In a recent cyber-conversation on the BVC listserve, I said that I was trained in the timing of pulling a party together by my parents, but specifically by my father, the Field Marshall of Hospitality. When preparing for a party, Dad organized things like he was planning for an invasion–an invasion in reverse, perhaps. He feared no numbers: six or sixty, Dad was on it. Our Brenda wanted to know how he did this, and what mysterious lessons he had passed on to me.
His secret was obsessive planning. Not just in provisioning (how many different cheeses and crackers to put out before hand, veggies or some other little nosh, make sure the liquor cabinet had everything any sane person might ask for, double check the recipes and make sure there was enough extra to add on if someone unexpected showed up) but in timing. He’d count backward: if paella would take X time in the oven and we were planning to eat at 7pm, and it needed fifteen minutes to sit, covered, after taking it from the oven, the paella went in at 7 minus 15 minus X time, and woe betide us all if the prep had not been completed before then. Had I been drafted to make pies? That was fine, as long as my baking didn’t compete with his paella for oven space; best to make pies early in the day, or have them prepped to go in the oven when everyone sat down to eat. The various other things that went into the dinner were planned out similarly; our oven wasn’t large, so figuring out what things could fit in it side by side, and occasionally making some compromises as to timing or temperature, was important. He’d make a plan and write it down and tick it off at each stage. For a free-and-easy improvisational artist, Dad was very stern about timing.
Then Dad laid out the serving plates and spoons. Long before anything was put into the sauce boat, it (and its ladle) were sitting at the ready on a sideboard. The salad was destined for the bent-wood salad bowl; the bread in this basket with that cloth around it. He’d put labels on each vessel so as to remember his grand plan.
The food always arrived on time, as piping hot as it could be in a house where the ambient temperature was sometimes hovering just above frostbite. This was not always a smooth process, of course, and sometimes Dad could get a little…snappish. I, as one trained in his ways, was allowed to be sous chef. But at least one one occasion, Dad forbade the kitchen to anyone else.
Shortly after my older daughter was born, he decided to have the extended family for Christmas Dinner. We’re talking twenty people, some of whom had never met before. On Dad’s side there were my three aunts, my cousin and his wife, and (I think) their infant. I was there, with husband and baby daughter; my brother was there with his fiancee and her three sons; my in-laws (mère, père, frère and frère’s wife and two daughters)…oh, and I think my father’s then-girlfriend was there too. Even in a place as capacious as the Barn, this was a lot of people for a sit-down dinner. Dad laid down sawhorses in the entry hall, put four-by-eight sheets of plywood atop them, and covered those with table cloths: instant refectory table for 20. He assigned me to deck it out in a festive manner, and dispatched everyone else to hang out in the living room, drink, nibble, and wait for dinner. Which everyone gladly did, except for my Adorable Mother-in-Law, whose motto is “I help, therefore I am.”
As I said: when Dad was hosting, he got into a zone; a fairly cranky my-way-or-the-highway zone. I’d been brought up with this, knew when to zig and when to zag. Penny, my mother-in-law, did not. She kept coming in and appointing herself to help with something. I heard Dad say “No, really, Penny, that’s taken care of.” Then I heard him say, “I really wish you wouldn’t…” And finally, “Penny, go into the living room.” At which point he took a spare 4 x 8 plywood sheet and barricaded the kitchen. This was a gesture for show at best: the wall that separated the kitchen from the hallway was only four feet high. Still, it got the message across. Dad finished making dinner his way, and it was a lovely occasion. He was very nice to my mother-in-law that evening, probably chastened by his irritation. But the kitchen was Dad’s theatre of operations, and you didn’t forget it.
- 2 lbs chicken, cut up (Dad favored thighs and legs)
- olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic crushed
- salt, pepper, paprika
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 2 cups white rice
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pinch saffron threads
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 lemons, zested
In a large casserole (one with a lid) heat the olive oil and warm the garlic, pepper flakes, and rice. Stir to coat the rice with the oil, and cook for about 3 minutes. Then add the saffron, bay leaf, lemon zest, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to low, and cook for 20 minutes (or until the rice is done).
- l lb shrimp (deveined)
- 1 dozen mussels (rinsed but not open)
- 1 dozen clams (rinsed but not open)
- l lb Chorizo sausage, sliced into 1/2″ rounds
- 1/2 cup flour
- water as needed
When the rice is done, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Toss the Chorizo rounds and the Shrimp in the rice to distribute them nicely. Then lay the chicken, the clams, and mussels in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement on top of the rice. Put the top on the casserole.
Mix the flour with some water to make a sort of goopy dough and seal the edge of the lid to the casserole, leaving a one-inch space for steam to escape. Bake for about 45 minutes, until all the shellfish is open and the flavors are nicely mingled (which you won’t know until you open the casserole, because it’s sealed, right?)
Serves a lot of people.