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His Dinner Parties Gave His Life Shape. Then He Had to Move. So He Invited Back All His Friends--Hoping This Time the Evening Would Be the Perfect One.

May 14, 2000|DAVE GARDETTA | Dave Gardetta last wrote for the magazine about Tae-Bo founder Billy Blanks

Around the time of my first kitchen fire that day--7:30 in the morning, a flaming Trader Joe's kitchen rag disintegrating atop the au jus pot--it hit me that there are two incompatible ways we experience dinner parties.

First, the picture of that night's dinner as I had imagined it for weeks: hundreds of votive candles surrounding the house, open windows revealing a fire on the hearth--a floating dusk mirage to greet arriving guests. Ice-cold champagne poured on the veranda; algebraically arranged crudites on Italian pottery that glowed as if invested with its own inner life; myself in crisp white cotton, chatty, secure in the evening's preparations, a calmness about me suggesting culinary authority, or at least massive insurance coverage.

OK--there are two ways we experience dinner parties. There is, on the one hand, a cosmopolitan event of social exchange and architectural food presentation found inside glossy magazines, a phenomenon so integral to the second half of the American century that it would be hard to imagine (or explain) the lives of a certain class of people without considering the dinner gathering. So much collides there--the attempt to build community out of the anonymous drift of cityscapes; the desire to show off a kind of wealth in an evening's preparation and execution; the wish to enter, through conversation with table mates, those bright warrens of modern experience our cities seem to offer up so readily, yet whose entrances almost always prove hard to find.

This picture is, of course, what a guest might imagine. A host's experience--especially if he is cooking for 39 people, as I was that day--is altogether something else. This is the deranged "I-feel-I'm-combing-my-hair-with-firecrackers" experience that Martin Scorsese captured so well in the "GoodFellas" climax, with Ray Liotta balancing police helicopters, his quadriplegic brother's needs, the cocaine sweats, a coke mule missing her hat and a ziti with meat gravy recipe all at once. Yet those of us who are serial hosts (say, 12 dinners a year or more) still find ourselves easily seduced by the glossy magazines and their dinner-party-theme articles. The counterfeit details alone should tip us off--why, for instance, do the guests in these layouts, like converts awaiting the mother ship's arrival, always button their loose-fit shirts to the throat?

Still, we slip into foggy denial before each dinner party, imagining a perfect evening pulled off with the crisp maneuverings of a panzer attack, forgetting that the police helicopters and demanding coke mules are inevitable. So with half a charred towel wrapped around my blackening hand (the other half on the cat's tail as he caromed out the kitchen door like a NASA experiment), I couldn't help wondering why we serial hosts remain so hellbent on chasing our grail--the perfect dinner party.

The first course, a shellfish soup of shrimp and scallops and floating leeks, would be poured and served by me as I made observations on my home's history, Martha Stewart's IPO, Indonesia's bioengineered-food debate, the possibilities of agriculture harvest on Mars. Three people who had met before would happily rediscover their acquaintance; guests would slide effortlessly from the Champagne to a Riesling; with bossa nova murmuring on the hi-fi, I would find time--after checking on the main course for 39 people--to refuel the fireplace with Sonoma oak before sitting down to a lively but agreeable debate with a Nike-clad advocate for the homeless.

Now, the background on why my cat smoldered in the garden while the arrival of more than three dozen guests was imminent that day: Five years earlier, I had moved into a small two-story cabin that sits on a secluded and wooded hilltop just north of downtown L.A. Built in 1904, the slanting structure was heated by a mail-catalog J.C. Penney wood stove, haunted by deer and coyote, an annual skunk litter and a massive spider infestation. Here was a sepia-toned space that cried out for furniture to be rough-hewn on the spot, which I did, building a pine table for the "dining room" (really, the kitchen's hip). In the half-decade that followed, I slowly filled in the silhouette of dinner party host and cook, graduating from roasted chicken and potatoes to cumin-crusted turbot on yucca puree with wild watercress and a red wine vinaigrette. This year, suddenly, I found myself forced to move out of the cabin and, as a parting measure, decided to invite every guest who had sat at the pine table back for a Last Supper.

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