a total sucker for a beautifully laid table, as the French call it, l’art de la table.
If you’ve ever been to France or Italy especially, you’ve probably enjoyed some gorgeous table settings, even in inexpensive restaurants, thanks to lovely colors in seating, table-tops, floor tile and thoughtful lighting.
The last thing you want is bright glaring overhead light.
The idea is to set a mood, to eat and drink slowly, to enjoy a leisurely meal.
Creating a pretty table isn’t as difficult, scary or expensive as you might assume but it takes a little planning, some digging around for lovely, affordable items and having the confidence to put them all together.
Details matter: iron textiles. Polish metals. Make sure your glassware is clean, not pitted or cracked.
(Those of you with very small children, especially boys, may snicker and leave at this point!)
I’ve been amassing tableware and linens for decades now, and have a good collection of antique china and porcelain, including brown transferware, a sort of poor man’s china popular in the 19th century, which also comes in pink, purple, red and black.
I use mismatched but heavy silver-plate cutlery, found at flea markets, and keep it well-polished.
New tablecloths aren’t always easy to find, and tend to be expensive, but flea markets and consignment shops have plenty of them.
I sometimes just buy a few yards of nice fabric and hem it myself by hand.
Summer breakfast on our New York balcony
For new things, I like: Mothology, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, Wisteria, Horchow, Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs.
But I mostly haunt flea markets in every city and have found some great/affordable/quality old things at antiques fairs, consignment shops and inside group antiques malls.
To create a pretty table, for the holidays — or ongoing — here are some things you might want to collect (or rent):
— linen or cotton napkins
— tall candles aka tapers, maybe mixed with unscented votives
— candlesticks or candle-holders, brass, glass, wood, crystal, silver
— a centerpiece of fruit or flowers or vegetation; (no fragrant flowers or arrangements too tall to see over)
— a couple of handsome serving platters and large serving bowls
— a large fabric tablecloth to soften and add color and texture or a long, wide fabric runner
— clean and well-polished cutlery, (what Americans call flatware)
— matching glassware (one for water, one for wine)
— salt and pepper and butter in their own servers/dishes
— a nice jug for serving cold water
No open containers!
Here are some of my own photos, for inspiration:
Restaurant Alexandre, Montreal. Marble table-top ringed with polished brass and cheerful striped bistro chairs
So sorry I couldn’t get these home safely from Venice!
I found the tablecloth in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The cup and saucer are early 19th century, English
A collection of candlesticks — three from Mexico (pewter) and one silver-plate found at a flea market
Broadside now offers more than 1,700 published posts, many of them offering helpful tips for fellow writers and travelers.
But today’s journalists, many of us now full-time freelance, are working with the only safety nets possible, our own savings. I’m now co-chair of an all-volunteer 13-member board, an organization that offers grants — up to $4,000 within weeks — to qualified writers in financial crisis. Every penny we collect goes directly to those in need. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund!
Dash & Albert make fantastic and well-priced throw rugs in a wide assortment of colors and styles. I love this wool throw rug in tones of lavender, cream, kiwi fruit and raspberry sorbet. 3×5 size $262.00
A watch? Yes really!
Enough with staring at your phone to tell time! Bring back the pleasure of wearing an elegant watch, complete with black crocodile strap. This one is gorgeous, made in arrangement with the British Museum and sold through the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. $129.00
Now, of course, you need a lavender glazed teapot — one of 320 (!) china and metal teapot choices (from the shop we buy all our tableware from), William Ashley in Toronto. Yes, they ship domestically and to the U.S. $186.00 ($140.00 U.S.)
I love to sew and mend. Yes, very retro! If you know someone who does, they might appreciate this charming pin/needle holder, a tiny bird with a grey cotton cushion. Mothology is one of my favorite websites; roam around a bit if you like their esthetic. $22.95
These shawls from the Aran Islands of Ireland are a classic, perfect for travel and a lovely winter accessory — knit in baby alpaca and silk — in a range of neutral tones. $209 (186 euros)
These earrings! Bronze and sea-glass. $60 (Check out their entire site. Some of the most interesting jewelry I’ve seen in years.)
One of New York City’s most elegant menswear shops is Paul Stuart, founded in 1938, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th. Here are some fun socks, in several colors. I like these bright blue ones, possibly terrific spotted between a pair of dark wash denim and polished black loafers. $44.50
Readers of Broadside know how much I love to entertain and to set a beautiful table. We only use linen or cotton napkins and I have a small collection of colorful tablecloths. This company offers exquisite linen napkins, runners and tablecloths in 16 colors, from a soft red to teal to classic white, oyster and black.
