all i really need to know
February 25, 2006

My friend Rebecca was a latch-key kid. At 10 she was prepping whole chickens after school and popping them in the oven to get dinner started. So she can't understand why I'm poultry-roasting shy. "You do crazy things like rack of lamb," she points out. "Why are you afraid of chicken?" Well, first of all, if you feed undercooked lamb to your guests, no one dies. And it's possible I'm still traumatized by the Cornish Game Hens I made for Thanksgiving that took about three hours longer to cook than expected, necessitating an unorthodox order to the meal.

But when she starts talking about roasting chicken for her birthday dinner (which she's asked me, much to my delight, to help plan and prepare), I start thinking about the best roast chicken I ever had—in Barcelona—and we settle on a quasi-Spanish food theme.

Rebecca's kitchen doesn't quite qualify as tiny by New York standards: She has a dishwasher and tons of cabinet space, she can fit a table and several chairs, and more than one person can cook at the same time (the injustice of this is that she lives alone). But there are still things to compensate for, like no counter space (worse after we've moved the kitchen table to the living room for a make-shift dining area). This is probably the reason that when smoke fills the kitchen, for a while we can't figure out where it's coming from: the soup on the back burner? the chicken in the oven? the oven-hot tray of toasts I've set on top of the cardboard recycling box for want of another surface? or the wood cutting board balancing across two burners? (Something has dripped onto the bottom of the oven; we don't burn any food, but we do set off the smoke alarm.)

And even though her kitchen isn't tiny, two pounds of spinach (doubling the recipe to feed eight) still threatens to engulf the whole thing. Rebecca fills the entire sink with spinach, and it nearly overflows; I'm at a loss for how we're going to dry it. But Rebecca's childhood ingenuity shows itself again. When young Rebecca was called upon to dry lettuce for her mother's dinner parties, she would use the spin cycle of the clothes drier. She improvises in her non-laundry-equipped apartment by wrapping the spinach in a beach towel, then stuffing the towel into a plastic sack and windmilling the package until the towel has soaked up most of the water.

The dinner (with the exception of the smoke alarm) goes off without a hitch, which is probably due to a kitchen with enough room for two cooks and two brains. The Garlic Soup is a hit, one monk soup not to be accused of blandness. We worried the Mashed Potatoes (seasoned only with olive oil, salt and pepper) wouldn't have enough flavor, but we were right to trust Bon Appétit for this great riff.

The eight of us talk over dinner about how grown-up the party feels, which I guess is natural because we all feel we're betwixt playing at adulthood and actually being adults. But—maybe because I've really preferred dinner parties to all other entertainment through childhood, teens and on into adulthood—I wonder about this. Throwing a dinner party is so much like inviting friends over to play house or tea party—and the skills that serve us best are imagination and invention. Isn't a dinner party kind of a put-together, make-believe world more akin to being a kid than a grown-up?

At least, I'm pretty sure that's how I think of it. It's why, when friends tell me how nice it is that I agree to help make dinner, I don't know how to answer. It isn't nice at all: I'm just so happy that I got invited to play.