Novelist Ann Hood recalls a time when chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce and cherries jubilee were the height of sophistication and wonders when food became more about trendiness than glamour.
When I was a child, dinner parties seemed to belong to some vague and distant grown-up world where women wore shiny dresses with tight bodices and full skirts, bright lipstick and strings of perfect pearls. The men, I imagined, wore ties and wing tips. They drank fancy cocktails and ate prime rib on heavy china. This image came from Saturday afternoon movies and glossy magazines, pictures of an adult world I could only peek into.
Now that I’m a grown-up, my dinner parties look nothing like the ones I used to imagine. My plates are colorful earthenware. The drink of choice is wine—red or white. No one is very dressed up. And the food is always an experiment. I give my guests chimichurri sauce, ginger martinis, Israeli couscous, green-chile tamales, paella. When I go to dinner parties, I’m served tandoori chicken, Moroccan tagines and spaghetti—carbonara, puttanesca or arrabbiata. I’m served family-style, with make-your-own pizzas or tacos.
That is, until last Saturday night.
Last Saturday night, my husband and I drove to a house in a cul-de-sac. We stepped into a sunken living room. We were offered a drink. "White wine," I said. "Tom Collins," one of the other women said. "Whiskey sour," said another. "Martini. Up. Extra olives," said a third. The host, a man of a certain age, dipped into an alcove where a complete bar awaited him, and he proceeded to shake, stir, chill, garnish and—yawn—pour (that would be my white wine). The Tom Collins sat pretty and pink in a tall glass with a maraschino cherry floating happily inside. The whiskey sour had froth. Three olives bobbed in the martini.
We sat down to nibble Ritz crackers and a log of cheddar cheese rolled in chopped walnuts. A silver tray of shrimp and cocktail sauce was passed around. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have dinner parties, but if they had, this is what they would have been like. I started to grow nostalgic for something I’ d never experienced. Then we were called in to the dining room for dinner.
A white tablecloth. Silver candlesticks with white candles already lit. The table set with real china: ivory with a border of pink flowers and a silver band around the edges. On top of each dinner plate sat a fluted clear salad plate, the first course already served and waiting. I thought, fleetingly, of my too-heavy wooden salad bowl filled with baby lettuce and shaved Parmesan and maybe fennel. Or dried cranberries. This salad was iceberg lettuce, one wedge of tomato and one perfect circle of cucumber, all of it coated with Good Seasons salad dressing, the one you mix in its own cruet.
I would recognize it anywhere, that dressing. Its speckles of red and black, its greasy sheen. In college, my roommates and I played grown-up by cooking dinner for our boyfriends. We marinated London broil in that same salad dressing and served it with Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat. For dessert, we gave them ice cream with canned cherries dumped on top and doused with Grand Marnier that we lit. Cherries jubilee! Our dessert was flambé! And so were we, college kids all on fire, eating this fancy dinner just as a prelude to sex. On those Saturday nights, we traded in our blue jeans for dresses, and wore lip gloss and blush. We were not yet sure what real adults did at dinner parties, but we felt our way, playing Frank Sinatra records and struggling for mature conversation around the table. I hadn’t thought of those college dinner parties in years, but this dinner party tonight was doing funny things to me. It was making me wistful. It was making me remember how I used to love kissing a boy named David all night after that cherries jubilee.
Main course. The host appeared with a large platter that matched the rest of the china—I saw the silver edge peeking out from beneath a chateaubriand ringed with asparagus cooked so thoroughly they appeared to be asleep, small new potatoes and ridged discs of bright-orange carrots. It was so beautiful, I had the urge to cry, though I’m not certain why. "How do you like your meat?" the host asked me, hovering beside me with that gorgeous platter of food. I wanted to take it from him and eat it all. But of course I didn’t . I said, "Rare," and he placed two perfectly cooked rare slices on my dinner plate along with the vegetables and—what was this the hostess was handing me in a sterling silver gravy boat? I took it from her, looked inside and found béarnaise sauce, thick and yellow and flecked with whatever béarnaise sauce is flecked with.
My wineglass was filled with red wine. My dinner was before me. I gazed at it and was struck by a sense of familiarity so strong I couldn’t put my knife and fork to the meat. I was paralyzed by memory. I had had this dinner, this very dinner—chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce and asparagus and new potatoes and carrots—many times before. But when? Where?
Then I remembered. This was the exact dinner we used to serve on transcontinental flights in first class on TWA in 1978 when I was a flight attendant. Yes. I would place the white linen napkins on the tray tables, making sure the red TWA logo was in the lower right-hand corner, facing the passenger. I would wheel my dinner cart into an aisle and carve the chateaubriand in front of the entire first class. It was air travel as theater. And for me, a 21-year-old from a small town in Rhode Island, it was the height of sophistication. Aha! I thought, standing at the front of that first-class cabin gazing at the passengers. This is what the adult world looks like, what they eat, how they travel. It was as shiny and beautiful as I had imagined when I was a little girl.
Even in coach, we sometimes ended the meal service with an after-dinner drink cart. Liqueurs arranged on top of those white linen napkins, red TWA logo facing out, miniature bottles of amaretto, Drambuie, Grand Marnier, Kahlúa, B&B, all standing there beside small after-dinner drink glasses. In flight attendant training we had had to pass a test in which we correctly identified all of those liqueurs without their labels, which, we were told, fell off when they got wet. With my eyes closed I could recognize the slender triangle of Galliano, the squat amaretto, the Frangelico monk.
We put a piece of dry ice on that cart, sprinkled it with water and had our own homemade fog machine. I strolled down the aisles of a Lockheed 1011 in a mist of sophistication and promise; the children’s eyes widening with wonder, businessmen opening their wallets, wives asking husbands: Which should I get? We asked unaccompanied minors or well-behaved kids to follow us with a tray of gold foilwrapped TWA mints; inside, the green was as pale as the crème de menthe we were offering.
Finally, I returned to this dinner party, dizzy for what I once had, what I never had, what I had hoped for. Dizzy with nostalgia for those long-ago kisses that tasted like canned cherries, for the glamour of flying to Los Angeles in a fog of dry ice, for the 21-year-old girl I once was, standing in front of 30 first-class passengers in my Ralph Lauren uniform and black pumps carving a chateaubriand into perfect slices to a round of applause. This meal, this grown-up dinner party where I am, at last, one of the grown-ups, has brought together my childhood fantasies, my clumsy attempts at sophistication and all that followed. As an adult, I know that how we entertain is a combination of who we are and how we live, of all the dinners we’ ve had and all the dreams we still embrace. Once I leave here I will return to my own version of dinner parties. But for tonight I am here, at the place I once yearned to be. I cut my meat with the heavy wedding silver. I put it into my mouth, and—finally—I savor it.
Ann Hood is the author of 10 books, including An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life and the forthcoming The Knitting Circle.