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Cooking for Guests Isn't Fun, Like at All

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I’m ankle-deep in flour. My doorbell is ringing so persistently it sounds like a fire alarm. Oh wait, is it my fire alarm? My pasta’s boiling over, my sauce is burning. I haven’t checked on the asparagus roasting in the oven in what feels like an hour. To hell with them (they’re probably in flames anyway). I’m minutes—no, seconds—from throwing in the apron and calling it a night, running to my room and slamming the door behind me, chef’s hat still teetering on my head.

I’d texted a few friends to come over for dinner. Our table fits four—so, naturally, I texted six. I asked my roommates to throw a few more into the mix as well. My friends approached my announcement with caution.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Isn’t eight people too many?"

"Don’t worry," I brushed them off, a flick of the wrist. "It’s fine. I’ve got it under control."

5 Tips for a Stress-Free Dinner Party
5 Tips for a Stress-Free Dinner Party

A couple group chats and an Instagram direct message later, I had myself a bona fide dinner party. And by "bona fide," I mean: all ten of us on the floor and couch, eating from plastic plates with mismatched cutlery. And by "dinner party," I mean: There was food (most of it on plates), and people showed up with alcohol.

It’s a formula I stick to, often. l cover dinner; my guests bring wine, beer, whatever it is they like to drink.

But tonight, my friends are already on their way and nothing's ready. I’m descending, fast, into a rage-and-shame spiral as I pull an overcooked roast chicken out of the oven. I quickly Google: How long does it take to boil pasta in tears?

Even I know "entertaining" is not supposed to be this way. What of "cooking as therapy"? What of those easy, breezy dinner parties in movies and glossy magazine spreads? Affairs by the beach, even cramped but cozy-chic apartment get-togethers? Who are these "hosts with the most"? What's in the water they're drinking?

Some say that the most generous, most organic thing you can offer a loved one is a plate of home-cooked food. And I agree, don't get me wrong. It only makes sense that whenever I miss a friend, feel like catching up, or just want someone near, I invite them round for food. The kitchen is my sanctuary, when I’m alone, but especially with a friend or two. I feel confident and comfortable and at ease. I can experiment, add something new to a sauce, try that different technique I’ve had my eyes on. I can laugh and participate in conversation, and dinner is usually on the table within a 30-minute window of when I promised. It sounds idyllic because it is. Dinner shared with a few is a treasure.

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Cauliflower Dances with Paneer in This Spicy, Creamy Makhani Curry

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It’s when you multiply this "few," square it, and run it through the quadratic formula that things get hairy. Messy. All types of frantic. I don’t know if it’s anxiety or stress or a fear of disaster that flips things upside down. Maybe it’s a control thing, a need for perfection, some invisible exacting standard that I hold myself to, but as soon as I start entertaining, the weight of it becomes a reality. There’s never enough time and Rachel is over there spilling wine on the white couch and are people even enjoying the Brussels sprouts? I taste test my food so much that I'm too full to eat and the sink is piled so high with dishes I feel like I can't look away. As soon as I move to join a conversation, I remember something simmering on the stove that needs my attention, and I scurry back to the kitchen like some ornery goblin.

Everyone reassures me that the cake tastes good and the cauliflower is perfectly seasoned. But I pay them no mind. I can’t see past the overdone meat or the fact that I forgot to sprinkle capers on my side dish. Recipes gone ever so slightly awry are but a prison of negativity.

It’s only then that I look beyond my self-doubt–induced farsightedness, and notice empty plates and full smiles abound. Everyone looks, dare I say, pleased, and the room is humming with a languid sort of just-having-feasted euphoria that causes couch cushions and seatbacks to squeal under the weight of immeasurable contentment.

My roommate smiles and claps me on the back, congratulates me on another successful dinner party. Rachel asks for the Brussels sprouts recipe. Suddenly my shoulders drip down my back and my neck loosens. I unclench my hands and forget about the dishes in the sink and the gravy that didn’t come together like I wanted it to. I grab a plate and spoon a bit of what little food is left onto it and reach for a tall glass of wine.

“So who wants to come over again next weekend?”

Does entertaining stress you out? Share in the comments below!

Tags: Weekend Cooking