Dinner Party

Essays: The Perfect Gift

July 12, 2013

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Today: A heartfelt story about a dinner party to honor a family member. 

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Once there was an adventurous cook named Bette who, with Jim (her best friend and husband) and their six kids, threw great dinner parties. Bette taught her children to cook, encouraging them to be daring and confident. She taught them to find joy in solving problems, and to be fearless when dealing with all of life’s challenges. As the years passed, Bette’s children grew up, moved to faraway places, and hosted dinner parties of their own. 

One sad morning, Jim telephoned each of his children to say that Bette, then getting on in years, had died in her sleep. A flurry of emails and texts followed as the kids booked flights into Washington, D.C. from the West Coast and Venezuela. One daughter, Sally, who lived nearby, updated the others with the arrangements she was helping Jim to make. 

Among the plans was this: Bette had, a few years before, told Sally in no uncertain terms that when her time came, she didn’t want a morose affair with people crying. No, she made Sally promise to have a big dinner party instead, like the ones Bette and Jim had thrown years before.

For decades, Bette had filled notebooks with all her party menus. With each she included the guest list, the excellent wines Jim had bought, and notes on which silver, china, linens, candles and candlesticks, flowers and other decorations she’d used. On the back, she recorded who came and who declined, with notes on the dishes that certain guests liked or didn’t care for -- particularly useful for future planning. The day Bette died, Sally went through the menus, and Jim selected a sophisticated one with an Italian theme from a Christmas party, saying, “That just sounds like Bette.”

Dinner Party Invitations

When Helen, one of his daughters, called Jim a few days later, he was busy polishing Bette’s copper pans and would soon be dusting, as he would before any dinner party. That morning, he’d mailed invitations to their extended family -- a crowd that had enjoyed many of Bette’s elegant dinner parties. He expected 40 to 45 guests.

Sally sent another note that she was making beef burgundy for the evening after the burial. Together, they’d work through the final assignments for shopping, prep and cooking for the party.  “Great!” replied Helen. “I’ll pack my aprons and dishwashing gloves right away.”  

Prepping Vegetables

Texts and emails continued to fly. “I need to buy Italian butter cookies for the Dolce Torinese. The packages are all written in Italian and I can’t translate! What kind?” texted Sally to Helen from the grocery store, adding, “Normally, I’d just call Mom.  :-(  ” After some quick research, Helen called Sally. “I don’t have a recipe for that, but Marcella Hazan has something similar, which calls for pound cake. Mother would approve!”  “That’ll work.” said Sally.  “A friend brought by a nice big pound cake the other day. I’ll use that.” 

Sally fine-tuned the menu, taking advantage of seasonal produce, dropping the panettone and adding Bette’s special sour cream cake. As she mapped out the days ahead, Sally came to appreciate truly how organized Bette was. The only items to be cooked on the day of the party were an herbed pork roast, noodles, and a tiramisu. Everything else could be made ahead and reheated or served at room temperature. 

Wiping Mushrooms

The afternoon of the burial soon came. At the long, beautifully-set table at Sally’s that evening, siblings who hadn’t all been together for decades enjoyed one another’s company over a fabulous meal. Afterwards, Sally updated for the sixth time her timetable with who was doing what, and when, and where.

Early the next morning, three kitchens hummed as everyone worked, making tapenades, marinated mushrooms, homemade ricotta, tacchino tonnato, chicken cacciatore, ravioli with marinara sauce, Hazan’s “Il Diplomatico,” and the other desserts. They did advance prep for antipasto, as well as for numerous sides and salads. Gradually, the sadness started to lift. Working together, the kids and grandkids talked about Bette and the kitchen (and life) skills she’d passed on to them. Helen’s sister and brother laughed when she told them how happy it made her to wipe mushrooms, just the way Bette had insisted it be done. The kitchen became a cheerful place, as if Bette herself were there.

Onion Jam Crostini

The time flew by as the family made their final push. Working through Sally’s detailed lists, they ironed linens, polished silver, set up punch bowls and the coffee pot, and paired serving dishes with utensils. They hauled to Jim and Bette’s place all the food they’d prepared, along with extra pots, pans, serving dishes and other party items, and then they helped finish setting up.

