by John Ryan
For a long time all my friends were artists, and every so often one of them would get a show. This always meant that he or she would drop out of sight for a couple months and work like crazy till the opening. Often the painter would hang wet work on the walls five minutes before the opening. Then, with the last painting hung, the tense/anxious/exhausted painter would start drinking excessive quantities of wine.
I was always a little baffled by this cycle—not the drinking part, I could understand that perfectly, but the manic need to create new work part. Why not show work from the past? Why did every piece have to be new?
Sure, in one sense I understood: Work from the past was the same old thing. And who wants to trot out the same old thing for the world to see? But what they didn't understand was that the same old thing was brand new to everybody else.
What strikes me now is their insanely foolish optimism. What else can you call it when someone puts so much faith in work they haven't even created yet?
All this comes to mind because we're well into entertaining season and having people to dinner is very much like having a show or giving a recital. Cooks even have their own variety of foolish optimism. It's called The Untried Recipe.
I speak from experience here. The way my repertoire can change when I decide to have someone over is nothing short of a miracle. One minute my collection of recipes is fine. But once my invitation is accepted, poof, there is something fatally wrong with every single one of them. (The same thing happens with clothes: the instant I pay for plane tickets, everything I own is suddenly hopelessly shabby.)
I have to admit though, dinner parties are a good excuse for trying something new. Entertaining is the culinary equivalent of the season-ticket principle: without paid-for tickets hanging over my head, I'd probably watch TV all year. Season tickets get me out of my routine.
But an untried recipe creates so much anxiety that I usually end up working way too hard. The result is that once dinner is on the table I glom onto a nice bottle of wine like a long lost friend.
So I've developed a champagne approach to entertaining. You see, I like champagne even when it's not great champagne. It's part of everyday life; my wife and I have a bottle every couple of weeks, usually on Sunday morning. At those times we're happy with an inexpensive sparkling wine. But when a friend comes over we look forward to a nicer bottle. Ditto for food. For us I'll use chicken or pork; for guests, I'll buy veal.
When I use this approach with cooking, I enjoy the event. I know what I'm doing. Shopping is routine. I don't have to study a recipe and I don't have to buy any new appliances or pans—I get to hang on the peace of mind that comes with serving the same old thing, but dinner is special enough that I look forward to it.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created October 1999
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