Issue #19: Dinners and dreams
Comfort for the Apocalypse, April 2021
To throw a dinner party
I had hoped that by the time I finished writing this, we would be a little closer to throwing our first post-Covid dinner party. I’ve been thinking about it for months, anticipating the day I can invite people into our home again, or at least set a table in the yard. But here we are at the end of April and restrictions have tightened. Again. I have frequent nightmares about gatherings with neighbours where we are supposed to be masked but I am startled to discover that I’m not. Recently I dreamed I went into the woods and was trying to find a place to get away from people, but there was nowhere six feet distant from anyone else. I did not used to dream about the distance between myself and others, nor was I so conflicted about my need for health versus my desire for relationship.
Given the current level of mask-wearing and sanitizing, it seems hard to believe that we ever held parties during flu season, or went to the office with a bronchial cold. But that was the norm only eighteen months ago. We gathered because we had to or wanted to, no matter what stray bug could catch us. We passed dishes and shared serving utensils. We spoke loudly across tables or leaned in closer to hear one another. We sang out loud.
Though we are known for the parties we throw at Birdsong (our home on Gabriola Island), Brian and I hosted only a few dinners in 2020. The last real one on my calendar is a Lunar New Year’s feast on February 2nd with a handful of friends. The gathering before that was a New Year’s Eve open house which included a table laden with every kind of good food and a song circle that played the whole night long, players switching in and out of the tightly packed parlor attached to our dining room. Though we locked right down in the spring, by summer it was apparent that Covid hadn’t made much of an appearance on our island, and so we did host a few small dinners with friends in the garden. This satisfied our need to see people, but they didn’t really constitute dinner parties in the sense I like to have them: cozy and crowded with all the best people in one place, culminating in dishes pushed to the side for after-dinner gossip. This is the event I long for after months of rain and quarantine, with the fancy china and the endless supply of red wine and intimacy.
And so I’m plotting, planning, dreaming about when it’s safe to be inside with others again. My mind is organizing details like tableware and guest lists.
First of all, I think about the setting. I like to set my tables simply but somewhat formally, with china and good quality tableware. Because it is so out of fashion, plus it needs to be hand washed, china is very inexpensive on the secondhand market and I have a bit of a collection as a result. My local thrift stores are a great source of castoff finery, especially because I live in a community where people move to downsize in retirement. The one thing I’ve purchased new is a set of off-white polyester-linen tablecloths which are my starting point for laying the table. I then choose which china or stoneware to use along with the serving pieces for each dish we are planning.
Sometimes I make a centerpiece with battery-powered fairy lights or candles, or I throw flower petals among the place settings. Small details like this help create the aura of a fine table, though it is never really Pinterest-worthy because I don’t do the next-level step (raffia bows, place cards, spray-painted pinecones). The mason jars come out of the canning cupboard with scraps of labels still on them, the flowers are whatever is available in the garden that day. But between these small touches and the “good” china, the table feels special, and when the lights are dimmed, the less-perfect aspects don’t show at all.
While the setting is important, the primary ingredient for a successful dinner party really is the wine. Not that everyone has to partake, of course, but there should be plenty for the people who do drink alcohol because running out is not an option. The evening might start with a cocktail or something sparkly like prosecco, but for the main event there must be plenty of red, uncorked and ready to pour. This is as true at a potluck or a sit-down event, whether you are twenty-two years old sitting on the unvaccumed floor of your friend’s rented duplex in East Vancouver, or nearing fifty with enough vintage china to feed half your community. A glass of wine or three is the difference between stilted conversation and making a new best friend, it glosses over the imperfections in the meal, and it helps the candles glow a little bit brighter at the table.
But even though the wine does most of the heavy lifting at any dinner, the food has to show up as some kind of contender before long. After all, everyone thinks they’ve come to eat, and so we don’t want to disappoint. Long before I tidy the house and set the table, Brian and I have planned what we will make, choosing from dishes that seem impressive but can mostly be prepared ahead of time. Roasted things fit the bill: leg of lamb stuffed with smoked anchovies and garlic; a roast chicken rubbed in herbs and garnished with salt-preserved lemons; pork loins butterflied and wrapped around spinach and goat cheese. We are fortunate to have an array of local ingredients available and purchase most of our meat by the side from the farmer up the road so it also depends on what is available or needs to be used in our freezer. There is always a secondary main, vegetarian or vegan. Perhaps mushrooms and creme fraiche in a phyllo pastry, or a quiche filled with spring vegetables. Everything else that hits the table is vegetarian save for the possibility of some bacon sprinkled onto charred Brussels sprouts, or carrots roasted in duck fat. The day before the dinner, I bake a couple loaves of bread; pickles, and condiments come out of the pantry. And of course a salad of greens or roasted root vegetables. Dessert can be very simple; a box of chocolates will always do in a pinch.
In this day and age, I know a dinner party can make people a bit nervous. The requirement to talk to people you might not know, a table set with glassware and dishes that feel too precious to use. But I aspire to host in a way that takes the edge off. My china is inexpensive and replaceable and I’ve learned how to soak spilled drinks and spots of gravy out of vintage linens. When a handwaving-anecdote-accident happens (and they always do at the best dinners), I simply clean up whatever has gone awry, return to refill the glasses, and move on.