What a party it was! The food and wine were spectacular. Relatives who’d come from as far away as Montreal, Cleveland and South Carolina shared stories about Bette and the parties she’d thrown over the years. Bette’s nieces and nephews -- once the youngest guests at her parties – brought their own small children. One of Sally’s daughters put out salmon cream cheese (not on the menu) for the youngsters, quietly telling Helen that Bette had always done that for her when she was little. Bette would have been so pleased.

What made this the perfect gift? At the graveside gathering, Jim told of Bette’s belief that “one played the hand that one was dealt, with enthusiasm and hope for the future.” This final request enabled her family to do just that.

Before leaving, Helen told Sally, “Mother prepared me so well for every challenge I’ve ever faced in life, but of course, she could never prepare us for her death. But then, no mother can. This, though, was brilliant. She must have known; she was so wise.” The sisters hugged. With a tearful smile, Helen continued, “Sally, please. Promise me this. If something happens to me, I don’t want a bunch of sad people crying.  I want my family to throw a great dinner party instead. Understand?” Of course, Sally did. 

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Written by: AntoniaJames

See problem, solve problem. Ask questions; question answers. Disrupt, with kindness, courtesy and respect. ;o)


mrslarkin December 16, 2017
Stumbled upon your story while searching “how to polish silver.” I’m so glad I did! This was such a touching story, AJ. Thank you for sharing it. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you!
AntoniaJames December 18, 2017
You're welcome, Liz. Merry Christmas to you, too! ;o)
Sarag October 24, 2013
Typing through tears. Such a lovely story. Makes me so wish I had kept notes on my own dinner parties--- their menus, guests. I dated a boy in college whose mother kept such a journal, including notes on the table settings-- which china, linens and types of flowers and vases used. It was so fun to read.
Kathleen C. July 17, 2013
Lovely story, in so many ways. And I'm so sorry to have missed the grand feast in her honor. hugs to you, from a far away cousin who's enjoyed wonderful meals at your mom's, and at your, table. K
Bevi July 15, 2013
Thank you, AJ, for sharing your loving tribute to your mother, and for so beautifully portraying sisterly and family love. The food your mother served and the way she passed her gift of celebration to your father, her children and extended family and friend is quite special.
Fairmount_market July 15, 2013
What a beautiful essay AJ, uplifting and inspiring. Thank you for generously sharing it with us.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
F-m, I'm glad you think so. Mother was one of the most uplifting and inspiring people I have ever known, so it gladdens me to know my essay has had that effect. I hope everyone who reads this essay will take this wise, generous idea back to their own families and friends. ;o)
lapadia July 14, 2013
A beautiful written essay in honor of your mom, AJ, and it very easy to see that her artistic kitchen, party planning and cooking legacy live on through her family.
Condolences to you, Sally and extended family.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
lapadia, you are so kind. Thank you.
Kukla July 14, 2013
What a heart-warming and beautiful assay and a very special tribute to your wonderful mother AJ!
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
Kukla, thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it. ;o)
Kristen M. July 14, 2013
This is such a beautiful idea, AJ -- thank you for inspiring the rest of us, and for sharing your amazing family here.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
Thank you, Kristen. It really is the idea of my mother's request, and the helpful, positive impact that it had on us during those difficult days immediately following her death, that I have hoped to share. I'm so happy that you found inspiration in it. ;o)
MrsWheelbarrow July 13, 2013
Lovely memorial, "AJ". My condolences to you and SallyCan. She sounds like a wonderful mother, and knowing you both, it's clear the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.
AntoniaJames July 30, 2013
Thank you so much, MrsW. All of those party-planning-and-throwing skills have served us magnificently in just about everything else we do -- especially the complex project management aspects of our professional lives. If you can throw a great party, you can do just about anything!! But you already know this. Of that, I am certain. ;o)
Rhonda35 July 13, 2013
Antonia, what a lovely essay about a woman who must have been quite wonderful, indeed. Sending you and yours deep condolences. Thank you for sharing such a personal story with all of us at Food52.
AntoniaJames July 30, 2013
Thank you, Rhonda. She was, indeed . . . much like so many here on Food52. Generous of spirit and oh, so capable. ;o)
SallyCan July 13, 2013
