The dog was the first to hear the knock. Winston already knew something was up because the table was set, the candles were lit, the kitchen smelled good, and Craig, my husband, was cuing up Ella Fitzgerald on the record player. By the time our friends walked through the door, Winston’s tail was wagging, and if we had tails, ours would be wagging, too.
After a year and a half of repetitive meals on the couch while watching “Jeopardy,” here it was: our first post-vaccine dinner party. Actual people, who weren’t ourselves, would be walking through the door, and I would be feeding them food that wasn’t cobbled together to avoid trips to the grocery store. Here was the moment to dust off the decanter, to roll out the tablecloth, to polish the fine china.
Only these instincts felt all wrong. We had all gone through a collective trauma, we were all a bit dazed, and the idea of making our first dinner party a formal affair felt as misguided as greeting the Titanic survivors with a fashion show. Instead, I had worked out four strategies to make this initial maskless gathering a success.
Cool your jets
Remember those early days of quarantine, when we were fermenting our own sourdough, braising lamb necks for five hours, pickling anything we could get our hands on, antsy and anxious to find something — anything — to distract us from the horror show unraveling on the news? At last, it’s OK to take a breath: both in and out of the kitchen.
As a high-strung person, it has taken me a while to learn that the more relaxed you are at your own dinner party, the more relaxed your guests will be. Stress is contagious — no matter how delicious the food — and the last thing people want after being stressed all year is to be stressed at dinner. This is why I recommend kicking things off with a dip. A dip that takes just a few minutes to make, a dip that you can easily make ahead, a dip that you can present with something as trendy as multicolored carrots or as casual as a box of crackers.
My French friend Cris, one of the best cooks I know, once served us a brilliant combination of white bean puree topped with a garlicky basil pesto. The duo worked beautifully together: the creamy beans offering depth of flavor from tahini; and the pesto punchy and bright from garlic and lots of lemon. Plus, the green on white was visually stunning. Cris gifted me the recipe, which I adapted, and it’s a delightful way to kick off your evening.
Keep things light
Entree-wise, it may be tempting to serve something rib-sticking and hearty, but the truth is — if you’re anything like me — you’ve been pigging out all year (thank you for your service, salt-and-vinegar potato chips).
This evening calls for salmon. Slow-roasted with lots of herbs and olive oil and served with a fluffy rice pilaf, a good salmon entree can feel as elegant and decadent as a four-hour stew. People will be grateful not to leave your home feeling sluggish and heavy, the way most of us have been feeling since COVID became a household word. Instead, everyone will feel light and ready to tackle an unmasked summer pool party (or, more likely, a Netflix binge).
Serve individual portions
When I mentioned dip earlier, you were possibly thinking to yourself: “A communal dip after COVID? Not so fast!”
It’s a similar conversation to the one people are having right now about masks. Blogger Jason Kottke recently wrote a post: “Eleven Reasons to Keep Wearing a Mask after You’re Vaccinated and the Pandemic is ‘Over.’ ” The list includes things such as “you’re traumatized from the mental and emotional toll of last year” and “because your personal risk tolerance is lower than other people’s.”
We need to keep these factors in mind when we invite guests into our home. So family style is probably still a no-no, and dips and things like them should be served in individual ramekins. Dessert, too, is best served individually: no cobblers or germy plates of cookies, at least not right now. That’s why I came up with a sunny, refreshing lemon pudding topped with blueberry whipped cream and served in individual portions. That each person gets their own is a pleasure in and of itself — no one will think “post-COVID coping strategy.” And if you run out of ramekins, it’s even more charming to serve the pudding in coffee mugs or tea cups.
Build in time
Of all the strategies that I worked out for this dinner party, this is the most important: Don’t rush things along. After a year of isolation, what everyone craves right now is the chance to savor one another’s company. Don’t shuffle everyone immediately to the dining room, cutting short these moments of reunion. Serve the appetizers while you’re still on the couch; be sure to offer a cocktail, too. We’re all a little rusty on our social skills and could use the help. (Offering a nonalcoholic option is a good idea to help make the evening festive for those who don’t drink.)
Same goes for the end of dinner: Don’t hurry people out the door. Instead of serving dessert at the table, try another change of venue. If you have a patio, go out there. If it’s just a jaunt back to the living room, that works, too. As long as there’s a chance to linger.
At the end of our first post-vaccine dinner party, the tablecloth was stained, the candles were burned down to nubs, and the dog was licking up bits of rice pilaf that, at some point, fell to the floor.
The next day, there would be dishes to do, wine glasses to polish and ingredients to put away. But at this moment — in the familiar quiet after a roomful of chattering voices, clanking glasses and scraping plates — I felt a sense of peace and optimism that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I may still need salt-and-vinegar potato chips to cope with the transition, but a world of social gatherings — maybe even ones with communal appetizers — is just around the corner.