First, make yourself at home
* Kick off your shoes, cook something delicious, invite
your friends -- and forget about being perfect.
By Barbara King, editor of the Home section.
any given season of my life, I've had a fantasy image running
on the big screen of my inner movie theater. It's the idealized
me, whomever that may be at the moment, and she's always
superior at whatever she's trying to pull off. No matter
where I am or what I'm doing, Miraculous-Me is somewhere
just off the sound stage, a star aborning.
In this way, I have played more roles than Meryl Streep,
with almost as many accents. Look at me, and you'll look
into the 3,000 faces of Eve.
Hope springing ever eternal, I try on lives one after the
other. I've been a quasi-hippie, a quasi-hipster, a New
York careerist, a nature girl in the woods, a world traveler,
a pampered wife in a suburban house, a wounded woman starting
over, all on her own. That's to name only what comes readily
to mind. Over all these lives, I've superimposed some notion
of my best self or rather, should I say, someone
else's best self.
It doesn't take much to capture my fancy (although it takes
a lot to hold it). l can read a compelling passage in a
book, and the next thing I know I'm determined to play that
character, in those clothes, in that place. I'm acutely
affected by any scene book, film, real life
that involves meals.
Take this one, from James Salter's novel "Light Years":
"Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside
Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People
were coming for dinner. She had trimmed the stems of flowers
on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before
her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives.
On her shoulders there was perfume November evening, immemorial,
clear. Smoked brook trout, mutton, an endive salad, a Margaux
open on the sideboard Country dinners, the table dense with
glasses, flowers, all the food one can eat, dinners ending
in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease." I bought that
book because I was drawn to the cover: a garden, a high,
fence-like hedge, a sliver of cedar; two white wicker chairs,
a small round table, a white tablecloth; a bowl of fruit,
a slice of watermelon, the remnants of red wine in two wine
glasses. One look and there was nothing to do but dine alfresco,
all-white. Some trout (my new husband was a skilled fisherman),
some Margaux (he might have some in his wine closet), some
perfume on my shoulders (he'd love this).
It was in the first months of my marriage to a Texan, and
I had gone domestic after years as an uptown, playboy-dating
single in Manhattan whose refrigerator cooled nothing but
Dannon yogurt. So I became Nedra for a day, and here's how
it went: A storm came through; the trout broke into a mess
of overcooked bits; we drank Pouilly Fuissé; he didn't
notice the perfume.
But I was not deterred from my new version of myself as
domestic goddess. I'd mastered the decorating thing, or
so I thought (I wince, I cringe when I recall the deeply
orangish loveseat, the fake tapestry in the study); what
could possibly be the trick in mastering the cooking thing?
I threw myself into my chef's role, corrupting any number
of recipes with my own anarchic take on timing and combining,
until I got it down.
Now it was time to entertain. And by then I had Martha Stewart's
life to try on.
This was the year her first book, "Entertaining,"
was published. Once again, I was struck by the cover: Blond
Martha, thin and innocent, and wearing a crisp, white cotton
dress with a cameo and pearls, stood at her beautifully
laid dining table looking terribly relaxed and even more
terribly happy. Inside the cover, there she was again in
her big country kitchen, rafters hung with antique baskets
and copper pots, produce from her gardens all around her.
Ready to throw cocktail parties for 200, luaus for 20, kitchen
salad parties for 30. I grew lightheaded just reading the
table of contents. Is that what it meant to entertain?
I knew straightaway that I would have to wear Martha's life
in the loosest fashion. I was not going to raise rare chickens
for summer omelet brunches, or stencil my driveway for my
hordes of arriving guests. But she had the most useful advice
on entertaining in general, advice that has stuck with me
through the years.
Entertaining, she said, is as simple as this: one friend
treating other friends. It is the desire to please someone
in a personal way. And because home entertaining has evolved
from strict rules to freewheeling, it's a chance to be as
individual as you choose. What makes a party special is
the evidence of a unique personality at work.
But entertaining with panache is about a lot more than just
articulating your personal style. You have to have a sense
of what true conviviality is, making each person comfortable
enough to be natural, spontaneous, expressive. If a party
doesn't have that ease, it's going to be polite, proper,
polished and dull, dull, dull. I've been to too many of
those uptight, dreary affairs. I've given them too.
I don't want to do either, ever again. Bad parties, like
bank lines and blind dates, fall into the life-is-too-short
And so my latest screen version of myself is trying on Laurie
Frank's life. I would like, for once no, for all
time to be the kind of hostess who bops off to the
markets three hours before my guests are due, who has the
grace and good sense to make sure that when they do arrive,
they'll be treated like they're the greatest show on earth,
and who wears a long, velvet dress with bare feet. When
I become the vibrant, uninhibited Laurie Frank, my parties
will be the best ever trust me on this. You'll never
not want to be invited.
"The world is as we are," goes an Eastern saying.
And so is the party.