During Ithaca’s overcast winter months described perfectly in the Horseflies’ tune, “I Live Where It’s Grey,” it’s easy to become isolated, lonely, depressed. Ugh! Meanwhile, the warm cheer of the casual dinner party seems to be gasping its last breaths. What a waste of potential good conversation, connection, education and even flirtation amidst a gathering of friends and soon-to-be friends.
While most of us may judge ourselves as hurting for time, space, adequate seating and dining accoutrements, or cooking skills, our space can probably accommodate more people than we’d expect, and making a hearty pot of soup for the occasion is a breeze. The Salvation Army, Trumansburg’s Gemm Shop, Ithaca ReUse, Mimi’s Attic, or any of the other fabulous local second-hand shops are your best resources for all of these, and mismatched tableware has its own caché. Add a couple candlesticks, because no matter what’s on the menu, candlelight makes both the comestibles and the guests look beautiful. If a guest is lovely enough to bring flowers, trim the stems short and stuff them in a low container so diners can see and speak with one another. Serve at table or buffet style, whichever suits your layout, and encourage guests to switch places for dessert in order to refresh the conversation.
So I’m suggesting that, no matter how rudimentary your cooking skills, how challenging our entertainment space and supplies, how meager your budgets, throwing a weeknight soup supper is a good investment in mental health. Here’s how it goes:
Day One: Put together a menu and a guest list with a couple of backups, just in case. A perfect number is six to eight. More than that and you’ve got two or three conversations going simultaneously, and things can get loud and confusing, or die entirely. Fewer than that, and energy can be diminished.
For a guest list, mix couples and singles. Invite people who have different outlooks and will gently challenge each other, or, if you have one of these rare birds, a friend who can challenge nearly anyone, but who also knows when to knock it off. A little tension is not a bad thing, but inviting a couple in the process of breaking up may throw a pall over the proceedings. Beware!
Day Two: Make your calls, texts, or knock on a few doors. If your friends have any social skills, they’ll ask if they can bring something. Your job is to provide a main dish—in this case a hearty soup or stew—and to delegate appetizers, salad, dessert, or wine, beer, cider, or all of the above. Do not delegate the appetizers to a friend you know to be habitually late. Suggest items that will compliment your main dish.
Day Three: Hit the second-hand joints for anything your table is missing. The Salvation Army store has a good selection of flatware, hidden in a small cabinet facing the checkout desk—it took me years to find it. The store is also a good source for dishes, bowls, glasses, and stemware. Paper napkins are fine. Clear as much as you can out of your refrigerator and off dining surfaces to make room for what’s coming.
Day Four: Get your shopping list in order, including candles, and hit the supermarket, your CSA, or specialty shops (the Piggery, the winter Farmers Market, and the Brookton Market spring to mind), prep all your ingredients, and find room for them in the fridge.
Day Five: Dinner night. Put together the basics for your soup, tidy up your entertainment space, set the table or plan your buffet, find some decent background music soft enough to enable conversation, make yourself presentable and take a few moments to meditate. Breathe! A half-glass of wine may help. Half an hour before guests are scheduled to arrive, finish your cooking, wash or hide dirty dishes, open a bottle or two of wine or cider for guests, and get ready to have a cozy evening replete with good food, good friends and good conversation.
Peggy Haine is a food and wine writer, and host of dinner parties ranging from soup suppers for six to mammal roasts for hundreds.