Talk That Talk

plaaftimgTHERE is a whole host of sayings to the effect that traveling in hope is better than arriving and that the anticipation of pleasure is more enjoyable than the event itself. But what about the pleasure after the event — the regrets, the raking over of the coals, the recriminations. Cookery writers religiously talk of the dinner party at home in two parts, the preparation and the dinner itself. But dinner parties are like Caesar’s Gaul. What about the autopsy? That, for many hosts, is the best fun of all. As soon as the front door shuts on the last guest, hostess throws another log on the fire, host pulls the cork on another bottle of claret, and the show is under way: “What on earth was the matter with George?”

“You noticed too?”

`One couldn’t help it. He said next to nothing, hardly ate anything, and drank — did you see what he drank?’

`About a glass all evening.’

“If that. George, of all people! He’s usually good for two bottles.” “But did you notice Susan? She ignored him all evening, chattered away, and scarcely looked at him.”

The rules of the game for a really good postmortem are clear. Host and hostess have to speculate about what was wrong with George using only data from the evening itself. How was George when he arrived? If he was all right then, what happened subsequently? He was chatting to Henry before dinner, and Henry was going on about the reorganization at the office. Could it have been . . . ?

For sophisticated players, there is a more advanced version. In this you allow guests to leave at different times, or indeed contrive it. Thus when George, Susan, Dick, and Janie have departed, the six left can work on the George puzzle. Then Michael and Ann leave, so Henry can say: “Look, I couldn’t say this while she was still here, but I wouldn’t take too seriously what Ann was saying about George. I don’t know if you heard what Michael . . .”

Now since the speculation about George has been built on Ann’s observation, and that is now in question, there is both Ann’s reliability to be sorted out — bluntly, Henry thinks she was drunk, but no one saw her drinking much — and the whole edifice of inquiry about George to be rebuilt. So round two is off to a good start. The finale is when only host and hostess are left. But even this is not the end. If George and the others are part of the ghastly modern turn system — “We came to you for dinner last week. You must come to us. It’s our turn” — then each evening’s speculation is but part of a series. Obviously, in the series, data can be accepted from past evenings.

SERIOUS conservative cooks don’t have much interest in this game. They have one of their own. They too go over the evening, but they are interested in what people did and did not eat, what they said about various dishes, what they said about their own food at home. You see, unserious, modern cooks are a continual source of fascination to serious conservative cooks: Why do they do the barmy things they do?

“Did you see Philip with the mutton? It was splendid. He must have eaten well over a pound. He piled through the Gorgonzola too. It was a pleasure to watch.”

“I bet Mary doesn’t feed him adequately at home. He always eats so much here.”

“I wonder why she is so mean. They’re not short of money. They can certainly afford a generous leg of

mutton.”

“I think she’s just an anti-food person — one of those people who don’t really enjoy eating and are determined to stop others doing so. She’s a squeamer too, one of the ‘Can’t’ Brigade — ‘Kidneys? Sorry, I can’t eat kidneys.’ ‘Eels? Oooh, I couldn’t.”‘

“Come on, dear, you know the rules. Where’s your evidence?” “All right. I was watching her with the mutton. She would cut a piece, then cut it up again and again, push it round the plate, raise it to her mouth, then lower it and say something in the conversation. And she buried half the mutton in the sauce soubise, which she also left, saying she couldn’t eat onions at night. Something about indigestion. In fact I swear she actually said it, ‘I can’t eat onions.’ What the hell do they mean ‘can’t’ or ‘couldn’t,’ as if some extraneous agency were stopping them? What they mean is that they won’t.”

“Perhaps the mutton wasn’t up to standard?”

“You know it was, and everyone else ate fit to bust, except George, but then that’s another question.”

“Odd how mutton goes down so well. And always gets the same comments too — ‘When did I last have mutton? Where did you get it?’ We must have told Tim in particular where we get it at least five times. Why doesn’t he get some for himself? Is it pure laziness?”

“Because Helen won’t let him. She was going on about it tonight, how he makes a mess in ‘her’ kitchen. They are odd, these modern women. Always going on about what a chore cooking is, then furious if anyone else does anything in ‘their’ kitchen.”

“You don’t like her?”

“I do, actually, but she infuriated me tonight. What’s that thing conservatives always accused leftists of in the Cold War? False moral equivalence. You know: ‘Maybe Stalin did kill a few kulaks, but didn’t the U.S. kill Vietnamese?’ Well, she was up to that tonight with the squid. There I’d been cleaning it, carefully pulling out the ink sacks, piercing them for the ink, then sieving the grit out of it and producing that wonderful squid dish, and she says, ‘Mmm, I love squid, I always have it at Romano’s on Charles Street.’ We’ve been to Romano’s, several times, unfortunately, and the only squid he ever does is fried, and what he uses are those ghastly rings, pre-battered and frozen. Just because he throws chopped parsley on them and serves them on rice he has stained yellow, she thinks they are great and fit to be compared to my en su tinta.”

On goes the conversation about the food and the guests, and down goes the wine. Suddenly so much talk of good food has the inevitable effect. “You know, old thing, there’s a little squid left, and the fire’s still glowing. Do you fancy a plate while we finish the red?”

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