Julia Child once advised, “if a dish goes horribly wrong…never apologize.” She thought such admissions only drew attention to one’s shortcomings and “only made a bad situation worse”. She also considered it unseemly for a cook to twist her/himself into knots of excuses and explanations. ”The cook”, Julia firmly said, “must simply grin and bear it”. Okay Julia, I get it, but what should a host do when not only the cooking goes south, but also the art of hosting?
A simple, yet slightly exotic, Middle Eastern themed menu for Easter brunch with friends is what I had in mind. A pistachio soup appetizer and a mezze table filled with tasty hummus, baba ghanoush, assorted olives, a cheese plate (to include Syrian cheese), puréed beets with za’atar, and manakish to be made with fresh-baked flatbreads while the main course—mejadra (lentil rice), lubieh (stewed green beans), and shakshuka—warmed as everyone enjoyed the appetizers. For dessert I planned to serve ma’amouls (shortbread cookies often made for Easter in Lebanon) from scratch, baklava sundaes, and a platter filled with dried fruits, nuts, halva with pistachios, and clementines. Middle Eastern food, with it’s small plates and unhurried pace, is great for parties and lingering meals with friends. I wanted to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I wanted my friends to feel special. That’s what I had in mind. But life has a funny way of throwing a wrench in things and reminding you—at the most inopportune time!—of your imperfections and shortcomings. And although you plan ahead, you can still make a mess of things, as I did!
So what happened? In a nutshell, I was ill prepared. I had my share of mishaps, brunch turned to lunch and was nothing short of a fiasco. Its taken about a week for me to be able to laugh at my disastrous mistakes. I still cringe a bit when I look back, but I’ve learned and I hopefully won’t make the same mistakes again.
You see, when I decide to entertain guests, the preparation normally starts weeks in advance. I develop the menu and create my “to-do” lists—for everything from serving dishes I plan to use to the decor to the candles I want to burn to the music playlist and more—for at least 3 weeks before the event; and 2 weeks before; the week before; 3 days before; the day before; 12 hours before; then hour-by-hour; and then increments of time until minutes before guests are to arrive. My lists are often quite detailed and exhaustive, but I prefer to be overly prepared than under, allowing myself extra time to do what I really want—create a warm and welcoming environment where guests can come to spend time and leave inspired. Sadly, that didn’t happen at my home last Easter Sunday.
Everything seemed to be going as planned until the day before the event when an unexpected change to my schedule interrupted my well-laid out plans and intentions. In less than 24 hours, I went from a cool, calm and collected event planner to a juggler with too many balls in the air and everything thereafter was a race for time to make sure the “balls” did not come crashing down. I made adjustments, removing dishes from the menu, and substituting quality store-bought flatbreads instead of making my own, but in the end, my changes weren’t enough. I lost the race. When my guests arrived, I was still cooking, unprepared, and my kitchen (which should have been cleared and cleaned before they arrived) quite literally looked like a disaster zone. Yes, a DISASTER zone.
There were a number of things that went terribly wrong, but what bothered me the most is that in my race for time I was so focused on trying to prepare tasty dishes, that I was left with insufficient time to create the warm, welcoming and intimate atmosphere that I wanted for my guests. I was not able to get to everything I wanted to do (in advance) on my lists, and allowed myself to be stuck in the kitchen when I should have been engaged in the art of hosting. As a result I was completely disconnected from almost everything and everyone! So much so that I didn’t even realize that in the middle of the afternoon our air conditioner stopped working and some guests were uncomfortably hot, sweating it out in my living room! Aye yayaye!!! I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a fiasco!
In Julia’s later years, when asked for a piece of advice, she would always say: “…learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun.” Before the first guests arrived, I knew I had already failed. The situation wasn’t good, but it was too late to be fixed. When I received the first knock at my door, it seemed futile to apologize and twist myself into knots of excuses and explanations, perhaps making my guests feel even more uncomfortable. Instead, I tried to grit my teeth, bare it with a smile, and make the best of it, knowing I would learn from my mistakes. I have. Julia also said “…lots of cooking is one failure after another….” I would venture to say the same for hosting, but the most important thing is to learn and not repeat your mistakes.
How about you? Please let me know how you successfully prevent or handle hosting fiascos.
P.S. To my friends who shared Easter lunch with us, please, there’s no need to send a note saying it wasn’t that bad to try to make me feel a little better. I just hope you’ll come back again. Hopefully soon!