It still amazes me just how much it takes to throw a good party. You have to quite completely throw yourself at it to make it seem as if you did nothing at all — caring deeply to be nonchalant, working all hours to appear effortless, choosing recipes carefully to discreetly impress. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported wryly on a boring English luncheon, saying “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” as if slipping into the voice of my favorite hostess Mrs. Dalloway whispering into the ear of a well-dressed guest nibbling appreciatively at one of her parties. I see the ladies conspiring in unison before a beautiful party spread, “No, no. Indeed, it does not. Now please serve me more of that beautiful trifle, my dear.”
The lamp in the spine lights on French cheese wrapped in paper and globe-shaped green olives you can pop on each of your fingers and eat one by one, on strange combinations like the sweet snap of peas blended with almonds, and on long-loved ones like squash, nutmeg, and heavy cream. It lights on minor collisions of tastes that contrast with one another, like the piqued tartness of citrus against the reassuring simplicity of bread. It lights on champagne citrus punch with white wine, and always on a simple bottle of beer.
More or less, that was my philosophy behind the food I made for my May Day party last weekend: Cilantro-pea spread with almond butter (from Chocolate and Zucchini). “Les cakes,” French savory cakes with black and green olives, parmesan, roblochon, and pancetta (from Epicurious). Squash bread pudding (from Food & Wine). Cucumbers with four types of roasted peppers, three types of citrus, feta, and cumin (from me). Globe grapes with chevre, crushed roasted pistachio, and mint (from me). Champagne citrus punch with Chardonnay and pomegranate (also from me). And lots of beer.
As I throw more parties, I’m essentially learning how to make the food disappear, even before it is eaten. It should recede quietly into the background among the flowers, plates, linens, and candles, offering a sense of something I can only think to call grace. There must have been about 50 people at the party. Tracing the connections we share would look like the New York City subway map, with many intersecting strands of friends and family, including many people I never met before. In introducing myself to one of these strangers, he said, “I never met you, but I heard the food here would be good, so I had to come.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I meant by grace.
In the end, the best part of a party is the noise of the door closing after the last person leaves. It’s so quiet you can actually hear it click, and you hope you are lucky enough to have that one favorite person there with you on the couch to take apart the evening, to avoid the mess with you, and to fall asleep with you. I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway did on those quiet evenings when all the guests had gone. She had married her husband Richard to be practical. Did she wish it was her lost love Peter with her when she closed the door, the man who saw the whole world in her eyes, who was filled with excitement every time he saw her, always saying, so affirmatively, “For there she was. There she was.”