Saving Grace

By Bridget Weiss   

Once there was a dinner to herald the very first cool front of the season. The A-list guests were excited enough to arrive a few minutes early, bearing nothing but light jackets, in the unlikely event of a chill. A sweating host greeted them in a smudged apron, and, suddenly remembering about the aperitifs, rushed off to the kitchen to wrangle ingredients for hastily crafted margaritas. Post-mixology, a sticky residue remained on the counter and floor.


The appetizers were forgotten in the refrigerator, but the merriment continued, despite stomach rumblings. Finally, one motivated guest helped to assemble the salad; another uncorked the wine; and the host herself set the table and sliced baguettes. Two hours later, when the potatoes burned and the lamb went on the grill, the intoxicated guests exclaimed over the wonderful smell, while wandering dazedly about the yard.

File this event under “good intentions, never to be included in your dossier of dinners.” Only an act of God—plumbing failure or sudden death—exempts a host from thoughtful preparation. Yes, Austin is informal—we can’t swing a possum without hitting a backyard barbecue or pot-luck—and we embrace our heritage! But planning for success places you a cut above the fray.

Perhaps this intimation fills you with fear. Maybe you’re lying on the cold tile with a damp cloth pressed to your temples. But cast doubt to the northwest winds! Victory is yours for the asking, if you will graciously allow me to boss you around.

You’re hosting a sumptuous supper, not assembling a volunteer work crew. Simply said, you don’t ask guests to man the grill, or expect them to take over when the blender explodes.

Dress for nonchalant success. Toss the stained apron in the laundry hamper.

Sparkle and shine. Express delight when your guests bring gifts, and suggest common interests.

Dinner should be prepared in advance. How otherwise will you mingle? There are a few exceptions: warming the thyme-scented gravy, or pulling the pumpkin soufflé from the oven.

Cocktails should be ready at zero hour—attend a Dai Due Supper Club to see how it’s done—and they don’t have to be complicated. Think fresh juice and mescal. Think homemade sangria. Iced beer with lime slices, anyone?

People will say and do the most amazing things after several drinks and no food, but these experiences are more fully enjoyed as dimly lit memories. Appetizers can be as simple as El Milagro chips and Eastside Café salsa.

Low centerpieces augment a culinary oeuvre, and don’t force diners to peer at each other through a floral shrubbery. Imagine the fragrant simplicity of rosemary branches or fall leaves entwining votive candles.

All this is swell, but what if you’re the guest? Don’t resurrect the damp cloth just yet. This part is a snap.

The kind phrase “please come empty-handed” is to be dismissed. Always bring something, anything—a palatable wine, a shiny rock from West Texas, a few aubergines from the farmers’ market.

Offer the best of you—heart, humor and good spirits. Leave the rest behind!

If you arrive early, appraise the neighborhood’s new architecture by car until you’re certain to be five minutes late. Fifteen minutes shows real thoughtfulness. But 30 minutes is provincial and callow, even in Texas.

Opportunities to compliment the host are abundant. Don’t waste them.

Eat, drink, be merry, say thank you, and leave on time.

Snail-mail thank-you notes trump all, but the next-day phone call or e-mail will do in a pinch.

Place the Wild West in a blender with two jiggers of panache and one of vodka, and saunter into your perfect evening.

Cheers!


GRACEFUL FALL SUPPER

Mustang Grape Juice & Local Vodka

Tapenade & Grilled Bread

Grilled Loncito’s Lamb Shanks with Mint

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes  with Rosemary

Salad Greens & Baked CKC Farms’ Chèvre Rounds in Toasted Pecans

Baked Apples & Homemade Ice Cream