To do otherwise is to bring an end to things before the best part - the After Dinner. As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of the dinner party is the stage when everything has been eaten, the dishes are stacked precariously in the kitchen sink, and the cloth napkins lie crumpled under the table. Perhaps coffee has been poured, or another bottle of wine opened, as we delve deeper into whatever it is we need to scratch at, or mull over. Even in my early days of hosting in my mid-twenties, when dinner parties were more like potlucks or group cook-a-thons and the idea of setting a formal table hadn’t yet occurred to me, this was my favourite point in the evening. Sitting on the floor with the plates shoved aside after finishing some kind of vegan meal (with hummus) was the time of most kinship, as we plotted, discussed, and romanced one another in conversation, nourished by the food and warmed by wine.
I always imagined that the end times would bring this intimacy, where the direness would inspire confidences over bottles of booze and plates of after-dinner chocolates. It’s the reason I stockpile, so I’m ready to share the small luxuries during the tough times. But Covid was a reminder that we don’t control the way things fall apart, and so for the last year instead of chicken cordon bleu and confidences we’ve had ramen noodles and confinement. And still, through all of it I’ve collected china and linens. I’ve cleaned out my cupboards to get rid of what no longer suits me, but I’ve acquired a few new items as well. I have been waiting, with confidence, that we will return to the long table en masse once again. Ready to share elbow room, tell our stories, and pass the dishes to one another.
Descanso Bay, Gabriola Island. A mild spring allows for evening kayaking, this shot taken on the night of the full moon after pulling my boat into shore.
April recipe: Chicken soup in a jar (pressure canning)
I haven’t shared a pressure-canning recipe for awhile, and since I am in the midst of replenishing my shelves post-winter, I’m sharing one put up last week. Canned soups are something we like to have on hand because they make for quick meals on lazy days. Canning our own allows me to reduce the salt and remove the sugar found in commercially-produced foods.
Yield: 9 pint jars (or so)
Equipment: Pressure canner, Instant Pot (it’s possible to prep the soup ingredients without an IP but it shortens the process considerably), canning jars/lids/rings
3 1/2-4 pound chicken
6 celery ribs
2 yellow onions
some frozen peas and/or corn (optional)
Put the whole chicken in the Instant Pot with one cup of water. Set to high pressure and cook for 24 minutes. Do a quick release on the pressure and remove chicken to cool. (If you don’t have an Instant Pot, you can roast the chicken instead).
Once the chicken has cooled, pull the skin off and discard, then pull all the meat off the bones. Dice the meat and set aside.
Making the stock: Put the chicken carcass back in the Instant Pot along with 2 celery ribs, 1 onion (quartered), 2 carrots cut into pieces, 2 bay leaves and a tablespoon of salt. Fill with water (I use an 8 quart pot). Set pressure to high and cook for 45 minutes. Quick release when the IP beeps, set the stock aside to cool and then strain/discard the solids.
While stock is cooking dice the remaining celery, onion, and carrots - up to four cups worth. Mix them together.
You now have diced chicken, chicken stock, and 4 cups of mixed veggies. If you are using frozen veggies, get those out as well as the herbs. Line up your clean jars and fill as follows: 1/4 jar diced veggies, 1/4 jar diced chicken, 1 tablespoon each frozen peas and corn, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp salt, twist of pepper, 1/2 tsp of oregano - and then fill the rest of the way with chicken stock leaving 1-inch of headspace.
Once your jars are full, wipe the rims with vinegar and put fresh snap lids and rings on them. Pressure can them according to the directions for your canner: 75 minutes @ 10 pounds of pressure.
In the workshop
In April I got out of my own way and warped my Glimakra Julia loom for the first time in nearly a year. It’s a small loom, and I reduced its complexity by removing half the shafts for a simple warping and weaving process. That was all it took to smash through my weaver’s block. This is a four-shaft weaving project, known as Friendship Towels. Since finishing these, I have woven a shawl sample and am currently weaving some hand towels for the bathroom in bright orange and green. The excitement of designing and making fabric has returned with force, just when I thought it had disappeared for good.
Dystopian capitalist nightmares repackaged as wholesome events: A Facebook group to remind you what so many “hopeful” memes are really saying about our culture. I laugh and cringe whenever one of these pops up in my feed.
This One Wild and Precious Life: The Path Back to Connection in a Fractured World by Sarah Wilson: I read this in April and think this is worth a read, even though I am critical of individualist solutions to the world’s problems. Wilson is an engaging writer and she puts her finger right on the problem-locus of our global predicament (climate change/capitalism). If you are new to this stuff, it’s a good starting point. If you know the drill already, you will get an interesting list of other writers to explore from her work.
How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life: Something to consider when we complain about how crowded things are is that the human life span is double what it was one hundred years ago. This article outlines the scientific advances and social change that propelled our growth in life expectancy - while noting that its unlikely to continue (Covid alone has reduced the life expectancy for African Americans by three years, and one year for everyone else. The opioid crisis is another factor that will reduce life expectancy in this period).
Spring weather and getting outdoors is lightening things a bit around here. Not to mention the vaccine roll out - I have an appointment in ten days for my first shot! Though things won’t return to normal overnight, I’m feeling a tiny bit of hope with each person who posts their vaccine experience on social. This summer will certainly feel different than last.
I am very close to running a subscriber draw. Just two more people need to subscribe and I will randomly pull a name to receive a hand woven tea towel and a copy of Paul Kingsnorth’s book Savage Gods.
If you want to hear more from me, find my blog at http://red-cedar.ca or follow me on instagram @birdsongworkshop. Be well!
How much do I look forward to speaking loudly across your table at you!
Such a wonderful read. I could invision your table setting as I read. Your dinner parties are the best. Thank you for keeping life interesting and sharing your wisdom and generosity, always. <3