You’ll have to trust me on this one. This soap! Crisp, fragrant, creamy, dreamy. Lasts for ages. $42.00 (for three)
Or a mysterious and lovely historic photo…
Fascinated by the American Civil War? Or pinhole photography? The photos made of Civil War re-enactors by our friend, the talented New York photographer Michael Falco, are truly mysterious. Like this one. Contact him for print prices.
In a world where tedious email and torrents of texts is the norm, few items are as deliciously old-school as personalized stationery, a gift I had made for my husband a few years ago. These letterpress cards, handmade in London, (but shipping worldwide), are simple but charming. $57.92 for 25 flat cards.
Eager to raise your writing or blogging game? Want to write a non-fiction book? Break into freelance writing? Ask your sweetie for an hour of my coaching. One man gave this to his delighted wife for her birthday this year. $225/hour.
I love cooking, and cookbooks and folders filled with recipes clipped from everywhere.
I knew Jose, my husband, was a potential keeper when he had the same 1989 cookbook I’ve used for years, and love, written by American ex-pat Patricia Wells, “Bistro Cooking.”
We once had friends over for dinner and the recipe — flambeed chicken with mushrooms — contained the unforgettable phrase “Avert your gaze” for the moment when you ignite the bird. (Or singe your eyelashes and eyebrows.)
Two cookbooks I’m getting to know and enjoy are so utterly different. Even their covers and photos are as unalike — as the British would say — as chalk and cheese.
One, Tamasin’s Weekend Food, is written by Tamasin Day-Lewis, sister of the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. I have no idea where I bought it — probably on a visit home to Canada, where it’s much easier to find books by British publishers than here in New York.
I love everything about this book, from its silver end-papers to the way it’s structured: Friday Night, Saturday morning, Saturday lunch, Tea time, Saturday supper and Sunday lunch.
I love her elegant assumption, (so not true for us), that one has fled the craziness of city life for a weekend spent with kids and dogs in some crumbling 16th century rectory with muddy Wellies in the entryway.
It has a soft red ribbon with which to mark your place.
I love the photos of her — no make-up, lean-limbed, clutching a bunch of carrots in her blue jeans like some Celtic Scarlett O’Hara, long hair askew. Even on the cover, she’s looking down, not smiling and looks tired.
The recipes, each quirky enough to be interesting, are a mix of humble — home-made bread — and vaguely exotic, like pan bagnat., one of my favorite French things to eat.
I recently — on a weeknight even! — when it was rainy and windy and the night air smelled of woodsmoke, tackled her salmon fishcakes with creme fraiche tartare sauce. All of it made from scratch. She insisted on wild salmon — and, indeed it had a wholly different consistency than the filets we usually buy. The tartar sauce, as promised was “moreish, the sort of thing you have to dip your finger into.” Indeed! It was light, creamy, tart and unlike any gummy, nasty bottled tartar sauce I’ve eaten.
The other book, “The barefoot contessa back to basics” is very American, from its cover image of jolly, not-thin Ina Garten looking into the camera with its perky lime-green lettering, spine and end-papers to the photo of her gorgeous country house — a mansion in the Hamptons and super-elegant kitchen. It was a wedding gift to us from friends who, like us, love to entertain guests.
I like that she includes recipes for cocktails, one of which we served at a brunch for friends — mango banana daiquiris.
I like her list of 10 things not to serve at a dinner party, including garlic and raw onions, nuts and two fish courses. (We now make sure to ask every guest if there is any food they loathe, having once made a fantastic salmon dish at which my friend J [sigh] sniffed: “I don’t eat fish.”)
Not the right answer!
The recipes offer a nice range of choices and the color photos are terrific. I’m looking forward to exploring it further even as, (yes, somehow), I try to shed 30+ pounds over the next few months.
When Jose and I started dating, it was a very short time before I put him to the acid test — helping me throw a dinner party.
I love giving dinner parties!
They satisfy many urges: to make people happy, to feed them well, to set a pretty table, (candles, flowers, home-made place cards, linen or cotton napkins, colorful plates, shiny silver), and to create new connections between the people I love.
We had two couples over recently who had never met, but I knew would get along and enjoy one another, (another key to a great dinner party. No random guests!) The two women, even with a 15-year age difference, had both worked in book publishing in Manhattan. Their husbands are quieter, but both have a dry sense of humor. They all love to eat well and everyone loves to laugh.
tomato soup (with a touch of gin!)
salmon with tangerine/butter/soy sauce glaze
chocolate ice cream with my invention, (what I call drunk fruit), served hot on top. (Throw blackberries, raspberries, apple, pear, butter, cloves, cinnamon, maple syrup, lemon or lime juice, scotch and/or Marsala and/or sherry into a heavy pan and boil. Yum!)
The best part was remembering that one of the women had cut a CD a few years ago, a gift from her family. So we all listened to it, and the other woman happily sang along.
