Dinner Party Disasters
Don't let the holidays trip you up
I have always enjoyed the holiday tale about the Thanksgiving when Julia Child and her dinner guests were watching the maid carry a great, glossy turkey from the kitchen. Suddenly, the maid tripped. The big bird hit the dining room floor and skidded. Child, with cheerful aplomb, instructed the maid to take the dirty bird back to the kitchen and bring out the other turkey.
There’s plenty of reason to doubt the accuracy of that tale. I’ve heard suspiciously similar accounts of the “bring-out-the-other-bird” ruse. One variation, dating back to a 1959 book of humor, lists Mrs. Calvin Coolidge—not Julia Child—as the calm and canny Thanksgiving hostess. It doesn’t really matter if either tale is true. Anybody who ever spent hours or days preparing to host a big holiday celebration gets the joke.
Sandy Bonner, lawyer, lobbyist and avid hostess, has lived it. Bonner and her husband, who live in Bethesda, host a couple of dinner parties a month and have for decades. “It’s a creative process for me,” says Bonner, 61. “I love to get in the kitchen first thing in the morning and cook all day.”
Several years ago, when they were living in Potomac, Bonner roasted Cornish hens for one of their soirees. Jovial guests were seated around the dining room table. She was in the kitchen, artfully arranging the finished hens on a serving tray. A child’s toy was on the kitchen floor. Bonner tripped over it, and the hens slid onto the floor. Bonner channeled Julia. She picked up the hens and served them. “That was back in the day when floor plans weren’t so open and your guests couldn’t see into the kitchen from the dining room,” she says.
One of the guests had brought extraordinary wine—a 1969 Burgundy. “After we opened that, it didn’t matter what else happened,” Bonner says. “Everyone was happy.” Bonner’s husband renamed the recipe she served that night Cornish hens sur le sol, French for “on the floor.”
I plan to keep this spirit in mind as I prepare for another holiday season of hosting and attending celebratory gatherings. I know too well that what can go wrong sometimes does. I agree with Susan Percival: “I love to entertain,” she says. “I love having people over. Sometimes, it is dreadful.”
Percival and her husband, a retired diplomat, owned a home in Bethesda for 25 years. They have hosted parties here and around the world. After all those years entertaining, she has one hard and fast rule: Never make a recipe for the first time for guests. She learned this the hard way.
Percival once bought frozen crab ravioli to serve at a cocktail party. The recipe sounded simple enough: Boil the ravioli in water briefly, transfer them to a frying pan, sauté with some Old Bay spice mix, top with a dab of fresh tomato sauce. During the party, she noticed guests taking one bite of ravioli and then abandoning it, guiltily, and walking away. Turns out, the ravioli were still frozen. She’d forgotten to boil them before sautéing.
“I got all caught up in the party and skipped that step,” she says.
For years, Kim Miglino, 33, who manages the Sassanova store on Bethesda Row, hosted a Hanukkah dinner for friends, cooking for 15 to 20 people in an ill-equipped apartment kitchen. She bloodied her knuckles using a cheap box grater to prepare potatoes for the latkes. “I kept telling myself, people have been doing this for thousands of years without owning food processors,” she says. “So I can do this!”
Eventually, she just accepted that hosting can be stressful. She named her annual dinners the “Blood, Sweat and Tears Hanukkah” and played the band’s songs as her theme music.
Miglino had never roasted a turkey until she was newly married and invited her in-laws for Thanksgiving. She was working as a property manager at the time. Midway through dinner preparations, she got an emergency call and had to leave for two hours. A toilet in a third-floor apartment had run over and flooded three apartments. “I’m pretty sure all those people had Thanksgiving at Denny’s,” she says.
When she returned home and took her own turkey out of the oven, she discovered that she had roasted it with one of those plastic bags stuffed with gizzards still inside the cavity. “My mother-in-law just handed me a glass of wine and said, ‘Everything will be OK.’”
It was. The meal went so well that she was feeling a little cocky when it came time to serve the beautiful apple pie she’d baked. Unfortunately, she dropped it on the kitchen floor before she could show it off. Her mother-in-law helped scoop the pie into bowls to serve. It was a bonding experience.
Entertaining family and friends is not about the food, Bonner says. “It’s about the experience.” If you are lucky, it’s about experiencing love. Bonner and her husband celebrated last Thanksgiving with their son and his girlfriend at the young couple’s new home in Boston. They hit a rough patch when the turkey they were brining overnight in the refrigerator shifted.
The brining liquid leaked out of the refrigerator and covered the kitchen floor. They cleaned it up. It ended up being a beautiful Thanksgiving. “My son was at the head of his own table,” she says. “He made the toast. It was very special for us to pass the baton. My husband was in tears.”
In my family, no mishap rivals a long ago christening. It is spoken of rarely and in tones of horror.
It began well. My mother planned an elegant Southern garden party after the church services. With my mother’s help, my sisters and I polished our grandmother’s sterling punch bowl and filled vases with flowers cut from my father’s garden. We banished my parents’ German shepherd—who was protective of the immediate family and disliked strangers—to the basement. We made tea sandwiches and canapés. When my mother worried that some of our canapés tasted better than they looked, I told her that nobody would remember the canapés.
My grandmother had traveled far to attend this celebration—she wasn’t well and knew this would be the last great-grandchild that she saw christened. My mother and her mother are the best cooks I’ve ever known. My mother taught herself basic French so she could take cooking classes in Paris. She didn’t need them. She’s a natural. She and my grandmother never made mere dishes or meals. They fed souls. I’ve often thought that without the magic of their holiday parties, Christmas dinners and birthday celebrations, my family wouldn’t be a family—just a far-flung assortment of genetically-linked humans.
On the day of the christening, they were in their glory. The late-afternoon heat eventually drove family and guests out of the garden and into the house. The sons-in-law encouraged my father to sneak into the basement to bring up some beer. Dad obliged, but forgot to secure the basement door behind him.
My parents’ German shepherd pushed the basement door open just as one guest—my younger sister’s mother-in-law—reached for the infant guest of honor. The dog crossed the great room in what seemed like a single leap and clamped down hard on the 80-year-old woman’s hand. Bleeding, but stoic, she left to get stitches at the closest emergency room. The party pretty much broke up after that. The family did dishes in a kind of shock.
Later—I don’t remember how much later—my exhausted grandmother tripped over the guest of honor’s diaper bag, fell and had to be taken to the hospital.
When we finally made it home from the emergency room, it was the middle of the night. I drew my mother a hot bath. We cried together until we laughed.
I was right about one thing. Nobody remembers the canapés.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.