An Ideal Hostess by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The saying that “One-half of the world ignores how the other half lives” received for me an additional confirmation this last week, when I had the good fortune to meet again an old friend, now for some years retired from the stage, where she had by her charm and beauty, as well as by her singing, held all the Parisian world at her pretty feet.

Our meeting was followed on her part by an invitation to take luncheon with her the next day, “to meet a few friends, and talk over old times.” So half-past twelve (the invariable hour for the “second breakfast,” in France) the following day found me entering a shady drawing-room, where a few people were sitting in the cool half-light that strayed across from a canvas-covered balcony furnished with plants and low chairs. Beyond one caught a glimpse of perhaps the gayest picture that the bright city of Paris offers,–the sweep of the Boulevard as it turns to the Rue Royale, the flower market, gay with a thousand colors in the summer sunshine, while above all the color and movement, rose, cool and gray, the splendid colonnade of the Madeleine. The rattle of carriages, the roll of the heavy omnibuses and the shrill cries from the street below floated up, softened into a harmonious murmur that in no way interfered with our conversation, and is sweeter than the finest music to those who love their Paris.

Five or six rooms en suite opening on the street, and as many more on a large court, formed the apartment, where everything betrayed the artiste and the singer. The walls, hung with silk or tapestry, held a collection of original drawings and paintings, a fortune in themselves; the dozen portraits of our hostess in favorite roles were by men great in the art world; a couple of pianos covered with well-worn music and numberless photographs signed with names that would have made an autograph-fiend’s mouth water.

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After a gracious, cooing welcome, more whispered than spoken, I was presented to the guests I did not know. Before this ceremony was well over, two maids in black, with white caps, opened a door into the dining- room and announced luncheon. As this is written on the theme that “people know too little how their neighbors live,” I give the menu. It may amuse my readers and serve, perhaps, as a little object lesson to those at home who imagine that quantity and not quality is of importance.

Our gracious hostess had earned a fortune in her profession (and I am told that two chefs preside over her simple meals); so it was not a spirit of economy which dictated this simplicity. At first, hors d’oeuvres were served,–all sorts of tempting little things,–very thin slices of ham, spiced sausages, olives and caviar, and eaten–not merely passed and refused. Then came the one hot dish of the meal. “One!” I think I hear my reader exclaim. Yes, my friend, but that one was a marvel in its way. Chicken a l’espagnole, boiled, and buried in rice and tomatoes cooked whole–a dish to be dreamed of and remembered in one’s prayers and thanksgivings! After at least two helpings each to this chef-d’oeuvre, cold larded fillet and a meat pate were served with the salad. Then a bit of cheese, a beaten cream of chocolate, fruit, and bon-bons. For a drink we had the white wine from which champagne is made (by a chemical process and the addition of many injurious ingredients); in other words, a pure brut champagne with just a suggestion of sparkle at the bottom of your glass. All the party then migrated together into the smoking-room for cigarettes, coffee, and a tiny glass of liqueur.

These details have been given at length, not only because the meal seemed to me, while I was eating it, to be worthy of whole columns of print, but because one of the besetting sins of our dear land is to serve a profusion of food no one wants and which the hostess would never have dreamed of ordering had she been alone.

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Nothing is more wearisome than to sit at table and see course after course, good, bad, and indifferent, served, after you have eaten what you want. And nothing is more vulgar than to serve them; for either a guest refuses a great deal of the food and appears uncivil, or he must eat, and regret it afterwards. If we ask people to a meal, it should be to such as we eat, as a general thing, ourselves, and such as they would have at home. Otherwise it becomes ostentation and vulgarity. Why should one be expelled to eat more than usual because a friend has been nice enough to ask one to take one’s dinner with him, instead of eating it alone? It is the being among friends that tempts, not the food; the fact at skilful waiters have been able to serve a dozen varieties of fish, flesh, and fowl during the time you were at table has added little to any one’s pleasure. On the contrary! Half the time one eats from pure absence of mind, a number of most injurious mixtures and so prepares an awful to- morrow and the foundation of many complicated diseases.

I see Smith and Jones daily at the club, where we dine cheerfully together on soup, a cut of the joint, a dessert, and drink a pint of claret. But if either Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones asks me to dinner, we have eight courses and half as many wines, and Smith will say quite gravely to me, “Try this ’75 ‘Perrier Jouet’,” as if he were in the habit of drinking it daily. It makes me smile, for he would as soon think of ordering a bottle of that wine at the club as he would think of ordering a flask of nectar.

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But to return to our “mutton.” As we had none of us eaten too much (and so become digesting machines), we were cheerful and sprightly. A little music followed and an author repeated some of his poetry. I noticed that during the hour before we broke up our hostess contrived to have a little talk with each of her guests, which she made quite personal, appearing for the moment as though the rest of the world did not exist for her, than which there is no more subtle flattery, and which is the act of a well-bred and appreciative woman. Guests cannot be treated en masse any more than food; to ask a man to your house is not enough. He should be made to feel, if you wish him to go away with a pleasant remembrance of the entertainment, that his presence has in some way added to it and been a personal pleasure to his host.

A good soul that all New York knew a few years ago, whose entertainments were as though the street had been turned into a salon for the moment, used to go about among her guests saying, “There have been one hundred and seventy-five people here this Thursday, ten more than last week,” with such a satisfied smile, that you felt that she had little left to wish for, and found yourself wondering just which number you represented in her mind. When you entered she must have murmured a numeral to herself as she shook your hand.

There is more than one house in New York where I have grave doubts if the host and hostess are quite sure of my name when I dine there; after an abstracted welcome, they rarely put themselves out to entertain their guests. Black coats and evening dresses alternate in pleasing perspective down the long line of their table. Their gold plate is out, and the chef has been allowed to work his own sweet will, so they give themselves no further trouble.

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Why does not some one suggest to these amphitrions to send fifteen dollars in prettily monogrammed envelopes to each of their friends, requesting them to expend it on a dinner. The compliment would be quite as personal, and then the guests might make up little parties to suit themselves, which would be much more satisfactory than going “in” with some one chosen at hazard from their host’s visiting list, and less fatiguing to that gentleman and his family.

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