Beautiful! Thank you for writing it, "AJ", for so thoughtfully and generously sharing - just as our mother would do. And thank you all for your kind thoughts and words.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
You're welcome, Sally, but actually a huge "Thank you!" is in order as well, for your many excellent suggestions (and the time you spent commenting on my first draft) and of course, for making it all happen in the first place! ;o)
drbabs July 13, 2013
Dear AJ,
I am reading this at a beach house on the Florida panhandle where we (my parents, siblings and our kids) have vacationed for the past 7 years. Our meals are less fancy collaborations as you describe in your essay. And your essay brought me to tears-- not only because of your writing, which is wonderful, or because of the loss of your beloved mother, which is deeply sad-- but also because my parents-- who are now both in their 80's-- have decided that this trip is their last. Today is our last full day at the beach. While I'm sure our family will be together again, it's bittersweet. But celebrate we will. We are fortunate that our parents are still with us. Thank you for the wonderful inspiration.
vvvanessa July 12, 2013
An absolutely lovely story. It's nice to know where your amazing hospitality and hosting prowess come from!
Blissful B. July 12, 2013
I love that you all did this, and that you wrote about it. What a beautiful family.
AntoniaJames July 19, 2013
You are so kind, BlissfulBaker. It was a privilege to honor her in this way. ;o)
TheWimpyVegetarian July 12, 2013
What a beautiful tribute to your mother. I love everything about it, and am so grateful you shared this with us. And I love the sentiment of throwing a dinner party.
AntoniaJames July 19, 2013
Thank you, Susan. The idea of throwing the dinner party was really what made me want to write the essay in the first place. In an earlier draft, I'd included text saying that this is a gift any of us can give our friends and family. I wrote it because I was so grateful that my mother told us to do it, once I realized what a difference it made in the family's coming together under such trying circumstances. ;o)
Anna W. July 12, 2013
This is absolutely gorgeous, and a wonderful tribute to your mother (who must have been lovely!). I grew up in a household of dinner parties, and continue the tradition in my own home. I love the fact that your mother's spirit lived on that night around the table, and will continue to for years to come as you keep her traditions and recipes alive. Thanks for sharing!!
AntoniaJames July 19, 2013
Thank you, TYT! Like you, I consider myself so fortunate, for so many reasons, to have been brought up by parents who loved to entertain. My mother enjoyed throwing parties more than just about anything else, so it was particularly appropriate to honor her that way. And yes, her spirit lives on, in everyone who was there (and the others who couldn't make it). I especially hope that the little ones carry it forward! ;o)
CookLikeMad July 12, 2013
Thank you for sharing this beautifully written story. I agree with calendargirl that it works so well in the third person. Unexpectedly, it was the part about the salmon cream cheese that made me cry. Such a simple anecdote can say so much about a person, and in this case, it said volumes about the incredibly thoughtful natures of both Bette and Sally. Bravo to them, and to you!
AntoniaJames July 19, 2013
Thank you so much, CookLikeMad. I'm glad you liked that it was in the third person. I wasn't sure how that would be received. It was much easier writing in the third person; that's for sure. That detail about the salmon cream cheese is one of my favorites. I plan to send the essay to my cousins' little ones, when they are grown, with the hope that they'll do the same when they throw their own parties to which young children are invited. ;o)
hardlikearmour July 12, 2013
What a lovely woman your mother must have been, and what a fitting way to celebrate her life and the everlasting gifts she gave you!
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
Thank you, hla; she was indeed an amazing person, and yes, I can't think of a better way to celebrate all that she was, and all that she passed on to those whose lives she touched. ;o)
calendargirl July 12, 2013
What a terrific essay and I love that you wrote it in the third person -- just right. Thank you so much for this. Your mother sounds much like my own, and I can picture all of this because of your well-wrought words. Condolences and warmest greetings to all of you, most especially to you and Sally, who both are carrying on as your mother would have done.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
Thank you, calendargirl. I'm glad you liked that I used the third person. I initially wrote this as a letter to my sons, who were not able be there, due to their college exams, etc. It just made more sense, and flowed a lot better as a published piece, when told as a story. Again, thank you for your kindness. ;o)
JadeTree July 12, 2013
What a lovely essay; such a marvelous tribute and memorial and party all in one. So enjoyed reading it.
AntoniaJames July 17, 2013
Thank you, JadeTree. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. ;o)