“I’m having a dinner party.”
I got this text from my mate last week. They just had a performance for the release of their new EP in Bed Stuy, flew home to Chicago for a few days, and wanted to have a dinner party when they got back.
They got back today.
They had no groceries.
“Nvm, it’s a potluck now.”
I was tasked with bringing a dessert. I also rarely have great groceries. I’m notorious in my office for walking around with a bucket of raw carrots. But at some point, shortly after moving into my apartment last year, I’d at least bought (white) sugar and flour because those seemed like things you should have in a home.
What to bring to a dinner party.
I thought about the evening before, my Saturday evening, which was also spent at a dinner party. This one thrown by a writing mentor of mine who I’d met at Princeton when I was 18. She precepted an American Studies course I was in with my now ex. We read Tommy Orange’s There There. The Bluest Eye. The Great Gatsby. When I was in high school, in Kansas, my Literature teacher who stoked my love of writing early and young, threw a “dinner party” for us at the end of our Gatsby unit. We had to stay in character, pretending to be in a New York apartment in the commons of a big suburban high school with letterman jackets and carpeted walls.
You’re not in Kansas, anymore.
My mentor lives in Brooklyn, in this beautiful apartment with crown molding and books and books and books. I arrived to a cluster of guests in the kitchen standing around sipping wine while she scurried around, cooking between bodies, seasoning around elbows and hips. The second each new person entered, we all looked toward the door and she made sure they had a glass and wine and that nothing burned all at the same time.
I watched her, so comfortable in her home, so loving of and over the friends she’d invited into it. She cooked from a recipe book propped open on a holder on the counter. Sort of measured, in pinches and sprinkles. With intuition.
And finally, we sat to eat over candelabras and heady conversations about literature and spirituality and the future of art over beef bourguignon and cabbage and sweet potatoes.
“You came out in freezing weather,” she said, “You deserve a hearty meal.” At one point, she read an excerpt from The Beast in the Jungle. I want all of my dessert courses with Henry James now. She has a wonderful way of making conversations get deep. Had each of us going around telling stories of grandparents and their unfulfilled wishes. Sent me into a deep personal reflection on the women on my Mother’s side.
So, standing in my kitchen this morning, thinking “What to bring to a dinner party.”
I thought of my mentor. Of her ease. Her open recipe book. And instead of searching online for something easy, or running over to Trader Joe’s for a kitschy pastry with AI-generated flavors, I reached for a physical recipe book that belonged to my late Great Aunt. A church recipe book with a bizarre number of things with Jello and scriptures between each section. She used to babysit me when I was three. Would take me to the playground. She had one boyfriend for as long as I knew her.
“Hailey Denise!” he would exclaim every time I entered the kitchen.
I flipped open her recipe book in mine. Settled on the only thing I had (almost) all the ingredients for. “Chocolate chews” or something like that. It called for brown sugar. I used white. Called for vanilla. I texted this chef I’ve been avoidantly seeing.
“Can I sub honey for vanilla?” I asked.
I subbed honey for vanilla. He texted me back three hours later telling me I could not.
But, at the dinner party, way, way further north in Manhattan than I typically venture, a friend of my mate said “What did you flavor this with? Almond extract?”
This Dinner Party, potluck, gathering, was much different. Much younger. We all stood around my mate’s island holding our plates and picking out of the disjointed containers we’d all brought. A potluck is strangely more vulnerable. You can see, in real time, what people think of your offering. I tried not to look at my ”chews” as I reassured another that the filo dough on her pie was not soggy.
I took the train back with a few others. I was at my Saturday Dinner Party until 2 am and did not want to repeat that on a work night. And still, I got home around midnight. Dilly-dallied. Was again hungry after the commute and a substantive walk thanks to the train variations on weekends and my refusal to take the J. Settled for some nibbles from a block of cheese.
And suddenly I thought of my Great Aunt again. The way she would slice up some cheese from a block just like this one and put it on some crackers for me. I think I had cheese and crackers for the first time of my sentient life by her hand. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her would be the last. A dinner here, a dinner there, then a conversation by a hospital bed not knowing whether or not you should look at the leg peeking out from the blanket. Her boyfriend passed soon after she did. I don’t know if I’d ever seen him anywhere but his church or her kitchen.
I wish I could have one more dinner at her house.
Hear “Hailey Denise,” one more time as I entered her beautiful, chaotic dining room.
You can’t go back. You can’t go back. But you can open up your home and make dinner. Give people the type of experience that makes them forget it will soon be a memory.
Dinner Party at my place. Next weekend. I’ll cook as many things from that book as I can and what I don’t have, I’ll ask someone else to bring.