We love remembering dinner parties we held a decade ago, like the one that included our minister and his wife (in their 60s), a young photographer and journalist, a Times shooter just back from Afghanistan and my web designer. One couple locked eyes across our table — and married a few years later.
The mix matters!
No boors/bores. No mean jokes. No one smokes. No one drinks to excess. We’re passionate about the news and current affairs. Aggression, whether passive or active, is deeply unwelcome; here’s a sadly accurate blog post about watching three sorts of moribund marriages across the table.
Our friends have generally traveled the world, are educated, read widely and avidly, share enough cultural references we’ve got something in common but enough (civil!) difference of opinion to enjoy talking to one another.
We’ve got it down to a science, helped by the fact I work at home and can easily make time for fussy niceties like ironing a tablecloth and napkins or re-filling the votives. I love settling in with my recipes and cookbooks to plan a meal that’s balanced, interesting and good-looking. Our kitchen is very small, so we do it restaurant-style, with prep work in advance, and plating on the kitchen counter.
I grew up in a family that frequently had friends over for dinner, and Jose’s Mom, as a small-town minister’s wife did often for family and church visitors.
It’s one of the happiest traditions he and I now continue. (I do know that having kids, especially small ones, makes this sort of thing more difficult. We don’t have kids.)
I love throwing dinner parties. If I were rich, and less busy, I’d have one almost every single week.
They combine all the things I love most: creating and setting a pretty table; choosing recipes and shopping for good food and wine; cooking; making people happy — and spending quiet, uninterrupted time face to face with people I care about.
I use a collection of antique and colored plates and glasses, new and old linen napkins, and love to sit by candlelight as we all share stories.
As I write this, I’m sitting at our antique farm table, the one I bought in Montreal in 1985 and still use, layered with a blue and white vintage cotton tablecloth.
We sit on a bench my ex-husband made that stores all our hardware and tools, and top with custom-made cushions covered in lime green cotton with cobalt-blue piping. I turn the ugly glass balcony divider into a wall by throwing a pretty coverlet over it and lining up big, soft cushions covered in a variety of fabrics, from a 1930s floral print I found in a Paris flea market to a great blue and green check I found in Fredericksburg, Texas (where else?)
Instant outdoor restaurant!
My friend Tamara, whose fun cookbook is here, holds dinner parties in the backyard of her Queens, NY apartment. I attended the first one two summers ago and was instantly charmed — strangers pay $40 per person and sit at a motley array of tables, set with mismatched china and cutlery, and eat great food and get to know one another. It’s very un-New York to travel from one borough to another, let alone risk an evening with people you don’t know. But Tamara’s crowd is smart and fun and creative: I’ve met everyone from radio reporters to a dentist to attorneys.
I made a new friend there whose career as a singer of 1920s music is rocketing along; if you’re ever in New York, you’ve got to hear the Hot Sardines and Mme. Bougerol. The woman rocks a washboard! (Turned out her mom, also at that first dinner where we met, went to the same school and camp as I did. Small world.)
This is the whole point of dinner parties — unlikely combinations, the germination of new friendships with people you would never have met elsewhere. We held one, midwinter, about eight years ago that included our Maine-born minister and his wife; a war photographer, a British journalist and his girlfriend; an interior designer. Ages ranged from 30s to 60s. We ate chili and rice and salad — and a man and woman who met there that night have been happily married for years. Ka-ching!
I grew up in a family that loved to entertain, and eat well, so it all feels like a normal and lovely thing to do. We also don’t have kids, and so it’s easier for us than for those who do, especially little kids or lots of kids.
Being invited to someone’s home — as many of us will soon be for the holidays, whether for a party, a meal or a few days — is supposed to be a wonderful thing, a gesture of affection and hospitality. As we all know, it can also lead to sulks, sighs, flounces, shouts or worse.
Herewith a few rules for the host:
Make it fun. Really. Too many people stress themselves out to create Martha Stewart-esque perfection, determined to get it right, or else. I love to entertain in style, with candles and linen napkins, but if my guests aren’t having a good time, there’s not much point. Great music and soft lighting help. Delegate as many tasks as possible and allow plenty of time between the house-cleaning, food shopping, prep and cooking — and your meal or party. A pooped-out host(ess) is no fun!
Offer a wide array of beverage choices. Pellegrino, lots of lime and lemon slices, fresh ice, freshly-squeezed orange juice, V-8 juice and brewed tea make a nice break from sugary sodas or liquor. (Most fruit juices contain way too much sugar for those trying to lose weight.) If you’re serving tea or coffee, it’s great to have half-and-half and skim milk available as well.
