Dinner parties at our house have evolved. When the children were small, on weekend nights I usually fed them first, on much the same kind of food as my mother fed me, and then the doorbell would ring and friends (minus the shantung and cigarettes) would tuck into mushroom bisque followed by homemade pasta with duck confit and butternut squash. These evenings, for the most part, are over: The children stay up later than we do. Occasionally we ban them from the table so we can talk about them and about other people’s love affairs, but by dessert they have sidled up again.
I have one friend who cooks exquisite dinners for eight—six and eight courses, with wines to match. But the planets he and I live on share only running water, refrigeration, and gas on tap. Over the years, feeding a crowd, I have cut out appetizers. Thus, pistachio nuts in their shells and sometimes a bowl of caponata, the Italian mix of eggplant, olives, and tomatoes that you can make yourself but is just as good—I think better—out of a jar. Then, one large dish. My favorite is a beef stew from that edition of French Provincial Cooking, now so battered I keep it in a ziplock bag. This is accompanied by rice or pasta (I particularly like buttered orzo) and a huge green salad of mixed lettuces, passed after the main course. Cheese is nice, but we usually do without it. Dessert, however, can never be dispensed with. Our current favorite is a Pavlova: a confection of whipped cream and fruit folded into a baked meringue crust, which is said to have been invented in 1926 to welcome the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova to Australia and New Zealand but serves just as well to greet a birthday (candles stuck in here and there), the return of a globe-trotting friend, or a summer evening’s first fireflies.