It's Traddy Tuesday, the day I usually write about some aspect of traditional Catholic practice and belief. However, today I have behaved like a traditional lady-of-the-Historical-House and spent the morning in bed. As this bed is in our attic flat, once the servants' quarters, I am sure the original occupants of this room would stare at me in disbelief and disgust. But too bad for them. If I want to behave like Lady X (or Miss Y) after a party, I may. Besides, I did a lot more work than Lady X (or Miss Y) ever did for a dinner party. I'd like to see Lady X lug my shopping up three flights of stairs.
B.A. and I rarely go to the cinema, theatre, concert hall, pub or any other of the public entertainments on offer, mostly because they are too expensive. For entertainment, we like to entertain, which in our case means having dinner parties. We don't have as many as we used to, for various reasons, but I always enjoy getting in touch with my inner Mrs Dalloway. If I could, I would colonize the glorious public rooms of the Historical House and have wonderful dinners for 25 every week, but then B.A. would lose his job, and where would we be? Thus, I have to keep the guest list small, and seven is really the limit, unless we put two tables down the length of our sitting-room and invite thirteen.
Having a dinner party is simple . You think up some theme-excuse, you invite people to a meal, you clean your home, you buy food, you cook it, you greet your guests and give them a drink, you eat the food while everyone chats companionably, you wash the dishes (either in snatches during or afterwards), and you send your friends on their way at a mutually agreeable time. If our guests come from central Edinburgh via the bus, that time is 11:30 PM, for the last bus to town rumbles past the gates at 11:41. This is ideal, for it means that B.A. can be in bed by midnight and be fresh for work in the morning.
The most important thing is not to panic. B.A. hates it when I panic and always gives me a lecture beforehand on not panicking, which makes me so extremely anxious that I shout. However, once I get all the shouting out of my system, I am better able to relax afterwards. There is no reason to panic over a dinner party, as my mother has cooked dinner for up to eight people almost every night for forty-five years.
The next most important thing is flexibility. You must be able to change your menu on a moment's notice. Then simplicity. A dinner party for nine is a bad time to try anything new or particularly complicated. Four people, okay, but the more guests you have, the more sense apple crumble for pudding makes. If you begin to panic, simplify your chosen menu further.
Here is the schedule for my supper.
Two weeks before
1. Hearing of unrest among Youth of the Parish, I decide to have a Youth Supper.
2. I consult representatives of Youth about guest list and dates over Facebook and in one face-to-face meeting.
3. I inform husband, who says I should have told him first, which is true.
4. Representatives of Youth tell guests they're invited.
One week before
1. Husband makes inquiries about ultimate guest list, adds a guest over mobile phone.
2. I hoover whole flat, which was lucky, as I had no time to do it yesterday.
3. Continuing Facebook conversations re: guest list. I tell representative "Young Fogey wear", so as to ensure relative elegance.
Yesterday before 7:30 PM:
1. Husband washes dishes before work, as is saint.
2. Final guest list confirmed by representatives of Youth over Facebook.
3. At 2 PM, I call up taxicab companies trying to book a taxicab from Tesco in advance. Fail.
4. I determine menu: żurek (white kielbasa soup), roast, chocolate meringue pie.
5. I walk to the polski sklep for zakwas (essential ingredient for the żurek), and there is none. I look high, I look low. I consult the shopkeeper po polsku. "In bottles?" she asks in that ancient tongue. "Tak," I affirm. "If you can't find them, they're not there," she says. "We'll have them on Wednesday." I stop myself from panicking by thinking up Menu Plan B.
6. I walk to Tesco. No zakwas. I change to Menu Plan B . Now we are having barszcz ukrainski, roast and Polish plum cake because chocolate meringue pie is difficult and I can make plum cake with my eyes shut.
7. I collect gin, tonic water, white wine, red wine, a pork roast, 2 punnets of plums, single cream, a family size bag of frozen peas, 2 Kg Maris Piper potatoes, two carrots, garlic, a leek, a white cabbage, beets, fresh dill, sour cream, beef stock, a bag of ground coffee, chocolates and 2 bags of potato chips.
8. I call various cab companies. The second one deigns to send me a cab in ten minutes. Yay!
9. I lug grocs up three flights of stairs. Husband is in. Husband seizes roast, does magical things, and puts it in an oven to slow-roast for three hours. Husband goes back to work.
10. I make soup.
11. I make two plum cakes. (We have a double oven, thank heavens.)
12. I wash dishes. Husband sets table and tidies sitting-room. Husband is a genius both at roasts and at setting the table.
13. I tidy up guest-room and library/office.
14. I put on party dress, cover my face with slap, etc.
15. I test the cakes. They're done. Upper oven off. B.A. puts on party tie, etc.
16. I completely relax for a crucial five relaxing minutes.
1. Take wine and flower offerings from guests, who obviously were all well brought up.
2. Send girls to guest-room to de-coat. Send boys to office to de-coat.
3. Ask them if they want gin-and-tonics. They do.
4. Send guests to sitting-room
5. Husband makes gin-and-tonics.
6. Chat with guests.
7. Reheat soup.
8. Announce dinner. Husband offers seating suggestions. Guests arrange themselves around the table.
1. It's the Feast of Saint Margaret of Scotland, so she gets a mention in Grace.
2. Soup. Seconds of soup as B.A. tends the potatoes.
3. Main. Dishes of mashed potatoes and peas brought out for passing around, then pork and gravy.
4. Much eating of pork, potatoes, peas and gravy.
5. Pudding. Two cakes, so enough for seconds.
6. Coffee and chocolates.
And everyone is happy, especially me, as I had the time and energy between courses to wash the dishes. The only truly challenging part of a traditional sit-down dinner party, besides making sure no one person dominates the conversation to the boredom of others, is facing the greasy army of crockery the next morning. I avoid this as much as possible by doing the washing up right away.
I hope you noticed that one thing you most definitely do not need for a proper, traditional sit-down dinner is paper invitations. Paper invitations are all very elegant, but as God has given us technological advances in communication, let us enjoy them.