Choose a theme. Gather a variety of food! Relax and enjoy!
Everyone is seems to have evolved into an adult version of a “picky eater”, either as popular trend or as a dietary necessity. And there is another factor thrown into the mix. Weird stuff.
Back in the day, if you were invited to someone’s home for dinner, you had no reason to be apprehensive. You knew what to expect. You were required to appear at the appointed hour bearing a “hostess gift”. The house was clean. The host was hearty. The hostess had ironed a pretty apron. There might be a dish of nuts passed around and a few squares of mild cheddar impaled on fancy toothpicks while awaiting dinner, perhaps with a cocktail sloshed up by said hearty host, who subsequently took the rest of the evening off to engage in conversation about sports with the men present.
Dinner consisted of a substantial portion of meat, potatoes, generally mashed, and a cooked vegetable. If a “salad course” were served, it was a wedge of iceberg lettuce with a jolly good dollop of Thousand Islands dressing slithering down its flank. A hostess was judged on the quality of her gravy, and of her pie. Dessert was invariably pie. Coffee followed.
All certainly delicious, and in no way alarming. Casseroles and pasta dishes were not acceptable for “company”. They were reserved for “family”, and “every day”. A substantial slab of meat clearly signalled the generosity of the hosts and consequently the high regard in which they held their guests. Beef was an honour. Chicken was acceptable. Pork was iffy. Organ meats, an insult.
We could blame television, if not Julia Child personally. Or immigration. Or the increased popularity of air travel in those heady post-war years. Fad diets. But for whatever reason, things started to come undone. The comfortable rules became mere suggestions. Dinner invitations became more casual. A full-on house clean became optional. The pretty aprons languished in yard sales. Hearty dads began to converse with the men about rub recipes and sous vide times and temperatures. Weird foods rolled in. Leafy greens and herbs! Arugula! Fennel! Belgian Endive! Artichokes! Eggplant! Tahini! Burrata! Figs!
Not to mention the allergies and sensitivities and aversions! Vegetarians were popping up like mushrooms closely followed by the more ardent vegans who even eschew anything containing honey and ask precisely how the wine was produced before dipping a toe. New friends? New religious considerations. Keto is a thing. Did that replace Paleo? Some people can’t eat meat and others can’t eat anything but! People’s bowels seemed to be getting more irritable every day! What’s a host/hostess to do?
Initially our impulse was to phone ahead to ask about dietary restrictions, but that was a pain from the get go and people often didn’t fess up, only to appear and try to avoid this or that with a last minute pop in to the kitchen when plating up was happening. “I know I said I eat everything, but I forgot to mention gluten”. So much for the pre-emptive phone call.
The only thing left for the hapless host/hostess, other than just going back to bed and pulling the covers over their heads, was to present guests with a variety of options and let them hunt and peck free range style.
Hence the appearance of platters and boards, the bedrock of “casual entertaining”. Make your own. If we can tank our own gas, pick our own strawberries and check out our own groceries, surely we can get behind a “Make your own sandwich” or a “Make your own salad” lunch, “Make your own pizza” followed by, “Make your own sundae” for dessert. You don’t like cilantro? No problem! No meat for you? Have at the cheese tray! Vegan? Do try the hummus! Have an olive with that! Pita? Here you go! Well then. Problem solved!
Not so fast. Charcuterie platters were just a solution waiting for a problem. They appeared everywhere. Hence the problem. In the time it takes to exhale, we were bored. We needed to titillate the taste buds of our picky guests, while still bearing in mind the essential requirements of the diet of the day and the varied allergies and sensitivities. What’s to do?
We need a theme. If the idea of a theme evokes the horrors of childhood birthday parties or ghastly adult costume parties that couldn’t be escaped, hear me out. Subtlety is the key. Consider the time of year. Spring with vegetables grown in our own neighbourhood, or at least on our own continent. High summer on the patio by the pool. Or fall, with luscious soups and roasted harvest vegetables. Consider the time of day. Perhaps a breakfast/brunch, or a cocktail hour meant to linger. Or an event. An important game with its own culinary traditions, or a movie projected on the side of the garage with variations on movie foods. Perhaps your theme could be a country in anticipation of an upcoming trip, or a reflection on one gone by. The only caution here is to avoid serving a guest “from away” the foods of their own country. They are here to experience our cuisine, not a lame interpretation of their own. I’m sure we all have had gracious hosts in other lands scour their local shops for steak and baked potatoes with sour cream and corn on the cob, confident that nothing else would make us happy. And yes. We can do that better. As can everyone else on own their home turf. Just don’t try.
But we do have access to enough variety even locally to give an East Indian spin on our platters and boards, or Japanese, or Scandinavian, or Middle Eastern. The possibilities are glorious.
Just don’t lose sight of those dietary restrictions and you can create an interesting and delicious selection of options to delight even the most irritable of bowels!