It's my mother's 81st birthday, and I've been elected to host a dinner for 23 family members at my house. Years ago, if presented with this goal, I would be totally freaking out by the day of the event. I would have been working on this night for weeks in advance, and by now have pages of to-do lists prepared and all the food shopping done.
Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe I've just done it often enough that it doesn't seem that hard anymore. Or maybe I am in complete denial. But it's the morning of the dinner and I only just now made a list, and haven't even gone food shopping yet. And...I think Eve (age 12) has just come down with swine flu, which, I must say, has me freaked out more than any dinner party ever could. (Right now the plan is to keep her confined to her room all day and during the evening...but I'll keep you posted.)
I get picked for these family events because I had the foresight to build a special room in our new house that is large enough to fit a table that can seat the whole family. By day, the room's my library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that are already full to bursting. The table is also great for work, and for planning projects or designing landscapes (all the reference books are close at hand and easy to find). My friend Winn built it to my design. There are four separate tables that can be rearranged in different configurations, but most important, they have places underneath where I can rest my feet after a long day of cooking. When the family comes over, the pieces combine into an übertable that has room for everyone, including the kids.
The good news is that my sisters are bringing desserts. I make really great-tasting desserts, but they tend to look awful. I will never be Martha or any of those fancy decorative-dessert people, but I make a totally delicious pie. I think good-looking baking requires much more discipline and patience than I have. I mean, I do have lots of discipline and patience, but it gets used up on other stuff, like work. My sister Heidi is also bringing a salad. She makes good salad.
How will I pull this off? Three secrets:
First, I have the right supplies. I have enough silver and china for a night like this because I've compiled collections from different family members and filled in the gaps with random antiques. It turns out my grandmother on my father's side's silver is the exact match of my uncle on my mother's side's silver, and I was fortunate to inherit both sets (although they have only been polished once in 20 years). My wedding china is a fairly close match to china that was in my grandmother's New York apartment. Of course, I've used paper plates at past gatherings, but it's not every day your mother turns 81, and I know she will appreciate the silver and china. (Having said that, I will probably use paper plates for dessert.) But the right supplies also include things like pretty casserole dishes that can go right from oven to buffet table, and enough glasses for everyone (I'm going to pick up some extras at the supermarket today, actually). You definitely don't need the family china and silver to throw a good dinner party--but at the very least, you need to have enough plates and forks (and chairs) on hand.
Second, I'm going to keep it simple. I'm going to buy some big, hacking filets of wild-caught salmon and some organic steaks (which my husband will cook on the grill--even in the rain, bless him). Roast some potatoes, fresh from my mother's farm, in the oven. And cook up some green beans with toasted almonds, because that's what my mother always did, and it's something that, if I do it for her tonight, she will feel good about. I might chop up some fresh herbs and mix them with some homegrown garlic and organic olive oil as a drip over the fish and steak, but that's about as creative as I'm going to get. I'm going to use nice (and made from recycled paper) disposable napkins. Appetizers? Cheese and olives, and maybe some grapes.
Third and last, I'm going to keep it relaxed. Fortunately, I have the perfect countertop in my kitchen for a buffet line. I'm not going to feel like I must pay all my bills, clean out every closet, and remove every pile of papers from the vicinity before the guests arrive. It's family, after all. I'll put on the music mix I made for last year's Thanksgiving dinner (it lasts 7 hours, and if I put it on shuffle, maybe no one will notice that it's the same one). I'll not hesitate to ask for help, and will accept it when offered, and if something goes wrong, there is only one proper response: laugh.
But time is a-wasting and I've got work to do. It's 8:06 a.m. And even though the party starts at 5:00--my mother likes an early dinner--I suspect she will arrive at around 4:00, since she is habitually early to everything. I'll let you know how it goes.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com.