Determine food allergies — but set your limits. This is really tricky in an age of vegans, gluten-free adherents and people choosing to follow any number of exotic diets. I once prepared a great salmon dish to have my 25-year-old guests sniff “I don’t eat fish.” Yes, we made them something else, but they haven’t been invited back since.
Be clear about your expectations. If the cat will rush into busy traffic if a door is opened, make that known. If you won’t tolerate anyone else disciplining your children, say so. If the apartment door must be double-bolted upon exiting to be secure, tell your houseguests, preferably a few times.
Write stuff down. If you have guests with you for a while, a written list of tips can’t hurt — where to find the coffee, whether you compost or recycle, the location of the nearest pharmacy or grocery store. Most people hate to snoop or nag, and everyone runs their household a little differently.
Anticipate disaster. If you really don’t want a red wine stain anywhere, don’t serve it. If your best crystal is irreplaceable, don’t put it within anyone’s reach.
Stock your medicine cabinet. No one wants to come unprepared, but emergencies happen — aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, bandages, sanitary supplies, extra razors or toothbrushes are all very much appreciated by needy guests.
Don’t assume your guests know how to (safely) operate any of your technology. Explain clearly anything they might find confusing. This might be anything from your remote to your coffee-maker to your music system.
Let your guests know it’s OK to do their laundry (if it is) and have extra soap on hand. If they’ve been on the road for a while, or have little kids or work out often, it’s a relief to be able to keep up.
Make houseguests truly feel at home. Nice towels, a few new magazines, a box of chocolates, a pitcher of ice water and some pretty fresh flowers in their room will make them feel pampered. If you really don’t want people around, don’t invite them, or limit their stay. They can feel it. Fake or forced hospitality is a misery for everyone.
The London School of Economics has started a new study to link happiness to physical location, time of day and other factors.
If it’s Tuesday, they’ve discovered, people are least happy — and at 8:00 p.m. Saturday night, they’re feeling their best.
Another new study says six things make most people happy:
It turns out that you can be happy — without worrying — as long as you get enough sleep, spend quality time with your family and get home from work at a decent hour.
According to a new study, it’s the simple things in life that make us content: home-cooked meals, trips abroad, a night out once in a while. As for money, well, The Beatles said it “can’t buy me love,” and it doesn’t seem to do much for happiness, either.
On the list citing the keys to contentment, cash didn’t even make the cut.
Experts doing a study for Yeo Valley, a British dairy company, quizzed 4,000 adults on their lifestyles and asked them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 5 — 5 being perpetually happy exercise guru Richard Simmons and 1 being Oscar the Grouch. The result was a formula that includes one night out a week with a partner or friends and a 20-minute commute to work.
According to the study, happy people have four alcoholic drinks a week. They also eat four portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Here are some of the things guaranteed to leave me grinning, no matter what the day:
Road trip! It can be almost anywhere
Travel, preferably overseas. Preferably Paris or Corsica. OK, anywhere in France! Using my passport makes me really happy
Hanging out with a dear friend over a great meal (or cold beer)
Cold beer — Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Grolsch, St. Ambroise, Griffon…
An authoritative G & T made with original recipe Tanqueray
A very good pedicure
Scoring a treasure at a flea market or antique show
Watching the red hawks soaring over our balcony
Setting a pretty table and serving dinner to friends
Getting a book finished and into production
Patting a friendly dog
Looking at gorgeous art and well-made objects in a museum or gallery
Hitting to the outfield
A cuddle with the sweetie
A very ripe peach, mango or strawberry
The smells of dried, sun-warmed pine needles, Oeillet-Mignardise or Hesperides soap; horse; ocean; leather; “First” perfume; old stone
The sounds of a halyard clanging against a sailboat mast; water lapping against rocks; wind in the trees; laughter
Great New York Timesrant today about the total PITA that some spoiled guests have turned into these days. If you’re someone who loves to cook and to entertain, there are few things more annoying and depressing than the hand-flapping dictum “We don’t eat…”, preceding a princess-y list some people now subject their hosts to before deigning to eat a free meal lovingly prepared.
A few months ago, which really put us off our game for a while afterward, we prepared a terrific salmon recipe from Gourmet. “We don’t eat fish,” the 30-ish married couple, she a friend since she was once of my students years earlier, announced as they sat down. Um, well, that’s actually what’s for dinner. Eat more vegetables and bread, slurp down a little extra wine, and deal.
Your host/ess has worked long and hard, happily, to make an evening s/he hopes will be pleasant and convivial. Turning up your nose at those efforts is just plain rude.
We had a slightly older couple over for dinner this weekend for the first time, always a slightly nervous endeavor these days in light of such fussiness. I asked my standard question before planning the menu about their food allergies or really strong food dislikes. “We eat everything,” she said. And, bless ’em, including seconds, they did.