The Times’ William Grimes Is All Wet on Entertaining

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Dinner with

William Grimes
is out of his mind.  Well, all right, he isn’t. I’m just trying
to be punchy. In fact, I like his writing for the Times these days. He
seems to have reinvigorated the entire mopey "Dining In/Dining Out"
section, with his raids on the likes of Drew Nieporent and Warner LeRoy, his
slightly sarcastic though always exhaustive style of restaurant reviewing, and
his schizo adoration-slash-disdain for upper-crust gourmandizing. Even Eric
Asimov, who seemed to shrink to outerborough chow-rat status beneath the highblown
sentimental theatrics of Ruth Reichl, has his cojones back. He’s
all spry and lively and adventurous again, and his prose–to my reading,
anyway–has been given an invigorating shot of confidence. It’s as
if Reichl were an overbearing sister, lording it over her less dramatic siblings,
forcing them all to cower in her eccentric celebrity.

That’s my take, anyhow.
It’s not as if I have one single lick of the skinny on this particular
dynamic. All I know is that I heard a rumor somewhere that Reichl was a bit
pissed when Grimes got her job. That ought to tell you something, even if it’s
just a rumor.

Anyhow, the hook for this
particular column–aside from my little dip into Times food-section
Kremlinology–is Grimes’ opinion on dinner parties, articulated in
the April 5 Times. It’s my hook because, as I’ve said already,
I’m enjoying Grimes, his writing and what he’s doing for the paper.
I do not, however, like his dinner-party views, which are ridiculous.

"I have five principles
of entertaining," he writes in his "Critic’s Notebook" piece
titled "Dinner for 7: What Could Be Easier."

"First, the food must
be superior."

Okay, I can handle that
one. Good neo-snob position to take, good neo-snob language to use.

But then, a bit later: "But
I despise the notion that if the company is agreeable, guests will be happy
with roast chicken, a glass of pinot grigio and a scoop of ice cream surrounded
by Pepperidge Farm Milanos. I become seriously depressed when it turns out that
the host cannot cook."

Oh, for God’s sake!
Who cares if the host can’t cook? His culinarily disadvantaged self has
invited your sorry ass over for some food–about which he is already no
doubt racked with anxiety, which he has perhaps desperately, expensively, arranged
to have catered–and all you can do is (1) bitch and (2) bitch as a means
to setting up your own august mojo as, yes, superior (and superior should speak
for itself). I mean, just eat the food and complain about it to your girlfriend
during the cab ride back home.

He gets worse: "Second,
I like the evening to have a theme or organizing principle."

Theme? Organizing principle?
Did I say I was into this guy?

More: "Third, I believe
that good dinner parties entail risk. It’s boring to serve old standbys,
no matter how delicious."

To which I reply: Wrong.

There are still two Grimesian
Principles of Perfect Entertaining left, but I won’t get into them much.
Number 4 distills to: "Serve those chocolates and liqueurs." Sure
thing. Number 5: "Buy excellent wines." I’ll give him that one.
Dinner parties are often ruined when the host relies on guests to supply
the booze.

Really, though, it’s
Grimes’ Third Principle that gets me all riled up. Here’s why: Every
fucked-up dinner party I have ever thrown has entailed risk. All the fun ones
have adroitly avoided it. Furthermore, all the truly memorable (as opposed to
impressive or ego-building) suppertime gatherings I have attended also skillfully
evaded risk without leaving guests feeling gypped. The worst thing a dinner
party can aspire to be, in my experience, is risky. Risk involves parachutes
and firearms and fast cars and chicks who go braless. Not calories.

The flaw in Grimes’
Third Principle can be blamed on what I’ll call the "Aspirational
Fallacy," which is homebrewed philosophy at its worst, but that is–in
homebrewed philosophical terms–the opposite of Occam’s Razor. Occam’s
Razor says that, all things being equal, you accept the simplest possible explanation.
The simplest possible explanation, when it comes to dinner parties, is: Feed
the people something good. Not something risky. Something good.

Grimes and his sous-chef/partner-in-Aspirational-Fallacy
wife huff and puff for a while over their menu, rejecting several dishes before
settling on the following: tarte flambée followed by warm rabbit salad
with truffle vinaigrette; venison stew with hedgehog mushrooms, fettucine and
steamed green and white asparagus; and for dessert, an Alsatian ("Alsace"
is his theme) farmhouse cheesecake surrounded by a mixed-berry coulis. And they
pull it off. There are pictures. But God, the preparation, the labor, the struggle,
the naked urge to impress. (His guests constitute a platoon of, as he puts it,
seven "well-mannered bon vivants.") I don’t know where he finds
the time to make repeat visits to all those snazzy joints he remorselessly eviscerates,
what with all the shopping and cookbook-page-flipping and worrying he does over
one little dinner party. (And I’ll bet a bottle of syrah that he and his
wife didn’t wash all those pots and pans by themselves, either.)

So, I offer Five Alternative
Principles of Successful Entertaining:

1. The food should
be superior. Or at least as superior as you can get it without draining your
checking account or running all over town. Sometimes, the Key Food does make
a lot more sense than Ronnybrook Farm or the fish market at dawn.

2. Themes are not for
dinner parties; they are for parks that hire pimply teenagers to dress up like
cartoon characters. You are the theme, and screw your guests if they don’t
get it.

3. Risk nothing.

4. As for the Chocolates-and-Liqueur
Principle: Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

5. Wine. Pride of service
belongs with the host. More people should know this–should expect it–thus
denying Grimes the opportunity to list it as a principle. It shouldn’t
be subject to individual caprice, to listmaking; it should be a dinner-party
truism. An ironclad law. When you’re a guest, you should keep your wine
to yourself.

I offer these five alternative
principles not to pick a fight with Grimes–who would just smack me down
and pour hot fondue on me, anyway–but merely to express another point of
view, one that I believe makes a hell of a lot more sense in the long run. It’s
not as if I lack experience in this area. I’ve thrown a dinner party or
two in my day, and lent my assistance to plenty of others. The Golden Rule (which
supersedes all principles, by the way) is: Keep it simple. The word "coulis"
appears on your fantasy first-draft menu? Reject that dish. More than one recipe
contain four steps? Lose it. Your perpetual friends in the kitchen? Couscous,
rice, polenta, potatoes–basics in a box that require one less step to prepare
than pasta. Your staunchest allies? That oven, and those cheapo disposable aluminum
roasting pans they sell in wrapped pairs at grocery stores. The roasted vegetable
medley is every dinner-party-throwing cook’s secret weapon.

And as for those Pepperidge
Farm Milanos, they’re my favorite cookies. And I plan to keep on serving