Entertaining by yourself

About three years ago, I decided it was time I repaid all the invitations I’d had over the years and start entertaining people in my own home. The impetus was twofold: I finally owned a house that felt like ‘me’ so I was happy to invite friends in; and I received a gift from the real estate company who brokered the deal for my house in the form of a catered dinner for 6 to say, ‘thank you for giving us a big wad of your money when you bought your house’.

It took a while before the house and I were ready to entertain (I had to get a new kitchen installed, for one thing), but eventually I invited 5 friends and got busy heating up the rather elegant meal delivered to my doorstep.

This is the easiest way to entertain alone: get someone else to cook the food. The only real challenge in this escapade was finding 5 friends, since most people come in pairs. I managed to find a friend whose wife was out of town so he made a 5th. We had a fine evening, good company and conversation, and the food was more delicious than I could have produced.

Doing the cooking myself is a different challenge. I have found that cooking for a couple plus myself is fine and if I plan the menu right, it’s not too hard to get food onto the table without abandoning my guests while I cook. My kitchen is not entirely open plan and besides, I can’t cook and talk at the same time, so preparation is key, as is having things that don’t require precision timing.

Cooking for larger groups can be difficult because I struggle to get the quantities right. I’m used to gauging how much is right for one and it’s hard to scale up. Roasts are good – they just sit and cook with no intervention required, and they make the house smell delicious when the guests arrive. Also: leftovers.

But cooking is only one part of the challenge of solo entertaining. The social advantage of having two or more couples over is that they can talk to each other while I crash around in the kitchen. This takes the pressure off me to be both Witty Conversationalist and MasterChef at the same time. Conversely, entertaining just one couple can be tricky because they don’t want to entertain each other while I cook, so I try to cook and talk with the result that the broccoli gets boiled to death.

In A House By The Sea, May Sarton wrote,

Only people who live alone … can understand the agitation that “entertaining” even a single guest induces.

Guests don’t really come for food, at least not in my case: they could eat better at any of hundreds of restaurants in town or in their own homes. They come to see me and spend time talking with me. This causes me great anxiety because I will have to keep the conversation going all evening. I will have to think of things to talk about, and to respond to and delve into what they say. Sometimes it can be very draining listening to others talk, not because they are boring but simply because listening well takes focus and concentration, and that is tiring.

Since I got sick two years ago, it’s been harder and harder to muster the energy to entertain at home. Consequently, I’ve done little recently. I’ve resorted to going out to a restaurant occasionally, or cooking lunch or dinner for one friend at a time. I have found this both manageable and enjoyable. There’s something relaxing and intimate about having a friend stand at one end of the kitchen bench with a glass of wine, bringing me up to date with the goings on in their life, while I stir stock into a risotto.

There’s a nice symmetry here: I live alone, I entertain one person at a time. It works.