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July 05, 2009

Quel Disaster!

Quel Disaster!             


by Catherine Martin Christopher, mother of a Tart grandchild and also The Zen Hostess.


I once attended a birthday party which had been planned from afar – the hostess didn’t live in the guest-of-honor’s town, but she made all the arrangements for the party to be held locally.  The invitations were printed and mailed from the hostess’s house, she arranged for caterers to deliver food an hour before the party, and she brought customized party favors in the trunk of her car.


I arrived at the appointed hour and pulled up behind a catering van.  A woman was unloading steaming trays of food for the party, and I held the front door open for her while making one of those halfhearted offers to help – you know, when you offer to help only because you’re pretty sure the person will decline.  (And decline she did.)  


The caterer and I stepped over the threshold, into the house.  There stood the hostess, looking impossibly thin in a belted green dress.  She blocked our entrance to the room and accused the caterer, “You’re late!  You were supposed to be here an hour ago!”


Now, this was true.  On the other hand, only about half the guests had arrived so far, so it wasn’t as though the party had been affected.  What DID affect the party, however, was the hostess’s shrill haranguing of that poor caterer, which went on and on and on.  She shrieked, “You’ve thrown off my whole timeline” and “I am paying you good money…” and I don’t know what else, because I was so mortified that my brain short-circuited.


Today, we’re celebrating parties gone wrong.  That birthday party eventually recovered and we had a nice time, but to be honest, it is the temper tantrum that sticks out in my memory.


There are public disasters, like this one, and there are private disasters that most guests don’t know about.  (Doesn’t every wedding have a back-room crisis that the guests are oblivious to?)  My other favorite party trainwreck was when one guest stepped outside to have a cigarette, and his girlfriend turned to me to say, tearfully but calmly, “I’m leaving him.”  Hooooooboy.


So, let’s hear your favorite party disaster story and – perhaps even more entertaining – how you got the party back on track.


Thanks to the Tarts for inviting me to blog this weekend!


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There was the Thanksgiving when we decided it was time to have both sets of grandparents for dinner at the same time. About 4 hours into the roasting of the turkey, we discovered the oven was broken. My husband and I used a hack saw to cut up the raw turkey, whereupon I microwaved it. Then my (Canadian) editor telephoned--just as we sat down to eat---to discuss revisions of a manuscript. Yes, it was a disaster, but the story has been worth it!

And it turns out that microwaved turkey is delicious!

My grandmother ALWAYS cooks the turkey on Thanksgiving day. She put it in the oven early and went to work on her rolls. Two or three hours later, we realized we didn't smell turkey cooking. It was a new oven and Grandma forgot to turn it on!

Dinner was late, but no big deal. Mostly, it made for a good story and lots of laughs.

On my wedding day, my brother-in-law locked all the flowers in the trunk of our rented Cadillac. Had to call the locksmith to come and open it. Most people had left for the church already, I was still home with my Dad and said brother-in-law. We were a tad late - everyone was wondering where we were.

Should've taken that as an omen - we got divorced 6 years later.

Chorus: "It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to...cry if I want to...cry if I want to. You would cry, too, if it happened to you."

Disaster #1: I was very young when my parents had this formal dinner party. My mother, who is NOT a good cook, managed to make a chocolate cake from someone else's recipe. She iced it while it was still warm and the top layer slid off as she was ferrying it to the table. My sister and I were sent in to distract the guests with stupid kid stuff while our mother put the layer back on top, smoothed out the frosting and served it anyway, none the wiser...or, were they?

Disaster #2: My mother, who (I repeat) is NOT a good cook, decided to impress her second husband-in-the-works (upon his introductory visit to our house) by baking an apple pie in a brown paper bag from someone else's recipe. I was threatened within an inch of my life not to cause problems while the "guest" was there, so my job was to eat, keep quiet, and then go to my room. I wolfed down my food (he remarked on the speed at which I ate, and not in a good way), the kitchen filled with smoke, and the paper bag caught fire. I'm talking FLAMES. Flames, licking up through the oven door. All through this, my mother glared at me (I had a bird's eye view to the kitchen) and yelled, "Why didn't you say something?" Like it was my fault. Hey, I did as I was told.

Disaster #3: Not a party situation, but definitely a gathering, of sorts, in a hospital room where one of my fellow police officers had been shot. I (and I AM a good cook) brought a strawberry cake made with someone else's recipe to the hospital room. Well, okay, not the usual thing you bring to a man with tubes running out of his body, but hey--I'm southern, okay? And you have to think about others in the room, so the man got a cake. And as I sat beside his bed, my eyes cut to this beautiful strawberry cake...a job well done...with pale pink frosting...and the top layer was sliding...sliding...sliding...

