Saturday, December 08, 2007

The birthday dinner.

A. calls me at work. J.'s birthday is approaching, and they are throwing a party for her, a surprise party. I am invited, to take the place of my parents, who live elsewhere for most of the year. These are my mother's friends, and I am more than thirty years younger than all of them. It seems peculiar to most people that I am always happy to join my parents' friends for dinner, but I know the food will be good and the conversation amusing, so after some wrangling over whether I should contribute to the dinner (we cannot agree as to whether it is more embarrassing for them to accept my money, even though I am old enough to be earning my own living, or for me not to contribute) I commit the date to memory, and swear not to breathe a word of the party to the guest of honor. (A week before the party, J. calls me about some trifling matter and I catch myself just before cheerfully telling her I'll see her soon).

The night of the party, and parking is a nightmare. All the guests are told to arrive at 6, as the guest of honor is not to arrive until 6:30. I run the three blocks from the parking garage to A.'s home, and burst into her lobby out of breath. The concierge looks at me like I am insane, but he always does that. Already people have arrived, people who ask me if I remember them, because we meet only rarely. But now I am old enough to remember my mother's friends by name, the one who lives on an island and comes to these gatherings only rarely, and the one who lives in Berkeley and whom I last saw some three or four years ago. C., the friend who lives in Berkeley, has flown up just for tonight, to celebrate J.'s 70th birthday. They have been friends for over fifty years. I hope to have friends like that fifty years from now.

Two white-jacketed chefs are moving around A.'s open kitchen; the air is full of good smells. There is a tray with dips and crackers and bits of toast, but I have my eye on the pale pink veal chops that are being dipped in flour and fried, the enormous salad covered in thin slices of pears and dried cranberries and slivered almonds and slices of goat cheese. The guest of honor is late. She is caught in traffic. But at last she is here, overcome with surprise; everyone has kept the secret. (With great difficulty, as she is on the phone with all of them practically every day). And at last dinner can begin.

A. likes to lay her dishes out on a narrow buffet table so everyone can help themselves; we begin with gnocchi in a sage-butter sauce, that extravagant salad, and an equally colorful array of grilled vegetables. The main course is veal chops over pappardelle barely slicked in some sauce I can't identify, and fillets of cod scattered with finely shaved fennel and the bright, sweet acidity of blood oranges. There is a fluffy rice pilaf shot through with tiny diced carrots, and good bread. Everything came from the Pike Place Market; everything is simple and extraordinarily good. There is a sense of lightness, effortlessness, as there always is chez A. The chef is a good friend, and he knows what he is doing.

For dessert there are chocolate cupcakes instead of birthday cake, and we sit around eating cupcakes and the bright little clementines that decorate the tables. J.'s husband L. has brought his own surprise, retrieved from the car as he slips away on the premise of making sure that they had parked legally. In his courtly way he passes around boxes of chocolate truffles, smaller boxes for the single women, larger ones for couples, each tied with a red ribbon and swathed in tissue. He is thoughtful in that way. I drive home through the quiet streets with my chocolates tucked in my purse; I want to call my mother and tell her about the evening. Soon.

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