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It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To : A Day of Frantic Shopping, Mixed-Up Table Manners and Forgotten Creme Caramel

They should give special medals for valor to people who single-handedly pull off last-minute dinner parties. And maybe a 48-hour post-event IV to resuscitate the pooped host once the guests are gone.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I used to be one of those food writers who rhapsodized over entertaining and even used such words as “fun” and “a breeze” to describe what is really a dead center attack on the nervous system.

Well, old age makes you wiser and more honest. So I, with a drawer full of purple hearts, am here to tell you, I lied.

Enjoyable or not, entertaining is excruciatingly hard work, and to prove it, I tracked a typical day of preparation for a dinner party attended by three educators from an Eastern European country, who were here on tour learning about the American educational system.

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6:30 a.m.: Today is the day. Shower and dress for hard labor.

7 a.m.: To heck with it. I’m going to the gym anyway. Undress and dress for weight work.

7:30 a.m.: Back from the gym. I have to shop.

8 a.m.: The menu: I am scanning the “Gourmet” cookbook series. Gigot d’agneau, cassoulet de poissons, pintadeaux au chou, paupiettes de veau, paves de rumsteak au poivre vert. It all looks good. Help. What do I do?

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8:30 a.m.: A call to Marya, my daughter, who knows everything. “Do I serve gigot d’agneau, cassoulet de poissons. . . .?’

“Make it easy on yourself, Mom,” she said. “Do steaks. People who have lived under a tyrannical, totalitarian system all their lives will love steak.”

8:45 a.m.: It’s settled. My guests will find feta cheese, olives and tiny spinach-cheese triangles familiar as appetizers, I think, unless Communism wiped out not only table manners but also the innocent custom of munching before dinner.

The beginnings of a creamed potato-leek soup (no cream, just whirred) sits in the refrigerator waiting for something to happen. I decide to use it. Also on the menu: steak, Lyonnaise potatoes, baby steamed vegetables, leftover squash pie made with filo, Caesar salad, creme caramel and an all-red fruit platter with cookies for dessert. Too much food, but what the heck.

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9 a.m.: I start collecting silver and stemware from basement storage. They need cleaning. I wash and wipe glasses, polish silver, retouch the linen napkins with a hot iron and create a centerpiece with garden flowers and autumn leaves. It’s not working. I start over with the centerpiece.

Noon: The table is set. All I have left to do is shop, cook, tidy up and shower.

I dash to Bezjian’s on Santa Monica Boulevard to replenish my supply of feta cheese and olives and pick up a loaf of the store’s excellent bread. The butter cookies (kourabiedes) look good too, and I buy a dozen. It’s 12:45 p.m. and I’m still checking out the amazing food stuffs at Bezjian’s, the only place I know where you can find couscous in four grades and sizes.

1:30 p.m.: Cross-town traffic is fierce. Chalet Gourmet in West Hollywood, a free-standing anachronism in an age of high-tech supermarkets, may look a bit stuck in a time warp, but it’s still one of the few places to carry prime-grade meats. I buy New York steak. The 1995 Beaujolais Nouveau has just been released and I put four bottles in my basket. I’m not sure I will use them on the menu.

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2:30 p.m.: Pavilions. Shop, shop, shop. I decide to add pumpkin, pecan and apple pies to the menu so that my guests can taste our favorite American pies.

3:15 p.m.: Almondine Bakery on Larchmont Boulevard. They have pumpkin and pecan pies but not apple.

3:30 p.m.: I race to Sweet Lady Jane on Melrose. The apple and lemon meringue pies and the princess cake all beckon. I stick to apple pie.

4 p.m.: Cook, cook, cook. A problem. The rosemary bread croutons meant for the soup have scorched under the broiler. I throw out the old batch and start a new one with buttered and dilled bagel cubes. I’m late with the preparation of the creme caramel and worry that it will never chill in time for dessert. Everything else--the steamed vegetables, the salad greens and dressing are prepped and ready to use. The Lyonnaise potatoes and squash pie are kept warm in the oven. The fruit bowl is arranged with red grapes, red apples, red pears and a sprinkling of large strawberries. The bread is on a board wrapped in a linen napkin. The appetizer tray is in the den along with the champagne cooler and glasses. Ah, yes, the cocktail napkins. Paper? Cloth? I settle on cloth, which means that I have to plug in the iron again.

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5:45 p.m.: The dessert table looks good. All those pies. The creme caramel, thrown in the fridge to chill, will appear before serving.

6 p.m.: Shower and dress.

6:30 p.m.: I’m slapping on my lipstick when the door bell rings and four people stand at the door. I was expecting three. “This is our driver,” a guest says. I say, “Good, come on in.” Quickly I prepare another table setting and throw another chair at the table.

7 p.m.: We’re still guzzling Moet & Chandon. The guests seem to like it. They have experienced only Russian champagne.

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7:30 p.m.: Soup is on. Everyone gets a few bagel croutons that have toughened like nails.

8 p.m.: The steaks are not ready and I decide to serve the Caesar salad immediately to fill time. I pour Beringer Chardonnay. Gone in a flash.

8:15 p.m.: I pour Rutherford Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1992. I pass the steaks, and the guests--except the American driver--start to eat. Some are using the flimsy antique salad forks to cut the steak, overlooking the big, sturdy dinner forks and knives. Luckily the steak is tender.

8:20 p.m.: The Lyonnaise potatoes are passed. No one expected them.

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8:22 p.m.: The squash pie is the other surprise. Guests continue to eat.

8:30 p.m.: I sit. I eat. The driver starts to eat too. Everyone else has almost finished their meal. There are not enough books to go around their country’s classrooms, many schools are windowless and have no heat, but the students are diligent and eager to learn. I am touched.

9 p.m.: Coffee and desserts are passed. Everyone wants a slice of each dessert. The pumpkin pie is a big hit.

9:30 p.m.: The creme caramel is in the fridge, forgotten.

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10 p.m.: More coffee, fruit. Everyone says “yes” to Cognac and liqueurs. I had forgotten to put out the tray of after-dinner drinks and begin rummaging the bar cabinet to set one up. We retire to the living room. I learn that there is some worry that former Communist factions may in the next election overturn the democratic government and be voted back into power, as has happened in other Eastern European countries. “No, no. It will not happen in our country,” one of the educators says. We drink to that.

11 p.m.: Goodbye. Everyone hugs. “Come see us in our country.” Goodbye.

11:15 p.m.: Stacking dishes for washing. The silver soaks in sudsy water.

Midnight: Wiping silver.

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12:30 a.m.: Putting away the silver.

1 a.m.: The dishes are done but not the stemware. I cut a piece of the forgotten creme caramel and stare into space.

1:30 a.m.: In bed. Dream: I am in a hospital attached to tubes. A big purple heart is on my head. Or is it my rubber hot water bottle?


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