I would like to be the kind of hostess who is still stirring sauce in the kitchen when the doorbell rings, wipes her hands on her apron, pushes back the wisps of hair adhering to her sweaty forehead, and answers the door with a smile.
I want to be the kind of hostess who does not lose her cool if her guests wander into the kitchen, with the dirty pans in the sink and the vegetable peelings on the counter, and who chats amiably while continuing to stir the béchamel or beat the egg whites to stiff-but-shiny peaks. I want to be o.k. with not having every bite of food prepared ahead of time, and with letting guests help to set the table and then clear away the dishes while I get dessert. I want to take risks (the thin béchamel, the fallen soufflé), and cultivate the art of imperfect, even sloppy hostessing.
I want to be less Martha Stewart and more Julia Child—with regard to attitude, that is, not culinary skills, which I don’t have a chance of ever approximating. I want to care less about the food and the house, which are extensions of myself, and more about the people around my table.
Where did the notion that everything has to be perfect before inviting friends come from? I remember, when I was living with my parents, people dropping in and conversation proving so engrossing that a spur of the moment batch of soup or an omelet would be produced, and a great evening would ensue. But when, in my generation, most women went on to jobs and careers, people stopped dropping in—we were all terribly busy—and gatherings happened by appointment only. Paradoxically, this had the effect of making them more formal and more demanding. (Martha Stewart, urging us to serve pumpkin purée in gold-painted, hollowed-out individual pumpkin shells, also deserves her share of the blame for this, of course.)
Still, not everyone fell victim to this trend. I have known accomplished professional women who nevertheless personified the platonic ideal of sloppy hostessing. We’d be greeted at the door by an imperfectly-trained dog who would jump up on us while from the kitchen the cook yelled over her shoulder, “Don’t bother taking off your shoes—the floor is always dirty. We have a dog, you know.” After which we’d all stand around in the kitchen, inhaling the smell of garlic being sautéed and chatting. There would be a glass in my hand, with wine in it, and out of the oven would come a tray of perfectly grilled baguette slices topped with something nice.
Then we would sit down at the imperfectly-set table (“Guess I forgot the salad forks. Oh well….”) and have a perfect dinner of simple food plainly served, and good conversation and sometimes even a song or two. And in bed that night, thinking about the evening, I would remember not the dog’s muddy paws or the messy kitchen or the missing salad forks, but the talk and the laughter and the company.
My days of making petits fours from scratch for dozens of guests are long gone. Now my hostessing is more of the cheese and crackers, glass of wine variety, so you might argue that I have already reached my sloppy ideal. But the old perfectionist urge persists. Thirty minutes before the guests are due, the dog has to have been walked and fed, the bathroom towels straightened, the kitchen counters cleared, and random bits of fluff picked off the rug. I suppose my sloppiness indoctrination should begin with baby steps: maybe leaving the towels unstraightened, or purposely waiting until after people arrive to set out the cocktail napkins. And see what happens.
But the best reason for cultivating a laissez faire attitude towards company is not simply to alleviate stress. For us weary perfectionists, control freaks, and people pleasers it might be a salutary practice to take down the embroidered veil under which we cower and let our friends see our fallible, vulnerable self. I don’t think any of them would turn away in disgust, and some might even find this sauce-stained, disorganized, shoddy version of us endearing.