A month ago, I wrote a piece called “It’s a go for grilling” which appeared in the Our Country Home section of the River Reporter. I was, ostensibly, reporting on how to go about …
A month ago, I wrote a piece called “It’s a go for grilling” which appeared in the Our Country Home section of the River Reporter. I was, ostensibly, reporting on how to go about sharing meals with family and friends during a pandemic. In hindsight, I see that I didn’t really delve into how to successfully pull off socially distanced dining. I made a few suggestions including having a picnic on the lawn, so people could comfortably spread out, and setting up a buffet station so guests could help themselves, one by one, to food. I even mentioned how some folks I know get together in an open space, such as a park, and bring their own food and drink, though the latter doesn’t appeal to me and seems overly cautious.
Meanwhile, the very same week as my piece was published, New York Times columnist Melissa Clark penned an article on exactly the same topic. It was entitled “How to Host a Socially Distanced Barbecue.” She and her husband excitedly planned a get together with a few friends, basing the amount of caution they took on the comfort zone of the most anxious of their guests. To that end, it seems to me they went overboard with such precautions as quarantining everything (for three days): the plates, silverware, glasses and napkins. They unpacked them with gloved hands. The food they provided was served directly from the grill. There were none of the usual hors d’oeuvres Clark was used to setting out. Instead, each guest was given a bag of high-quality potato chips and a miniature bottle of Purell. She notes at the end of the piece that, at first, it was hard to refrain from embracing each other, but when everyone was settled in their places with food and drink, the awkwardness eased and they remembered what it was like to share a meal together on a warm summer evening. Really?
My sister, Janet, and I recently hosted a small get together with three friends: R and B, a couple, and P who was up from the city for the weekend. Regarding social distancing, Janet and I wanted to be mindful without edging toward paranoia. I emailed everyone asking about their comfort level regarding eating here, as I always put out hors d’oeuvres with the cocktails so that no one has to worry about eating dinner afterward. I wrote that each of us would have our own space on the patio and would receive cocktail forks and spreaders. Each hor d’oeuvres dish would have its own serving utensil and there would be tongs for grabbing crackers and chips. They all wrote back saying that sounded perfect.
I’m a planner, so I made a list of what I would serve. R said she would bring a dish called Texas caviar. It’s a chunky bean “dip,” which is more like a salsa. Rather than the traditional black-eyed peas, R would be using black beans, which we all prefer. This was my list: goat cheese with fresh rosemary; hummus (which I’d picked up at the Narrowsburg farmers’ market); the Calkin family’s quark, a spreadable fresh cheese with sundried tomatoes and herbs; baked salmon and whitefish salads; herring tidbits in wine sauce; smoked Irish salmon; rolled slices of paper-thin Prosciutto de Parma; cream cheese with chives; a crudité platter of raw fennel, carrots, red pepper, celery and endive spears; sliced bagel rounds; assorted crackers; and tortilla chips. I juiced a dozen limes and made an enormous pitcher of margaritas and set it to chill in the fridge. Before the guests arrived, I salt-rimmed margarita glasses so everything would be ready. Janet moved all the porch furniture around, setting up stations for each individual to be seated six feet from each other.
B and R arrived first. Soon after, P appeared, thoughtfully arriving in a mask.
In the kitchen, I poured margaritas and set one next to each guest. One by one we got up to fill our plates. Janet had brought out a boombox and I put on a CD.
When these friends visit, I always play music from the 1970s—tunes we all grew up with. It was a warm evening with a clear blue sky. Birds of all sorts flew around us, alighting briefly on our many feeders, and the wind chimes rang in the breeze. As we talked, ate and laughed, I refilled each person’s margarita glass. R is a quick drinker and she needed refills at a faster clip than the others. The sky began to darken as nearly three hours flew by. R stood up as Donovan was singing “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” We were all, with the exception of Janet, feeling a buzz and singing aloud by this point. “Turn it up!” R called, beginning to sway to the music. I turned the volume up just a bit. “No, louder. Let’s dance!” she insisted, and we all stood to dance in our own space. R danced toward Janet, while expressing her warmth and love for her. “Too close!” I heard Janet say. “But I don’t go anywhere,” R responded. Within a few minutes, our carefully planned socially distanced get together had dissolved. R was trying to hug and kiss me. P was clearly attempting to keep her distance. Finally, when I pivoted away from R, she turned to her husband and instructed, “Come on, B, dance with me.” We were all singing “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” as B and R locked arms. Janet had begun clearing plates and bowls and was washing dishes in the kitchen. Not long afterward, our friends were headed to their cars. I turned off the music and brought the boombox inside. Janet gave me a weary look. “I know, I know,” I said. “Can I make a suggestion?” Janet asked. I nodded. “Just pour less next time. You don’t have to finish the whole pitcher just because you made it.”
The following day was warm and sunny. After the previous evening, there was a delicious feeling of calm. For lunch, I lit up the grill and tried a new chicken recipe adapted from the New York Times as well as throwing large stalks of bok choy on the rack over the coals. Early that morning, I had sent R a brief email saying that even though our time together had been a blast, our carefully planned distancing had fallen by the wayside. She agreed, adding “We’ll be better next time. It’s just that your margaritas are so damn good!”
Maybe I’ll serve sangria next time... less alcohol content.