The earliest recollection I have of entertaining is a cooperative luncheon in my first year at law school shortly before classes had begun for the fall semester. I met someone who distinguished himself by knowing how to cook, a talent which until then I had succeeded to avoid by living in circumstances where meals had always been provided to me (boarding school and residential university). My new acquaintance and I collected vegetables and brown rice from the local grocery store. I remember the production being very tasty. Because he did the cooking my only contribution was the premises (the unimpressive kitchen at the law fraternity Domus Legis).
I can tell you that my culinary education was a glacial uphill battle. Getting beyond cereal, toast and peanut butter was a long time in the making. It would also be very long before I entertained again. The only interruption in the static condition came later in my first year of law school when I returned from clam digging on the beach near Halifax to learn about ridding clams of their sandy grit. A female doctorate student in Oceanography – I believe she was the first female in Canada to hold the distinction – provided the instruction. My contribution was once again the cruddy kitchen at Domus Legis and some tarnished old aluminium pots. After that experience it would be years before I ventured to do any entertaining. Instead the template was dining out.
When I removed myself to Almonte and effectively began my 40-year law career in the hinterland I learned something about preparing meals. My instruction was exclusively from watching others or listening to what they said. To this day I arrogantly pride myself never to have followed a recipe. Appropriately to this account one of my chief culinary instructors was my physician. From him I learned the imperative of simple but nutritious ingredients, a prescription which appealed to me both schematically and spiritually.
Perhaps my second most lubricating discovery was the Sidecar cocktail (a gem to which I was introduced by a co-conspirator while vacationing on Cape Cod):
The exact origin of the sidecar is unclear, but it is thought to have been invented around the end of World War I in either London or Paris. The drink was directly named for the motorcycle attachment.
The Ritz Hotel in Paris claims origin of the drink. The first recipes for the Sidecar appear in 1922, in Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails and How to Mix Them. It is one of six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).
The importance of this revelation is that it represented the epitome of the preprandial drink. I knew instinctively that I would never accomplish a broad range of achievement when entertaining so I was better to latch onto a sure-fire winner which the Sidecar has proven to be. It was a symbolic addition to what has since become my signature culinary dish “Caribbean Pasta” (a mongrel vegetarian concoction named after the tropical islands where I first encountered the “essential” recipe from another hotel guest).
Anyone who entertains knows that it is work. During the height of my entertaining I assuaged the duress of the enterprise by feeding my parallel appetite to show off my home and personal possessions (which grew almost weekly). Every time I acquired a new painting or a piano or some bit of mahogany or brass ornament I felt compelled to exhibit it to my friends. I hadn’t graduated to that lethargic museum state of mind which since retirement I have learned to relish. In those earlier days I punished myself regularly by orchestrating a meal and rolling out the sterling silver, French crystal and bone china. By the time I had perfected the thesis, I knew precisely how to time the evolution of the evening foray and I certainly knew what made the perfect martini (which turned out to be a somewhat less toxic alternative to the Sidecar).
But it was all still work. Laying the table, stoking the fireplace, setting out the nappies, buying the booze and the food, preparing the stuff, then enduring the niceties of table service and conversation and finally saying goodbye and cleaning up. What a chore! More often than not I ended hopelessly drunk, standing over foaming bubbles in the kitchen sink, pouring myself another digestive whiskey and at last succumbing to bed.
Nonetheless I reiterated this crippling routine for many years. But when I retired and we decided to sell everything, the purification was by fire! We have since fallen completely off the social radar and now only occasionally feel the obligation to reciprocate (which has lately been easily accomplished by taking out family members to our favourite sea food haunt “Pelican”). Last night however was an anomaly. We reciprocated a meal to my erstwhile physician (who since those many years ago is now in zealous semi-retirement and seldom lands on terra firma for longer than 2 -3 weeks). Still he continues when here to include us in very satisfactory rallies at his country estate where he performs his indisputable magic at the grill. Last night was our turn.
Knowing as I do the horribly tight schedule of my friend I told him last week (when he was lounging by the Aegean Sea in Greece) that upon his return – and before our departure to Hilton Head Island for the winter – he must let us know when he found an interval to indulge us in a moment of his time for the standard fare at table. Last evening when I was returning from my almost daily visit to my elderly mother, he called me in the car and suggested that the time was opportune. Immediately we slipped into gear. This is one of the decided advantages of simplicity in the culinary department! It required but a moment’s diversion to the grocery store to collect what was needed. I called ahead to home to alert Management of what was in the works. In anticipation of this eventuality we had already stocked the cellarette with a choice of wines; and there was Champagne (my friend’s particular poison) on ice and dry sausage in the larder.
It is illustrative of the essence of this congregation that there was absolutely no superfluity. We confined our attention to a recapitulation of all that had lately transpired which included a provocative account by my dear friend of his recent family visits and the latest intelligence about his children’s exploits. Through the narrow window of an impromptu evening we managed to darn a reinforcement of our friendship. As for the meal, it was exactly as it has always been, nothing more, nothing less, which I concede is a small compliment but such is the state of entertainment chez moi.