First, there is the aperitif, or "apero" to whet the appetite for both the meal and conversation to come. Talk is light, the champagne bubbly. The smallest nibbles are served. Just a drop of tapenade on the slimmest cracker, a tiny dish of oily black olives, a few buttery gougères. There's no need to rush or overdo the prelude.
Eventually the group senses when it's time to move to the heart of the matter, and the guests fold their cocktail napkins and make their way to another table, set beautifully and flickering with candlelight. Dishes are produced without the slightest evidence of effort. They seem to appear out of nowhere. Platters are passed, portions served gracefully. A salad is tossed at the table. Gentlemen pour the wine to a discreet level, and it is sipped by knowing lips.
Attention is paid to the food, but not too much. The company and conversation are the focus, the food the music that enlivens the whole dance.
Courses are moved through slowly and talk might grow more heated. Weather, children, and vacations have been discussed, so now politics may be introduced, if the guests are willing. By the cheese course tempers have died down, and now full concentration can be paid to the food, like discussing the music after a performance. Dessert is artfully arranged: a basket of ripe fruit and a simple tart, shiny as cleaned glass. A sliveriest of slivers is requested. The diners have dined lustily, but not outrageously. They sip tiny cups of coffee and perhaps thimblefuls of a special digestif. The long meal winds down. Everyone has played their part beautifully.
As an American lover of food, I am in awe, an appreciative member of the audience, but one who feels deeply awkward on stage herself, as a cook and as a diner; I like to think that my enthusiasm helps compensate for my awkwardness. Although I don't have centuries of culinary tradition on which to stand, I do have good cookbooks, which is how I learned to cook. Years ago I read fat cooking bibles, like the Gourmet Cookbook and How to Cook Everything, cover to cover. Shelf after shelf, I devoured even introductions and silly chapters that explain all the utensils you need and why, which is probably how I ended up acquiring three different lemon-squeezing contraptions.
But, no matter how much I've read and how much I've cooked, I have yet to produce a meal that is as effortless, or at least as effortless-looking as that of a French cook. The strain can be felt even in the meal-planning stage. Several cookbooks are consulted, notes taken, lists made. A meal as elaborate as Thanksgiving requires its own Excel spreadsheet. If I don't follow the recipe exactly then perhaps the magic of the dish will be missed by one little teaspoon of turmeric. Who knows? (To be honest, things have gotten better over the years as I've gained kitchen confidence, but for formal occasions, I can't take any risks.)
I've had the pleasure to dine at enough French tables to know the general choreography, but there's always something that feels a bit off when I'm the one throwing the dinner party.
The cooking has begun. Everything that could be prepared ahead of time has been prepared. Now dishes roast and steam and bubble at the last minute for maximum flavor and appropriate heat. I have everything perfectly under control.
And then a guest wanders into the kitchen. "How's it going in here? Let me help."
What? My concentration is broken, the rhythm's now off. I feel guilty turning him away, but don't want to charge him with any major task. Chef Control Freak is at the helm.
"Oh, good. You could stir the sauce." That seems harmless enough.
I try not to let my mouth display my inner snarl as he adjusts the heat on the burner.
The aperitif is served while I am still cooking. I bolt out to sip some champagne and smile at the conversation and then sprint back to the kitchen to slam pots around. The hors d'oeuvres are good, too good and too plentiful. With my overflowing baskets and platters, I am unintentionally murdering my guests' appetites. They follow protocol, eating what they are served. The saucisson is cut into huge chunks rather than slivers. Thick slices of toasted bread, rubbed with garlic, are being dabbed in olive oil. I can't stop it. It's too late.
Meanwhile, glasses are being topped off with abandon. Martinis, as well as champagne, have been offered, and so not only are my guests getting full, they are getting drunk. Polite conversation is already veering into dangerous territory. While slathering a radish with salted butter, one guest brings up socialism. Things are going downhill fast.
The appetizer was anything but a tease, and I can see that the guests would be happier continuing to drink and munch just as they are, but the gargantuan main course must be served. I toss the salad at the table and leaves of dressed lettuce fly out of the bowl onto the tablecloth.
Because my guests are sensitive, they can clearly see that toil has gone into this meal, not least because of its sheer volume. I can feed the entire block with just the mashed potatoes. And, so instead of being the elegant background music to the conversation, the feast becomes the centerpiece. The diners can't help but notice my expectant face, which wants to shout, "HOW DOES IT TASTE!?" So they deliver positive, drunken feedback, and I can relax a little, until one guest says, "Oh, how interesting to serve green beans at this time of year." Goddamn those out-of-season green beans!
I don't offer three selections of cheese, I offer nine. The guests do their best considering their dampened appetites, but some look stricken as I announce dessert, which is done to the same extravagant, Jupiterian level as the rest of the meal. Instead of one simple tart, there's a tart, a cake, and a pie. And ice cream if you prefer. Oh, and also some warm cookies. They are overcome by choice. It's like a European, who is used to shopping at a tiny local greengrocer, is now standing immobilized in Walmart. One guest demurs and sits silently in a digestive stupor. Another, tipsily game, takes a slice of everything, and I ignore the conversation to hear what he has to say about the cheesecake.
Clearly this is a meal cooked by someone whose favorite dish growing up was something called the big-as-yo-face burrito. At the end of the meal, which lacked finesse and balance, and was somewhat out of season, I look around, and to my surprise everyone seems happy and satisfied. It was over-the-top, zany even. So, maybe my dance de cuisine is not the graceful movement that I aspire to; perhaps it's more like a circus, loud, overwhelming and hopefully entertaining.