Every year for the last 15 years, I have been coming to Fort Myers, Florida. My sister-in-law lives here and more often than not, we put our feet up for a couple of weeks at their river-front home on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River and lead the coastal life with its easy rhythms and never-ending days. My nephew has a boat; we take it out on the water to fish for snook and tarpon and then throw them right back. We wave at other fisherman as they cast their bait, and point at sting rays and the occasional flying fish.
Start the fire: Don’t punish your punctual guests by waiting till all guests arrive.
Dawn comes late to our household, particularly for me. I wake up around 8am, and make myself a cup of coffee while looking over the day’s papers. Later in the day, I may amble over to the hammock and lie there, reading multiple books and pondering life with a tall glass of chilled lemonade by my side. There is something about the sound of lapping water that is deeply relaxing. The sun’s rays nudge me to sleep, so I snooze with a book across my chest till a seagull, or child calls. In the evening, we break out some beer or wine and barbecue.
As parties go, a poolside barbecue is my favourite, and I say this as a vegetarian. Barbecues have a participatory nature that makes everyone the cook as well as the diner. This is a pleasant contrast to the varnished formality of a seated dinner or the unvarnished immediacy of a buffet lunch. While both of these have their charms, they separate the guest from the host. Hence the question: Why aren’t parties more participatory?
Sure, there are some occasions when you cannot have a participatory party. When the boss comes home for dinner for the first time, of course, you have to orchestrate a perfectly prepared meal, complete with Versace plates, Bottega del Vino wine glasses and antique silver accessories.
Similarly, when you are throwing a party for new friends, getting the whole thing prepared well in advance seems to be the most practical way to go. Not only are you relieved of the hassles of organizing the food, you will actually have time to talk to your guests. But when you invite a few old friends, who also know each other, what better way for everyone to mingle and have a good time than a barbecue?
You stand around the dining table or in the garden with a few glasses of light summery wine, a Columbia Crest Riesling perhaps, and dig in. Someone chops the vegetables and mixes a salad; someone else makes a marinade for the kebabs; someone squeezes lemon. The food is eaten as it is prepared.
Barbecues don’t punish the people who come on time and then end up having to wait for hours with starving stomachs until all guests show up and the food makes an appearance. Why, oh why, do hostesses insist on waiting till all guests arrive before serving dinner — wouldn’t it be fair to serve hot food to the guests who come on time and allow the tardy latecomers to eat cold leftovers? It would send a message at least. Barbecues, and brunches for that matter, don’t punish punctual guests; rather, they allow each person to eat on their own schedule, pretty much as soon as they come in.
Last week, we had a lovely barbecue here in Florida. The whole process started in the early evening when we went shopping. We bought corn on the cob; yellow, green and red bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms, cubed cheese, fish and chicken. We made a marinade based on a Rajasthani recipe of yogurt, salt, red chillies and a tenderizer. We also got some ready-made marinades which turned out to be fine. My brother-in-law fired the grill; everyone took their places and we were off.
The nice thing about barbecues is that everyone from the littlest to the biggest has a role. My kids, for instance, love brushing the marinade on the corn (bhutta) as it is being grilled. The men tend the fire, a practice that probably goes back to the caves — there is something about fire and cars that tends to unite men and make them boys. Clothes, jewellery and babies have the same effect on women, leading me to speculate that we never grow up from the cars and dolls we played with as children (feminist principles about gender stereotypes notwithstanding).
My job is to chop vegetables for the salad; if I am in the mood for some really hard work, I’ll uncork and sniff the wine. Mostly, we talk desultorily (“should we add some more tomatoes to the salad?” or “the water is really rough today” or something equally philosophical) and watch the sun set.
Barbecues aren’t hard to do in India. Every village home has a charcoal stove and all you need is to acquire one (if you don’t own a regular grill, that is). If you don’t like barbecues, you can duplicate its participatory nature with a chaat party. The trick is to ply the guests with drinks as they work so that everyone gets comfortable and has a good time. Have one group chop tomatoes and onions for the bhelpuri; have another assemble the dahi papdi chaat; have the latecomers help themselves to pani puri. Not only can everyone make each dish according to their own preference —“less tamarind chutney in mine”—but they can stand around and chat while making chaat.
I see many hostesses get completely stressed out by trying to finish everything to perfection before the first guest arrives. There is a certain charm to disarray; there is a certain informality in incompleteness. Perhaps you are not the kind who can involve your guests in baking the cake; but please, consider allowing them to arrange the cherries on top. Not only will they become children all over again while licking the icing off their fingers but it will relieve the burden of perfection from your shoulders.
Shoba Narayan played with cars and cricket bats when she was a girl. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org