The Times' William Grimes Is All Wet on Entertaining
William Grimes is out of his mind. Well, all right, he isn't. I'm just trying to be punchy. In fact, I like his writing for the Times these days. He seems to have reinvigorated the entire mopey "Dining In/Dining Out" section, with his raids on the likes of Drew Nieporent and Warner LeRoy, his slightly sarcastic though always exhaustive style of restaurant reviewing, and his schizo adoration-slash-disdain for upper-crust gourmandizing. Even Eric Asimov, who seemed to shrink to outerborough chow-rat status beneath the highblown sentimental theatrics of Ruth Reichl, has his cojones back. He's all spry and lively and adventurous again, and his prose?to my reading, anyway?has been given an invigorating shot of confidence. It's as if Reichl were an overbearing sister, lording it over her less dramatic siblings, forcing them all to cower in her eccentric celebrity.
That's my take, anyhow. It's not as if I have one single lick of the skinny on this particular dynamic. All I know is that I heard a rumor somewhere that Reichl was a bit pissed when Grimes got her job. That ought to tell you something, even if it's just a rumor.
Anyhow, the hook for this particular column?aside from my little dip into Times food-section Kremlinology?is Grimes' opinion on dinner parties, articulated in the April 5 Times. It's my hook because, as I've said already, I'm enjoying Grimes, his writing and what he's doing for the paper. I do not, however, like his dinner-party views, which are ridiculous.
"I have five principles of entertaining," he writes in his "Critic's Notebook" piece titled "Dinner for 7: What Could Be Easier."
"First, the food must be superior."
Okay, I can handle that one. Good neo-snob position to take, good neo-snob language to use.
But then, a bit later: "But I despise the notion that if the company is agreeable, guests will be happy with roast chicken, a glass of pinot grigio and a scoop of ice cream surrounded by Pepperidge Farm Milanos. I become seriously depressed when it turns out that the host cannot cook."
Oh, for God's sake! Who cares if the host can't cook? His culinarily disadvantaged self has invited your sorry ass over for some food?about which he is already no doubt racked with anxiety, which he has perhaps desperately, expensively, arranged to have catered?and all you can do is (1) bitch and (2) bitch as a means to setting up your own august mojo as, yes, superior (and superior should speak for itself). I mean, just eat the food and complain about it to your girlfriend during the cab ride back home.
He gets worse: "Second, I like the evening to have a theme or organizing principle."
Theme? Organizing principle? Did I say I was into this guy?
More: "Third, I believe that good dinner parties entail risk. It's boring to serve old standbys, no matter how delicious."
To which I reply: Wrong.
There are still two Grimesian Principles of Perfect Entertaining left, but I won't get into them much. Number 4 distills to: "Serve those chocolates and liqueurs." Sure thing. Number 5: "Buy excellent wines." I'll give him that one. Dinner parties are often ruined when the host relies on guests to supply the booze.
Really, though, it's Grimes' Third Principle that gets me all riled up. Here's why: Every fucked-up dinner party I have ever thrown has entailed risk. All the fun ones have adroitly avoided it. Furthermore, all the truly memorable (as opposed to impressive or ego-building) suppertime gatherings I have attended also skillfully evaded risk without leaving guests feeling gypped. The worst thing a dinner party can aspire to be, in my experience, is risky. Risk involves parachutes and firearms and fast cars and chicks who go braless. Not calories.
The flaw in Grimes' Third Principle can be blamed on what I'll call the "Aspirational Fallacy," which is homebrewed philosophy at its worst, but that is?in homebrewed philosophical terms?the opposite of Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor says that, all things being equal, you accept the simplest possible explanation. The simplest possible explanation, when it comes to dinner parties, is: Feed the people something good. Not something risky. Something good.
Grimes and his sous-chef/partner-in-Aspirational-Fallacy wife huff and puff for a while over their menu, rejecting several dishes before settling on the following: tarte flambée followed by warm rabbit salad with truffle vinaigrette; venison stew with hedgehog mushrooms, fettucine and steamed green and white asparagus; and for dessert, an Alsatian ("Alsace" is his theme) farmhouse cheesecake surrounded by a mixed-berry coulis. And they pull it off. There are pictures. But God, the preparation, the labor, the struggle, the naked urge to impress. (His guests constitute a platoon of, as he puts it, seven "well-mannered bon vivants.") I don't know where he finds the time to make repeat visits to all those snazzy joints he remorselessly eviscerates, what with all the shopping and cookbook-page-flipping and worrying he does over one little dinner party. (And I'll bet a bottle of syrah that he and his wife didn't wash all those pots and pans by themselves, either.)
So, I offer Five Alternative Principles of Successful Entertaining:
1. The food should be superior. Or at least as superior as you can get it without draining your checking account or running all over town. Sometimes, the Key Food does make a lot more sense than Ronnybrook Farm or the fish market at dawn.
2. Themes are not for dinner parties; they are for parks that hire pimply teenagers to dress up like cartoon characters. You are the theme, and screw your guests if they don't get it.
3. Risk nothing.
4. As for the Chocolates-and-Liqueur Principle: Smoke 'em if you've got 'em.
5. Wine. Pride of service belongs with the host. More people should know this?should expect it?thus denying Grimes the opportunity to list it as a principle. It shouldn't be subject to individual caprice, to listmaking; it should be a dinner-party truism. An ironclad law. When you're a guest, you should keep your wine to yourself.
I offer these five alternative principles not to pick a fight with Grimes?who would just smack me down and pour hot fondue on me, anyway?but merely to express another point of view, one that I believe makes a hell of a lot more sense in the long run. It's not as if I lack experience in this area. I've thrown a dinner party or two in my day, and lent my assistance to plenty of others. The Golden Rule (which supersedes all principles, by the way) is: Keep it simple. The word "coulis" appears on your fantasy first-draft menu? Reject that dish. More than one recipe contain four steps? Lose it. Your perpetual friends in the kitchen? Couscous, rice, polenta, potatoes?basics in a box that require one less step to prepare than pasta. Your staunchest allies? That oven, and those cheapo disposable aluminum roasting pans they sell in wrapped pairs at grocery stores. The roasted vegetable medley is every dinner-party-throwing cook's secret weapon.
And as for those Pepperidge Farm Milanos, they're my favorite cookies. And I plan to keep on serving them.
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