By Mady Kaye
Photography by Aimee Wenske
The table is splendidly dressed: fine clothes, bone china, sterling flatware, sparkling glassware and an imposing vase of resplendent flowers—ready for the 12 diners to fill the room with stories, laughter and delectable food. Welcome to our gourmet dinner group! We’ve been meeting for 28 years now. Some of us have been friends since college—like the two with the same last name, now married to other people, but still part of this harmonious group.
In the beginning, the emphasis was on socializing, but over the years, we’ve become more serious about the cooking part—highlighting inventive dishes and local produce. We take great pride in our culinary endeavors, stopping just a hair short of competitiveness.
We gather every other month, with each couple playing host once a year—they get to decide the theme and prepare the entrée. When we attend a dinner, we don’t actually know what’s on the menu. We only know what category we’ve chosen: appetizer, salad, vegetable, dessert or miscellaneous (bread, soup, whatever works). We usually have a general idea of the entrée ahead of time, though. We also bring what we wish to imbibe. (We’ve noticed that as our ages go up, our consumption goes down. How times change.)
On this particular evening, the menu is as varied as our members. An appetizer of fried green tomatoes with prosciutto, garlic aioli and arugula sprouts from our resident real-estate experts; an entrée of crispy-duck salad with blackberries, raspberries, oranges and arugula from our hosts. (The crispy part is the skin, which has been removed from the duck, degreased and crumbled up to serve over the salad.) These hosts are famous for their multiple and frenzied trips to the grocery store in the midst of food preparation, so we gently razz them: “How many trips to the store this time?” “Only two!” they chorus. A new record low.
For the salad course, it’s couscous with apricots, dried cherries, pine nuts and ginger. Another couple, our resident massage therapists, brings two kinds of homemade bread with both garlic butter and fresh-herb butter. A vegetable of hot-and-sour bok choy rounds out the meal, and is followed by the finale of chocolate and pecan pie with whipped cream. Often we wish for large, strong attendants with stretchers to whisk us home, but they never seem to show.
Over the years we’ve interpreted “gourmet” however we wish, like the Anti-Gourmet Dinner, probably 20 years ago. We aimed low: Vienna sausage out of a can, green Jell-O mold with miniature marshmallows and canned fruit, Frito pie and hot dogs. I found it wonderfully offensive and ate dinner at home afterward. Happily, the group was satisfied with a one-shot venture, and we returned to our usual gourmet fare.
Of course, it’s not always just about the food. Every holiday season we have a gift exchange that includes new or recycled gifts—serious ones or gags. One member is still pining for the blue beach towel she lost to another member some 15 years ago, and the tacky stove-burner covers (decorated with little snowmen) were recycled for years. But it’s the traditional family fruitcake offering that takes the most ribbing. After experiencing multiple years of one member stealthily sneaking in this gift entry—often cleverly disguised to avoid detection—we decided that it was the same bedraggled loaf of fruitcake recycled from one year to the next. We chided our fruitcake-foisting member heartily for her deception, but the laugh was on us. Every year, she draws the most advantageous number in the gift exchange, meaning she gets the final choice out of all the gifts. Choosing the best number year after year is a statistical impossibility, so the moral of the story must be: never dis the fruitcake. It’s bad karma. And even if you wouldn’t consider eating it, there’s always the next gourmet meal to anticipate.