In my first apartment in New York, my roommates and I didn’t have a table, so we ate on the couch, side by side, squashed in front of the television with takeout containers of pad kee mao from the Thai restaurant across Second Avenue balanced on our laps. So in my next apartment, the one I lived in for more than a decade, I was determined to make up for it with a giant dining table. I had visions of people sitting for hours, passing food around, popping open bottles, getting cozy. But tables are small. Instead, I ended up with two and a half tables from my local Ikea’s deeply discounted “as is” section of damaged furniture, extended by a leaf in the center and bolted together. It wasn’t perfect, but it looked almost seamless from a distance and could comfortably seat 24 (and uncomfortably seat 26). It was ridiculous, but it was also a dream come true.
I’d left work in restaurant kitchens to write, but when no one wanted to hire me, I kept on cooking. Between translation and copy-editing gigs, I put the giant table to use and ran a supper club out of my home, cooking a set menu with my boyfriend for as many people as possible. Friends, and friends of friends, emailed us to book seats, and we wrote the menus on postcards. At first, we mostly recreated what we’d each cooked in restaurants, or riffed on dishes we’d eaten and loved, or flipped through old cookbooks and bookmarked the pages. There were plenty of finicky little dishes balanced in spoons and repurposed candle holders, but also a low-key clam-chowder night with homemade bread. I scooped out strawberries and filled them back up with sweetened, strained strawberry juice mixed with tequila, setting it with gelatin to make little Jell-O shots to go with dessert, a strawberry roulade with whipped cream. I made ice cream with toasted brown bread crumbs tossed in dark, salted caramel, or with fresh peaches and cream cheese. I butchered oxtails to make ravioli filling, and stood over hot oil frying chicken for hours. Everything takes a little longer when you’re cooking for 24, even getting it to the table.
Because my kitchen was unfinished, and without a counter, we plated all the food on a potting bench leaning against the wall. I cleared the table between courses, and my boyfriend, a former dishwasher, did dishes between courses so we didn’t run out of plates. It was a tiny, barely self-sustaining business that worked for nearly five years, and it was also a way to make sure I actually saw my friends, and met their colleagues and got to know whom they were dating, and generally caught up on all the gossip, particularly when I couldn’t afford to join them on extravagant dinners and trips.
There was a night I went up the loft stairs to fall asleep and found someone passed out on my bed with a lit cigarette in hand. Another, when all 24 diners, some friends, some strangers, collaborated on a terrible poem and performed a reading of it after dinner. Someone generously rolled joints on the coffee table for the whole party. Strangers took out their instruments and played music at the end of the night. Every now and then, someone was moved to give a speech. I always felt as if I were charging too much, though I never asked more than $40 a person. Before I bought an air-conditioner for the window, I had a few useless box fans set up, and everyone sweated right through clothes, and no one complained. No one complained, and that’s what moved me to finally buy an air-conditioner. By then, I was getting just enough work writing to stop cooking, and I did.
Buying my first table in Los Angeles last week, I reminded myself that there’s a reason most dining tables seat six or eight people, and not 24. A reason most recipes for parties serve six or eight. But this retro party wreath — stuffed with peas and potatoes, cut so it’s easy for someone to take a piece, dip it in Maggi ketchup and keep the plate moving — could easily be doubled. The table, when it gets here next week, will go outside, which somewhat increases the likelihood of a crowd’s gathering around it, even if it’s a small one. I think we could squeeze in 10, I said to my husband, optimistically, as we marked the dimensions on the concrete, just to make sure it would fit.
Recipe: Party Wreath