Mouths to Feed: Self Improvement

By Celia Barbour

I’m not much of a host. This is a true fact; I am not fishing for compliments. (Which is not to say that I am above such puerile games. Under most circumstances, I engage happily in them.) But I have gathered enough empirical evidence over the years to stand by my conclusion. I have watched myself welcome people into my house, and I have watched other people welcome us into their houses, and for the most part, they are way better at it than I am.

For one thing, they seem genuinely excited when Peter and I arrive, and will stop whatever they’re doing to make sure we know it. They might throw an arm chummily around my shoulders, or hand Peter a glass and then fill it with champagne from a bottle at hand. They might ask about some recent project, or introduce us to someone standing nearby. One friend never comes to the door, but calls out, “Darlings! Come say hello!” from the kitchen where she is up to her wrists in radishes or squid, and offers kisses when we lean in close.

In short, they make us feel as if everything’s going to be hunky dory now that we are finally here.

spring tizzy 2The sad thing is, I feel this way about my guests, too. If I invite someone to dinner, it’s because I have been craving their company, and I’m ebullient and grateful they have agreed to spend the evening with us. I just can’t seem to convey these feelings gracefully.

I’ve studied the behavior of hosts I admire, and tried my best to imitate it. But something screwy happens inside me at the sight of people approaching the front door. I suddenly experience a surge of worry: Is everything ready? Did I put the forks out? Is the sauce about to boil over? Has the cheese come to room temperature? I get so addled by these details that I have trouble switching gears.

There ought to be a special serenity prayer for hosts like me: God grant me the serenity to accept the bean dip for what it is, the vivacity to celebrate my awesome friends, and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I was younger, people often assumed that the fact that I cooked well meant ipso facto that I entertained well, but I knew better. I began to suspect not only that the two skills don’t automatically go hand in hand, but that they might be completely unrelated. This question plagued me so much that I managed, whenever I could, to work it into interviews about completely unrelated subjects with big-deal chefs. In the middle of talking to them about sous vide or sustainable fish, I’d say, “So, um, do you prefer to stay in the kitchen focusing on food during service, or do you love roaming the dining room, chatting up guests?” Some of them said they like both, but a surprising lot of them admitted that when they’re in the kitchen, they want to be completely focused on the food; they don’t give a rat’s whisker about the diners. And when they’re with people, they’re in a different mode.

This reassured me, kind of, but not really, because I am not a chef.

spring tizzy 1Meanwhile, I continue to try to improve as a host. Lately, I have concluded that there are many different ways to be good at it, and, moreover, that you have to find one that fits naturally with who you are. (Yes, it took me three decades to figure this out; sometimes I’m slow, OK?) But until I get the hang of it myself, I will compensate with things like this drink, which I invented last weekend. I’d bought a bottle of Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and when I tasted it, I thought: It needs a little of this, and a little of that, and I mixed all those things together and it turned out so amazingly good that I couldn’t wait to share it with the friends who were coming over for the evening. As they arrived, I offered each a glass. I hope they could taste in its tizzy of flavors just how happy I was to see them.

The Spring Tizzy

In place of the ginger liqueur, you can use ginger simple syrup (recipe follows).

For each drink:

small handful (3-4 sprigs) cilantro

small handful (2-3 sprigs) mint

juice of ½ lime

ice

1 ounce Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, or 2 tablespoons ginger simple syrup

4 ounces Prosecco

  1. Remove a pretty leaf from the herb sprigs and set aside for garnish. With a mortar and pestle, muddle the remaining cilantro and mint sprigs, crushing them until well bruised (you can also use a small bowl and the handle of a wooden spoon).
  2. Squeeze the lime juice over the herbs, and mix together well. Pour through a strainer into a highball glass filled with ice. Add the liqueur and Prosecco, and stir to combine. Serve with a twist of lime zest, if desired, and the mint and cilantro leaf garnish.

Ginger Simple Syrup

This makes much more than you’ll need; store the extra in your refrigerator and use it to sweeten lemonade or iced tea, or on oatmeal.

3 ounces fresh ginger

½ cup sugar

½ cup water

Peel the skin from the ginger and cut into thin rounds. Combine the sugar and water in a very small saucepan and bring to a simmer; stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the ginger slices, turn off the heat, and cover the pot. Allow the ginger to steep at least 30 minutes, and up to 12 hours (it will get stronger and spicier as it steeps). Strain out the ginger before using.


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