The Pleasure Principle 

Michelle Huneven on dinner parties


Giving a dinner party shares a common objective with giving a blowjob: Both seek to give pleasure. The more selfless the giver, the greater the pleasure created.

Lounging about with the guests, drinking as much as they do and yakking it up at your own dinner party is roughly the equivalent of concentrating on your own pleasure while engaging in that Clintonian sex-that-is-not-sex. As host, your pleasure is derived from giving pleasure. (This is not so dreadful; as every world-class manipulator and control freak knows, there’s power in providing pleasure.) Still, if cooking in the kitchen while your guests chat and laugh and devour fabulous hors d’oeuvres doesn’t sound like any fun, you need to hire a caterer, get some servants, or not give dinner parties. Or, like me, have your house remodeled in such a way that your guests can talk to you as you cook.

I have three basic principles and a few caveats for creating pleasurable dinner parties.

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First, it should be said that all too often the host bases the menu on his or her own interests and tastes — a recipe she wants to try, a beautiful slab of something he spotted in the store, a tried-and-true stew or roast that she considers her pièce de résistance. But this is not always the ideal approach. For example, I once served a new friend a gorgeous hunk of wild salmon on tiny lentils with grilled leeks — a triumph, except that the guest disliked fish.

Home cooks — we rank and pathetic amateurs — should take a lesson from the better restaurants and cater directly to our guests’ desires. Many high-end restaurants now keep computer logs of what their customers like — the staff makes it a point to find these things out and write them down. (I’ll never forget how, on my second visit to Valentino back in 1987, the waiter remembered that I had previously ordered and enjoyed game. My own mother, my own boyfriend couldn’t have recalled this about me.) Why shouldn’t we suss out what our friends love to eat — be it shad roe, dark chocolate, mango with sticky rice — and serve it to them? It’s so . . . gratifying.

Though I like a plain old pot of tea, I often boil spices and add milk to make a friend chai. Why? Because he likes it so damn much. The 13-year-old next door likes meat, and watching her pack away slice after slice of flank steak or tri tip is a cook’s dream. A French friend loves a certain kind of brebis, a sheepsmilk cheese, and I always try to have it for him when he comes. It reminds him of France, he says, and eating it, he gets flushed and voluble and happy — a boon to any dinner party.

In turn, I am always touched when friends serve me the green olives that I love, or roast chicken, and when they serve a cheese they know I like. My neighbor knows I’m a goner for her couscous and gorma sabzi. Another friend pours a small bowl of very expensive sea salt and sets it at my place.

Giving friends what they love is not to be confused with respecting their various dietary needs and idiosyncrasies, which are simply a given. Feeding a vegetarian a meatless dinner is a far cry from specifically feeding her something she adores. Plus, I’m convinced that if more people paid real, close attention to what people liked, the weird diet requirements, many of which are surely pleas for special attention, would naturally diminish.

That said, it’s also worthwhile to introduce novelty — to share something new or interesting — an item, perhaps, that nobody even knows they like . . . yet. Some new edible thing that you’ve just met and loved. With me, such items have included the wine-y, garlic-spiked Baby Jesus Salami; the little bright-green twisted peppers (bought at Asian supermarkets) scorched on cast iron then tossed with oil and crunchy salt. Quince paste with Spanish cheeses. Fig jam with Corsican cheeses. Chestnut honey with Pecorino. I went through a spell last spring where I introduced everyone I knew to the ineffable pleasure of curried cabbage. But however generous your impulse to share these pleasures, their success is not guaranteed. I’m thinking of a very pricey natural blue cheese from Italy that was so strong it numbed the tongue — my guests didn’t appreciate this.

Still, this brings up my second useful principle of giving pleasure: splurge. Make or buy your guests something they’d never in a thousand years procure for themselves. Spoil your friends. (Remember — you get some too.) What better way to spend your money? Nobody’s asking you to send away for Peter Luger steaks (four stunning sirloins that cost $175 and easily serve six) when you’ve just paid your property taxes on your brand-new $450,000 fixer-upper. But maybe when you get your hefty tax return next May, you might want to treat a couple of friends to these magnificent logs of aged meat.

Once, I gave a party based on foie gras. I grilled some pears ahead of time, started a risi bisi (Italian rice and peas), tossed a green salad and put out cheeses. Then, when everyone arrived, two of us began searing and serving slabs of goose liver, which is a lot like searing ice — it simply dissolves in the pan. The house filled up with smoke. The guests — eight of them — lined up. When was the last time anyone had enough foie gras? That night. As much as they wanted. There was even leftover foie gras. How much did all that foie gras cost? Around 60 bucks — what you’d pay for dinner for two at a mid-priced restaurant.

Not all splurges have to be on a grand scale; great pleasure also comes from the small indulgences: good sea salt. A peppery, green olive oil on the salad. One fabulous cheese. A better brand of chocolate in the mousse. It makes a difference.

Another great source of pleasure is categorically distinct from the above suggestions. In a word, it’s pork. Pork in and of itself is a kind of luxury for me. It may not be expensive — except as prosciutto and some other European hams — but it has a sensuality that people tend to mete out to themselves. Myself, I would go anywhere for pork. At a recent party, a friend brought roasted pork legs (uncured hams) that had been marinated Cuban-style in garlic and citrus juices for days. Succulent, funky, tender, juicy, lasciviously rich, sticky, crisp-skinned, this pork stunned people, stupefied them with sheer pleasure. Then there are pork roasts stuffed with prunes, glazed with marmalade, stewed with onions; pork shanks with their skin and fat crisped and chewy — oh, and let’s not forget the incredible indulgence of homemade chicharrones, pork fat fried in fat and served (of course) with salt and hot sauce. And, of course, there’s pork belly (uncured bacon), available in Asian markets for a song, which is easily braised to a slippery, sexy, salty mouthful of pure pleasure . . . and hey, you can work it off with a good run and a mound of leafy bitter greens tomorrow.

To sum it up: Surprise your friends with their favorite foods, and introduce novelty sparingly. Splurge. And don’t forget pork, the noun.

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