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Let Me Entertain You

January 22, 2016 | by

Larry Salk, Summer Cocktail Party with English Butler, 1961, watercolor, gouache, ink on paper.

Among my other compulsions, I have an addiction to books about entertaining. Specifically, I suck at cooking but here are my tricks for impressing everyone books. This category encompasses titles like Peg Bracken’s classic The I Hate to Cook Book, but my favorites are less defiant and more conspiratorial. I think it all started with a copy of the food stylist Kevin Crafts’s Desperate Measures: 90 Unintimidating Recipes for the Domestically Inept, which was in my house when I was growing up. It contains fabulous chapters like “Entertaining Is a Self-Inflicted Wound,” “Remedial Entertaining,” and “Patsy Cline Memorial Chili Dinner.” The pictures are, needless to say, outstanding, and I still like his ice-cream-cake recipe. My addiction was hastened by Sally Quinn’s The Party (in which she’s always passing bought food off as her own) and over the years bolstered with any title containing the words entertaining, secrets, trickery, and stylish solutions

I should admit here that I’m a pretty decent cook, and I like an elaborate recipe as much as the next guy. But there’s something about the panache of serving up onion dip on good china or hiding a bunch of Popeye’s boxes that speaks of stylish confidence. (I think, growing up in the eighties, I always assumed classy people were wildly mendacious and treated fellow humans with disdain.) I know buying a how-to book seems like the antithesis of stylish confidence, but just as dreaming of KonMari-ing one’s closet can spark a feeling of virtuous joy, so too can such a manual make you feel like you’re the life of the party.

In any case, my newest acquisition is a book irresistibly called Confessions of a Serial Entertainer, by the designer and bon vivant Steven Stolman. He’s an excellent companion, and the pretty book is full of good humor and endearing family and slightly retro party food and sensible advice. I like books by people who seem to really love people, and he’s just that. And he’s opinionated: on hours (short and early), flowers (send them after, if at all) and dietary restrictions. Of the last, he writes,

I believe that when one is preparing one’s own food, it’s fine to be as persnickety as one wishes. Every little allergy or sensitivity or dislike can be addressed privately and effectively. But when one is an invited guest and makes such a big deal about their food rules, I tend to believe that it’s really one big smokescreen for a lack of sparkling wit. A little nibble won’t hurt you, and it’s easy to push food around until the plates are cleared. Children do it all the time. My wonderful grandfather found religion later in life and became kosher just as everyone else was discovering shrimp with lobster sauce. But he never complained and never explained. He simply brought along a cream cheese sandwich in his pocket.

(Another of Stolman’s good sandwich tips: always slice tea sandwiches with an electric knife.) 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.