Off the Eaten Path
Because It Tests Us... Why We Love Lake at Winter
The Lost Art of Summer
Less Is... Impossible: One Man's Quest to be like Mies
"It'll be easy," my partner Gary said just a few weeks after we had officially moved to Saugatuck. "It's just a little dinner party."
I looked around. We still had unpacked boxes, the dog was eating out of a McCoy pot, and we'd lived off frozen pizza and soup for days.
"How? And for whom?" I asked increduously. "We don't know anyone, except the trash guy. And he only waves because you honk and blow kisses."
But I was wrong. I had forgotten that Gary made friends more quickly than a senile heiress. I had forgotten, already used to being a writer alone in the woods, that he lived to entertain. He was Martha Stewart. I was a better-dressed Oscar Madison.
"I've met some great people already," he said. "Don't look at me like that. It'll be fine. Entertaining comes naturally."
To you, I thought silently. Why am I always part of this package deal, like Kate Jackson with the Angels? I always got the feeling she wanted to solve the mystery in the first 30 seconds, but never was allowed to present her case. So I didn't press it either. Instead, I gave voice to the anxiety already building inside me. "This is our first impression to the community," I said. "It has to be perfect. We won't be invited anywhere ever again, if it's not. I can't have people judging us the rest of our lives in a new town because we screwed up dinner and had the wrong centerpiece. This party will follow us to our graves."
The weight of all this finally hit Gary. Or so I thought. His face grew serious and tight, like Martha's does when she ties a duck with rosemary-infused twine or is firing a kiln to make her own dishes.
"We just need a theme," he said.
All of our parties no matter how intimate had themes. We had never been Velveeta-on-Ritz-type hosts, even for unannounced drop-bys. Our holiday parties, for instance, had themes, like White Winter Wonderland or Gingerbread Castle. We held a "Frost & Berries," holiday party, meaning everything food, decor, the table, drinks had to be frosty and berry-licious. We served icy cranberry punch out of an icy antique cut-glass bowl, we had tuxedoed waiters with frosty hair, we transformed pine roping into old-fashioned garland by stringing it with popcorn, cranberries and twinkling frosted lights. But the piece-de-resistance was a flocked, berry-bedecked Christmas tree that Gary hung upside down over the dining room table, ala The Poseidon Adventure. People actually gasped.
Even our Super Bowl parties had themes, much to the chagrin of my old fraternity brothers. "What does Cheer Squad 2004' have to do with the big game?" they would ask. But it gave Gary endless opportunities to decorate our mantle and big-screen with pom-poms, serve popcorn out of megaphones and choreograph his own halftime show.
While I worriedly spent days lamenting lost friends we'd yet to meet and bandying about party themes, ultimately submarining one after another like I do my ideas for future novels or magazine articles ("This one is crap! Why am I such an idiot!), Gary relished the idea of transporting his entertainment prowess to a new locale.
"An idea will come," he said.
I spent days agonizing over the menu, one of the few things I felt I could help do, finally deciding on something we always did well, in order to minimize the potential for disaster: Garlic-rubbed standing rib roast with twice-baked potatoes and apple turnovers. I then scoured the area for the best produce stands, the best butcher, the best orchard.
And then late one night, as I watched Gary handwipe our wood floors, he looked up and around our new, knotty pine cottage, and said, "Let's just go simple. Let's have the anti-party. This house calls for an unpretentious party. Let's go retro."
I nodded, trying to smile, screaming inside, knowing simple to Gary was like casual Friday to Karl Lagerfeld. And so, in a flurry, Gary became Martha. Except with way more body hair. He began picking red twig dogwood branches and making dramatic arrangements in baskets. He filled McCoy pottery with winter berries, and vases with cranberries or lake stones, and floated votives. He created a canopy of pine boughs and bittersweet that grew naturally in our woods over the dining room table.
Just something simple.
But he wasn't done.
We spent $200 on new place settings and glasses at Target, because the dishes we had "weren't simple enough." We had our hair styled, then drove to Grand Rapids to buy new outfits at Banana Republic.
For Gary, this was simple. And, of course, it seemed to be working out beautifully. Just as he had said it would.
But when we walked into the grocery with our our list in hand, my original menu suddenly seemed too big for all this exceedingly well-planned simplicity. And I felt this overwhelming needed to contribute something, anything, to our party.
That's when it hit me in the produce aisle, to be exact an idea that was so grand in its simplicity and yet so perfect for our theme. "Stuffed green peppers!" I screamed. "They're simple. They're retro. They're fun."
Gary twitched. He started to protest, but my enthusiasm won him over.
So the next day we welcomed our out-of-town guests and new friends, uncorked a few bottles of lovely cabernet from the Fenn Valley Winery that sat just a couple of miles down our street, and it wasn't until I noticed someone couldn't cut through their green pepper, that I thought, "Saugatuck, we have a problem." And we did. I realized, too late, I had never cooked this dish. My mom had. And it had looked so easy. It never dawned on me to trouble-shoot the recipe.
So I handed out even sharper knives, and when another guest finally got the damn thing open, we watched a pool of water cascade from the middle. The rice was undercooked, the meat raw, the peppers like concrete.
Dinner was a disaster.
Until one of our new friends laughed and shared the time his award-winning souffle fell when everyone clapped at its arrival. And someone else told us how they forgot to turn on the oven at Thanksgiving. And someone else recalled how they had used dry-rub BBQ powder instead of cinnamon in a dessert, causing all the guests to aspirate their coffee.
While everyone laughed and shared, I realized we all occasionally wilt under the pressure to be perfect. Life is so not perfect. That's why we have friends. That's why we love to be entertained. So we can just be for a little while.
I looked around and smiled at our guests. But not because I had learned this life lesson. No, I smiled because I knew we already had a chance to redeem ourselves. We already had this year's holiday party theme picked "Blue Ice Palace" and, most importantly, we had nearly a year to plan it, a year to buy blue lights and faux ice blocks and blue penguins. And play "Blue Christmas" over and over and over.
That party, I knew, would be perfection.