You Don’t Need Fancy Tableware and Furnishings to Throw an Unforgettable Dinner Party

My long journey to welcoming others to my table

A group of people sit in a pile of dishes; a teacher lectures a student

Simone Massoni

After college, I lived for a time in a window-less, $450-a-month room in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a residence I was so ashamed of that I never invited friends over.

I shared the apartment with the landlady, who watched TV, nonstop, in her bedroom. When the door was left ajar, her room gave the impression of faded florals — the sheets, the stacks of laundry visible on the bed, the curtains. That non-information was more or less all the information I had about her. Ours was a living space carved out of need on both sides, a transaction edged with resentment, my presence reminding the landlady of the person who was absent, a husband gone to China.

Worries of my own — why was it that my resume failed to get me this or that interview? How long would my visa status let me remain in the country? How long could I afford to live in New York on my meager savings from my college job? — loomed like clouds above each day. In a fog of stress, I heard the landlady’s TV soundtracks when I cooked in the kitchen, my only company cockroaches thin as wood splinters roaming the silverware drawers. Once, when I turned around, there the landlady was, having silently emerged from her bedroom to supervise my activities. She didn’t approve. Though she scolded me for putting washed pots and ladles on the wrong hooks, I knew that what she meant was: Why are you here?

So, if I was at home, I stayed in my bedroom, door closed, ears alert to the footfall of the landlady in the common spaces. It was only when those sounds receded that I emerged to cook the simple meals that were new to me in the United States, and deeply enjoyable — brussels sprouts with sunny-side-up eggs (a style of egg I had grown up calling “poach” in India); any shape of pasta cooked in chicken broth and strewn with caramelized onions; salads of spinach, quartered strawberries, and chicken roasted only with salt, pepper, and lime juice. I sat at the small table next to the shoe rack and ate alone. Now and then, I tried to read a book at my solo dinner, but the spine yearned to close, and soon I let it.

That place wasn’t home, so much so that when I said “home,” I meant a place very far from Brooklyn: Kolkata, India. There, when I was a child, my parents threw dinner parties where their friends crowded into our living room, squeezed onto the sofa, some seated on chairs pulled from the dining table, because dinner for the children wasn’t served until 8:30, and 9 o’clock for the grown-ups. My mother served snacks first. There was Bengali-style egg chop, and peanuts with lime, cilantro, onion, and chile. These were followed by enormous glass bowls of pulao, mangsho, a salad of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and carrots. At other dinner parties, there was freckled luchi, puffed with hot air like a balloon and slowly deflating on the platter. There was chholar dal, tiny pieces of coconut within, alur torkari, and chicken kosha when my parents and their friends grew health-conscious and began to avoid goat meat. At yet others, there was Chinese Indian food, like noodles studded with carrots, peas, baby corn, and green beans, and chopped shrimp rolled into balls and cooked in a chile-garlic sauce.

There was no way I could replicate dinner parties like that in Sunset Park, I told myself. I didn’t have the cooking know-how. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have the money to buy lots of ingredients. But the truth lay beyond these reasons. The truth was, I didn’t want to invite anybody over. I was ashamed of where I lived.

When the landlady watched me with a suspicious eye, her anger turning the apartment like milk turning sour, I felt trapped, and embarrassed — why was I home in a place that was not home?

It was a New York outside the New York I aspired to. This was a New York where I handwashed clothes in the sink to avoid a trip to the laundromat and kept an eye out for a folding desk or chair discarded on the sidewalk. Much as I daydreamed of dinner parties, even modest ones with only one or two friends — I would cook in abundance, I would put flowers on the table, we would linger as conversation ascended tiers of intimacy from the news to our job searches to our love lives to our fears and sorrows, as the night deepened outside the window and I began to press food in Tupperware upon them — I never called anyone to Sunset Park.

Then, years later, I got married. At that time, I lived in a reasonably comfortable room of my own in Ridgewood, Queens, with two windows looking out onto a street where longtime residents sat on their stoops and called down the block to one another. The place had a decent landlord who, crucially, lived elsewhere, and a miraculously kind roommate. So what if the living room wall was bare except for a poster of Brooklyn Bridge? So what if the kitchen held a toaster with a galaxy of crumbs underneath? So what if the stove was stained with years of oil splatters? My rent then was $737. Some housing luck, at last.

To celebrate our city hall wedding, my husband and I invited friends over for dinner. The table was a plank of wood atop four stacks of books. We purchased cushions so everybody could sit comfortably on the floor. (Nobody likes sitting on cushions on the floor.) The meal was a mix of what I could cook (chicken chaap, using a boxed mix of spices), what my husband could cook (ratatouille), and what the hot weather demanded (cold tossed chickpea salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, olive oil, and lemon).

The dinner felt like an admission, and a revelation. This is where I live, I was able to finally say. And instead of shame or embarrassment, what I remember is the feeling of warmth and celebration, our friends gathered around the improvised table with bottles of sub-$10 wine, hours of chatter, calls around midnight or 1 a.m. to go to a bar down the street and continue. That they did not want it to end felt like a triumph.

Could I have tasted that immense and intimate delight, of a dinner done well, before? Knowing what I know now — especially the halt COVID imposed on dinners with friends — I wish I had invited a friend or two over to Sunset Park. I would’ve asked them to come and sit at the table made stable with folded cardboard under one leg. I could’ve cooked them noodles with scrambled eggs and offered a tub of bodega ice cream for dessert. Memories of my parents’ dinner parties in mind, I would have plucked for my own circumstances not the masterful entrées nor the nice plates pulled from an upper shelf and washed, but the easy conversation, the uninhibited laughter (what a treasure it would’ve been to be able to laugh away the landlady’s suspicious gaze with a friend), the conversation that shed all pretense. I would have said then what I was finally able to say, in the language of pots heaved to the table and plates filled to the rim, at our wedding party. This is who I am, I might have said, and this is what a dinner party in my life, at this moment, is.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megha Majumdar is the author of the New York Times best-seller and Editors’ Choice A Burning (Vintage). She was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an editor at Catapult and lives in New York City. A Burning is her first book.

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