Last year was the first year I was invited to this event, which must be limited to the size of the table and kitchen of the host's home (last year this limit was eight people). This year the organizers decided that the event would be held in my new apartment. I was told this in a tone that allowed for it being a joke if I didn't respond enthusiastically, but it wasn't really a joke. The reasoning here was that if we held the event in my apartment we would have the use of two kitchens (mine and my landlord's) and we would be able to use my absurdly vast collection of Fiesta-ware dishes. There was, in addition, the desire to encourage me to start opening my home up more to guests and visitors (which was my stated primary reason for moving in the first place).
My previous apartment was not well suited for dinner parties or social events of any sort, and over the years I had gotten out of the habit of hosting. I also had accumulated too many things -- books and magazines and 1930s dinnerware and vintage clothing and old household appliances in their original packagings, the detritus of our culture and the fruits of obsessive estate-sailing. This was borderline crazy, I admit, and the irony of having too many dishes to fit dinner guests in the apartment did not escape me. The move was a purging and a conscious decision to become a host once more. Two weeks ago I hosted my first dinner party in the new place, and yesterday I hosted my first banquet.
I moved my toaster oven and microwave out to my pantry for the evening, which left a kitchen with three work surfaces and a fair amount of additional counter space. There were to be 12 guests, so I moved my dining room table sideways and put a desk at the end and a small card-table borrowed from upstairs at the end of that. I also borrowed the upstairs dining room chairs and had a wonderful time setting up the place settings and tablecloths and placemats. Stephen had printed up menus (on beautiful handmade paper); I slipped this between the service plate the and smaller plate.
The guests arrived in the late afternoon and they were assigned to one of the kitchens. I didn't do any of the actual cooking; my job was to supervise in my own kitchen. People would turn to me as they needed measuring cups and spoons and pots and cutting boards and I would provide them. The people cooking in my kitchen washed their bowls and utensils as they went along, while I swept the floor periodically. I later found out that the upstairs crowd was not following this procedure. I found this out when somebody walked down the back stairs into my kitchen, identically laid out to the one upstairs, and she gasped in astonishment "It's so clean down here!" That may be the first time in my life that my kitchen yielded a comparative assessment of this sort.
The pace became slapstick as the dinner approached and the various dishes were coming ready. The organizers would come and say something like: "Two large serving platters, three small bowls of different colors, three medium serving bowls" and I'd pull them out. Then "Small bowls for dipping?" and I'd offer several choices (we used my 1940s Fire-King pale blue custard cups on Moderntone saucers). I think I had been working for over two decades for this opportunity.
We set out the food and took our places. Then, after the briefest of grace ceremonies (in Sanskrit, courtesy Sanskrit scholar Stephen) we ate and ate and sighed contentedly.
Bill of Fare
New Year's Indian Feast of Friends
1 January 2004
Vada and Iddlis With Sambar & Coconut-curry Leaf & Tamarind Chutney
Avocado Masial: Curried Avacado Salad
Koosmai: Carrot Salad with Peanuts
Emmai Kathirikkai: Stuffed Eggplant Poriyal
Avial: Malabur Yoghurt and Coconut Braised Vegetables
Poliyodara: Spicy Tamarind Pilaf With Peanuts
Nan: Tandoori Bread
Carrot and Cashew Payasam
Ginger Lemonade, Beer and Wine
Chai and South Indian Coffee
As (nominal) host, I provided the beer and wine. Indian beer (of two types,all I could find in the local good liquor store) and light food-friendly wines. Few people drank, but I had plenty of good filtered ice water on hand.
This food is quite labor-intensive. Stephen says that this is not the sort of food you get in restaurants, for that reason. A co-worker of mine from an Indian family confirmed this. She looked at the menu and her eyes opened wide. She said this is food that traditionally required servants to prepare. But oh, is it wonderful.
Cleanup was a massive undertaking, but four people came with me into the kitchen and did all the washing while I put things away and sorted out my things from Stephen's. By 11:30 PM everything was clean and I had scrubbed down the kitchen floor and the kitchen was bare and shining and peaceful.
In some ways a day like this is overwhelming, not particularly because of the work involved but because of the wonderful feeling of warmth and sociability. I am, at the moment, feeling sated and lucky. I also have a large container of Tamarind Pilaf in my refrigerator; that was my favoritest dish of the night.
This was, to my thinking, the perfect way to start the new year.