Dinner parties always seem like a good idea at the time. When the invitations go out you imagine flickering tea lights, a 10-course neo-Moorish dégustation menu and matching wines that correspond to the year each guest was born. You pledge to source all ingredients within a 10km radius of your home and you begin crocheting a table runner specially for the occasion.
The weeks speed by and the nightmares start. It's 2am; you're tossing and turning, sweaty and tangled in your sheets, dreaming that 20 guests are seated and all that's in your fridge are three goji berries, an old box of Arm & Hammer and a flaccid carrot.
Then, on the day in question, the five emotional stages of hosting a dinner party begin in earnest.
1. Denial You wake feeling strangely unmotivated. "Pish posh," you say, floundering about in your jim-jams, "14 people are coming to dinner and there's no food? Time to squeeze myself an orange juice and read my horoscope."
2. Anger Two hours later you're at the local shopping strip clutching a foot-long shopping list and cursing any recipe longer than "melt butter; add peas". You ask the teenage sales assistant whether they stock ras el hanout and he offers you a Kleenex. Light relief comes when he asks you to identify one of your purchases from the produce aisle. It's a cucumber. You push on, thinking now is the perfect time to cultivate a relationship with your local butcher; to ask if he has pigeons, and if he can bone them for you. Surprisingly, the butcher's answer is to stare you down wordlessly - his hand never leaving his cleaver - until you back out of the shop and make a run for the car.
3. Bargaining At 5.30pm you've stopped sweating like a MasterChef finalist and started sweating like a judge, meaning tears and recriminations can't be far off. Bloody beetroot hand prints cover the cupboards and the unboned quails you managed to score on the way home glare at you from the kitchen bench. You've severely mutilated two of them and have tried to compensate by sewing part of a chicken breast onto a third. It ain't pretty. At this stage you're concerned not so much with styling and presentation as with concealment and damage control. There's only one thing left to do, only one authority to turn to. You sink to your knees and pray to your kitchen god: "Dear Stephanie, just make this work and I promise to eat seasonally and locally and to create a kitchen garden".
4. Depression Hungry guests are pawing at the empty nut bowl and eyeing the clock. Staring at the oven door doesn't seem to make the food any more done, and all those vegetables on the bench are looking seriously unwashed, unpeeled, unchopped, unpuréed, untossed, undressed and unlikely to cook themselves in the next 30 minutes. Surveying the scene through the crack in the kitchen door, one guest announces she's just become a breatharian. That resolve-stiffening Martini you decided on seems to have become lost, so you send a couple more down your throat to look for it. You slump to the kitchen floor.
5. Acceptance And then you snap out of it, pick up the knife, cut your losses, abandon your dégustation and just make everyone dinner. In the end you serve three courses (four if you count the nuts) and it is more-ish rather than Moorish. There is no discernable method to your wine selection, but the grapes still prove potent: people sway, dance with the cat, and fall asleep in the laundry basket. You love how everyone attacks the quail with their hands, politely ignores that your tonka bean soufflés look like pancakes in ramekins, and enthusiastically organises a working bee for the dishes.
At 3am the last happy guest teeters into a taxi. You close the door, breathe a sigh of relief and turn around to survey the damage. "Never again," you say. Your partner nods vigorously and goes off in search of a mop and the cat. You eat a soggy hors d'oeuvre and slump on the couch. A glossy magazine catches your eye; you pick it up and rifle through it. Damn, that triple-chocolate mousse cake with hazelnut meringue and chocolate ganache looks pretty spectacular. Perhaps you could make it next month. Just for a small get-together. Maybe even roast a whole suckling pig with an apple in its mouth, and build that backyard woodfired oven you've always wanted. Nothing fancy, mind.