A toast to the ghosts of christmas lunches past
And a celebration of those who still grace us with their presence.
My mother kept a diary of her dinner party guests. Who came, who argued, who flirted, who got indigestion. What they ate, what they said, and if any specific combination of people or courses served should be avoided in future.
This way, she wouldn’t repeat past mistakes — Jim hates meringue, Greta thinks Carol is insane. And increase the likelihood of successes — who knew, Megan and Martine are both synchronised swimmers! Invite them together again! That thing they did together before dessert was hilarious!
My own food-centric gatherings lack the scientific precision of my mother’s. In this, she relied on my father, her perfect foil. His role was to lubricate guests and tell jokes. They were a formidable pair.
After I’d been hauled in to greet guests in my ridiculous gown and slippers, some of the women’s little silken moustaches zinging me with static shocks as I dutifully pecked on cue, I would go to the bedroom with my sister, and listen carefully whenever the table went quiet, as my father approached a punchline, followed by an explosion of laughter, which echoed and rippled away as people repeated whatever line had tickled them so much.
When I myself was married, I became the cook, and my wife baked. She was truly gifted, and the creations she proffered were both unexpected and somehow took our catering to another level.
But now, as I play host for a fraction of the time I used to, I’m more about simply having a gathering, instead of meticulously designing one. Divorce does that to you, robbing you of both a sous chef and a partner in crime, someone who will prompt, cajole, and inspire friends to visit.
Being in a couple doubles your options and halves your workload. And your expenses. No wonder catering as a single person is so hard. Not to mention the dishes.
I used to love hosting, especially in my professional drinking days, when bottles of wine marked the phases of the meal, the early socialising, and then the delicious food, before moving to coffee and whiskies in the late afternoon.
No longer a drinker, I now watch others drink on occasion, and after a while, find myself listening to the same stories, over and again, as the volume gets progressively louder. And I shrink a little, as my tongue gets heavy and awkward.
Being slightly introverted, cooking means I can enjoy people being nearby, but remain behind a shield of culinary duty. It’s something I miss.
These days, I cook with my daughter or make loving meals to share with my new partner. These forays, which I so enjoy, seem like enough.
Part of me is wired, though, for the big table, the community breaking bread together. The celebratory feast.
However, as I grow older, it feels like the list of possible guests has grown narrower. Without sadness, it feels like an earlier experimental phase of life is firmly over, and with it, a gallery of chance and happenstance has been boarded up for good. Random connections and spontaneity are done.
I think back and remember my most reliable instant guest, dear Charles. He was reliably prone to a last-minute invitation, who needn’t confer with his wife or four children. Yes, we’ll see you in half an hour, he’d say. He is no longer with us and I miss him. He was gregarious and funny and contrarian.
And so, at the table of life, some spaces appear, as people move into the next world. Faces that once populated a table are fondly remembered.
Family has changed, too. A family Sunday lunch happens seldom these days. I wonder when I’ll dine alone for the last time? An effort must be made.
And now Christmas lurks, and with it, the imperative to host a massive lunch. Who’s invited? Well, who’s available?
It’s traditional to invite stragglers, honorary guests, those without family. My ex-brother-in-law and his family came last year.
This year, my new partner and some of her grown-up children might appear, with their own partners, along with my ex-wife, and some of her friends. My brother and sister and their families too.
It’s remarkable how this cast has shifted, through the years. My mother will be visiting from afar, her last trip to South Africa, as her health declines, with her husband in tow.
My eldest will come from cold, cold Germany, while my little boy, fruit of another relationship, will be called away to his other tribe, which is sad. So many variables, so many journeys to this place in time and space together.
And always, a surprise guest, a virtual stranger, brought into the bosom of the gathering, to be blessed and celebrated.
I’m already planning the meal. Even if I’ve learnt to accept more help now than I used to, it’s going to be a day of days, and a day to remember.