But let's revisit Disaster #1, back at the dinner party, shall we? My mother had earlier dropped a glass onto the floor and it broke. Was she really that surprised when one of the guests (a long time family friend) loudly announced, mid-bite, "Wait--what? (roll tongue around in mouth) Is this... (look of abject horror on face) a piece of GLASS?"

Nuff sed.

What is it about Thanksgiving that tends to attract these kinds of stories? In my own family, it was hard to top the one where a certain family member was late because he disappeared, and was later found in a psych ward. Oh, well. More turkey for the rest of us!

IMO, holidays are enough to send anyone to the psyche ward. And BTW, that's when the psyche wards fill up with people experiencing Major Depressive Disorder.

That's why I always volunteer to work the mental health docket during holidays. It allows me to see where I'd be if I weren't working...

I was watching "Chopped" last night. You know...the show where cooks compete before experienced judges. One chef, Nicole, dropped the tongs on the floor, picked them up, and went about her business (using the tongs) while the judges watched and remarked that they were going to be expected to eat her food after witnessing this. They warned her when she served them, not to use dirty utensils (dear Lord! Do you have to be warned when you're an adult? Oh, right...five second rule!) and she made it through to the next round.

In the next round, she tasted her product and re-used the tasting spoon. The judges were gagging...okay, so she was chopped. That would never have happened to me. I had a mother who never tasted anything, just burned it, served it, and we by-God ate it if we knew what was good for us. The woman burned everything. I didn't even know that food came in different colors until I was old enough to be invited to eat at friends' houses. There I learned beans were green, carrots were orange...you get the picture.

Well, I'm still feeling the glow of the party gods who yesterday stopped the rain an hour before our annual 4th of July bash and didn't let it start up again until 30 minutes after the fireworks ended (as my husband said, that got everyone to leave!). But one of my "favorite" memories is of a party my folks had when I was a kid, circa 1965. It was an outdoor summer party and so there were lots of other kids there. My mom had made some dessert that featured carving out a watermelon, filling it with a raspberry sherbet mixture and chocolate chips (to look like the seeds, I guess) and then sticking it back in the freezer. Well, when it came time to cut it into slices, it was frozen so solid that my dad and a few of the other dads (who'd been drinking martinis all afternoon) grabbed someone's electric saw (after the electric knife couldn't make a dent in it) and started hacking away at it. Amazingly, no blood was shed.

All of us kids thought it was terribly exciting. The adults just laughed and drank another cocktail as we all ate chunks of the raspberry concoction.

Thanksgiving in Taos New Mexico, altitute 10,000 feet! Had breakfast early in the morning, popped the turkey in the oven at 250 degrees just like the package says. Turkey still raw at 3pm. Turkey still raw at 5pm. Turkey still not done at 7pm. Nine pm and four very testy, very hungry people. At last turkey is done. High altitude cooking at its worst. Never, I say never try to cook a turkey at 10,000 feet.

Opps! altitude not altitute.

Actually 250 degrees sounds way too low for turkey at any altitude, a recipe for food poisoning, I think.
Thanksgiving is a high-pressure meal, and for me the downfall is usually the pie. Maybe I just won't make pie in future . . .

Hmm... probably the time our boiler gave out on Thanksgiving day. Nobody noticed it while the oven was going full blast, but as the Bew England mercury dropped and the heat didn't come on, we all did (particularly my 92-year-old mother-in-law). And because it was a holiday weekend, we couldn't get a repair person out till the following week. BRRR>>>>

How amusing that most disasters are food-related, and most occur on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, of course, is all about the food -- other holidays have church services or presents to open or guests of honor, but Thanksgiving only has Dinner: The Main Event. High stakes for a party.

broken oven. ordered turkey dinner cooked from grocery store. picked it up and it WAS FROZEN!!! evidently they cook and refreeze for shipping. had to borrow oven of daughter's friends parent to heat dinner.

In the middle of me trying my damnedest not to look like the country hicks of all hickdom while entertaining some friends from DC, and some family I had over, my husband was out in the back yard with the couple... shooting a tater gun. Yes, with real potatoes. (Turns out? A potato can actually catch fire, but it usually goes out as it soars over your yard, over the neighbor's fence and onto their patio.) I gave up worrying at that point, embraced the hickdom and we ended up turning that party into an annual 'tater launch (for about five years).

I am not telling you people how many times I caught things on fire when cooking. Some of you have really long memories.

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