I strongly identify with two cultures where food and entertainment are crucial. I’m Jewish where, like many ethnicities and cultures, food is a huge part of our identity. I’m also a gay man. I’m not sure of the culture now since I cut way back on socializing long ago, but when I was a young gay starting to make friends and learn about this (at the time) heavily coded culture, feeding people was a way to forge and strengthen friendships. Entertaining was an obligation to pay back those who entertained me. It was also an expected way to show that I had class and taste and panache. Sadly, I have never had the good taste gene that is expected of gay men. For many, entertaining people at home and preparing food seems easy as pie. For me, well, it’s always been a lot of stress and work and learning, but that doesn’t stop me. After all, it’s just cooking. What could possibly go wrong?
When I was 25 years old, I decided it was time to finally have people over to my place. I had an apartment with furniture other than cardboard boxes. Though I now realize that my inexpensive furniture was pretty ugly, at the time I thought it was nice. I had a bedroom set of laminate and particle board that was designed to be cheap but resemble expensive black and grey marble. In retrospect, the faux marble was a faux pas but it had storage everywhere so I could justify it as efficient. I had a brown tweed couch, a bookshelf that held my tv and stereo, and a dining room table of wood and glass that functioned. That’s the best thing I can say about it. I had an upright piano that I still own, and 6 wooden upholstered dining room chairs. I also had a nice print of a painting I received as a gift from my childhood friends. I had it matted and framed in a thin chrome frame. Though it was the mid 80s, my place looked very 70s.
I decided that I would have some friends over for brunch. First of all, brunch seemed easier than other meals. It was informal. Even the name brunch sounds playful and conducive to drinking. I invited 6 friends over for my first gay group meal in my home. I started planning the menu. I decided to make an easy cheesecake and asked my Great Aunt Marion for her recipe. She wrote it out on an index card for me. I also got a simple recipe for a spinach lasagna from my Aunt Paula. The beautiful thing about these two dishes is that I could prepare them ahead of time. The rest of the meal involved digging into my Jewish roots. I went to Lincolnwood (the suburb where I grew up) and to shop at The Milk Pail, a small grocery store with a great deli counter. The place was crowded with old Jewish people, mostly women. I took my number and, while waiting, asked a stranger to please tell me how much lox and smoked fish I should buy. Lox and smoked fish, not to mention bagels and cream cheese, would show that I have class and really know how to throw a brunch. Well, asking advice on quantity of lox began what the Learner Papers still call The Milk Pail Riots. Everyone had an opinion and people got louder and angrier by the minute. The big issue was not how much lox people would eat, but how to properly entertain. I guess there has to be so much abundance that people would never even question taking huge portions at the table. The worst sin would be to have just enough for everyone to have as much as they want to eat. No, there had to be lots of leftovers. I got lessons on how to take the vast quantities of excess lox, wrap it, and freeze it. When someone suggested a quarter pound of lox per guest, it led to near fisticuffs from the people who thought that seemed stingy and declassee. Canes and umbrellas were being wielded. The volume of the shouting made it nearly impossible to hear my number called, but I quickly and quietly ordered, paid, and snuck quietly out of the store just when I imagine the canned goods projectiles started to fly.
Now I was ready to set up the house. I put a tablecloth on the table, put some red tulips in a metal vase, and began putting out the first course. This started at 8:00 am for a noon invitation. Now the one thing we gays can do socially without being negatively judged, besides being completely tasteful, is to be campy. I would occasionally employ that get of out jail free card to compensate for my lack of abilities. This brunch was the first time I did this. I had (and still use) the Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook for ages 5 and up. It contained a recipe I used for the start of the brunch. I made each person a Rocket Salad. So, at 8 am, each place setting had a name card in front of their special salad. Let me describe it for you. Feel free to use this recipe when you entertain. You take a small plate and put a lettuce leaf on it. On top of the lettuce, center a pineapple ring. Now here is the tricky part which requires great culinary skill. Place a half a banana (cut horizontally) so it emanates erect from the hole in the middle of the pineapple. In the top end of the banana, use a toothpick to affix a half a maraschino cherry. Each salad looks just like a rocket!
Finally, I put the lasagna into the preheated oven. Around 12:30, my guests began to arrive. We relaxed with Mimosas and Bloody Mary.
I noticed that the oven door didn’t seem to be properly shut so I pushed the little switch to seal the oven door. Well, one of my guests noticed that what I had actually done was to put the oven from cook to clean meaning it could not be opened again until everything in it had been incinerated at 900 degrees. Panicked, I called my building management and they sent up a maintenance person to remove my over door so I could remove our main course before it had been immolated. Looking at the table, I noticed the bananas had been turning black and shriveling. The Rocket Salads did not have the fresh look I wanted for this party. Thankfully, the lox, bagels, and cream cheese had not been messed up. It was time for dessert, and I pulled the homemade cheesecake proudly from the fridge. Sadly, it was still completely liquid. I hadn’t set at all. It tasted good so we ate it with spoons.
The next day, when my Aunt Marion asked about the cheesecake, I told her it was delicious, but the consistency was all wrong. She asked how long I had baked it. Baked it? I retrieved the recipe card, flipped it over, and on the back was the final step which was to bake it for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. I had not read that part and didn’t know cheesecakes had to be baked. I just thought they came out of the refrigerator.
I would say that my first time hosting a tasteful gay party was a disaster but, in reality, we all had a really good time. Everyone enjoyed the company and the spirit of the afternoon. In a statement that can have me excommunicated from my Jewish and gay people, I will assert that the food wasn’t really important. The fun and smart and good-spirited company made this a truly successful event. New lasting friendships were made. I showed through my (mostly failed) efforts that I was willing to work hard to try and please my friends. And I showed that the people in my life have too much class and grace to make me a social pariah even though I ruined a simple meal. Having those kinds of people in my life made me a social success.