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The Dinner Party Diaries: A Mother’s Memories of Family, Friends and Food

A mother and son revisit four decades of adventures in the kitchen.

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Dinner party diariesPhoto: Courtesy of Andrew Sean Greer

How I Finally Resolved to Meal Plan Like Mom

Two years ago my mother turned 70, and, in a mood of giddy nostalgia, she brought out one of the journals in which she has kept a record of all the dinner parties she’s hosted since 1976. Ever my mother’s son, I have a similar journal. But I am a writer, and she is a chemist. Mine features narratives and feelings, whereas hers reads like laboratory notes—just the meal plan and the invite list. No digressions.

“Salmon mousse,” she announced, reading one entry. “My God, I must have made that 100 times. For the Kaufmans and Hurleys; do you remember them?” I did not. But I did remember her salmon mousse. Pink, jiggling, moulded in the curved shape of a fish.

“How do you plan a meal?” I asked my mother. She considered this, sipping her wine. “You start with something you want to make and you round it out with old favour­ites,” she said. “Same as a lab experiment: only one variable at a time.” (Here are Chef Lynn Crawford’s top five hosting tips.)

I’ve never let my mother study my dinner journal too closely; I think it would strain my heart.

How fascinating to go over the decades with her. First the adventurous period of youth: making piroshki by hand; attempting Peking duck because she saw it on Joyce Chen’s PBS show. After that, the middle-aged period of simplicity, where ham was the “old favour­ite.” And the recent era of rediscovered adventure: Thai food and mango salad.

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Family dinner recipePhoto: Shutterstock

Why I Decided to Keep a Family Tradition Alive

My husband’s name first shows up in 1997, along with a Christmas Eve meal of just hors d’oeuvres that, because he loved it so much, we have kept as a tradition. There is my mother’s partner, Ruth, who appeared in 1991, heralding several years of vegetarian dishes before she succumbed to my mother’s ham. And there is my father, who, despite being her ex-husband, has appeared every year or so after their divorce, including on the most recent page: a family lunch of salade niçoise.

I’ve kept my journal since 1996, but I have never let my mother study it too closely; I think it would strain her heart. In it, there is no menu planning. And while hers passes from early motherhood through divorce and the deaths of friends without a break, mine has three entire years unaccounted for. Was I too content to put anything down? Too distracted?

I see her journals and am envious. By 47 I should not be winging dinner. I should plan a menu and I should have a salmon mousse.

And so I am putting this resolution into practice at a dinner party for friends. The menu is already written in my book—chicken with sunchokes and spinach salad. To start, a favourite of mine already curing in the fridge: salmon gravlax. And for this I must apologize to my mother. It is as close as I can get. I love you, I do. But I have always hated that salmon mousse.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada