The way I entertain is to find one dish I can prepare and stick with it for 10 years. In the ’60s, it was ravioli from Raffetto’s on Houston Street, which I liked because somebody else made it. In the ’70s, it was cold curried chicken with oranges, which could be made in advance. I am not much of a cook and even less a confident one. Food prepared in advance reassures me that a dish will be ready on time and will not necessarily poison anyone. This method worked fine until I tried one night to get fancy and the guy who had shot his parents stopped by.
I know, I know. You must hear every detail of how to prepare that dish, and you shall, though I must warn you, it requires a fireplace. I was, at this time in the late ’70s, lucky enough to be living in a rambling, floor-through apartment with a fireplace, though the landlord had told me it was never to be used. I interpreted this as “not to be used that much.” The building, at the corner of Waverly and Bank Streets in Greenwich Village, was not in great repair. The rent was $315 a month. I was a downtown writer and all my friends were downtown writers, the sort who tended to hang out at the less successful end of the bar at The Lion’s Head. For instance, if Norman Mailer was there, we were not at that end.
I was also dating a good deal, which was how I was exposed to the meal you are dying to hear about — though, looking back on it, I might have been more interested in the guy than the dish. Let’s call him Raphael, since I am pretty sure that was not his name.
Raphael was a photographer who lived an hour and a half north of the city, in a log cabin overlooking a lake. He was charming, very good looking, with a limp that struck me as somehow romantic. I harbored a tremendous lust for him, and when you are 29, lust is not a feeling you have to harbor long — though, in the case of Raphael, there was something of a wait.
Eventually, my number came up. Raphael invited me to dinner at the cabin, where he put the new James Taylor record on the turntable, opened a bottle of red wine and cooked a steak in his enormous stone fireplace with metal skewers. He served the steak with raspberry sherbet. The idea, Raphael told me, was that the sherbet cleansed your palate and set up your mouth for the steak. This was the most culinarily sophisticated thing I had encountered since the son of a Broadway columnist had taken me to the Russian Tea Room and the waiter poked the chicken Kiev with a fork.
James Taylor sang, “Shower the people you love with love,” and Raphael did. The evening made such an impression on me that I decided I would introduce steak and sherbet into my entertaining lineup. I bought skewers, I bought steak, and I invited over a half-dozen downtown writers, along with a psychopharmacologist.
I think, looking back at my dinner party, that my food-prep error had to do with cooking blind. It wasn’t as if I had a recipe that said, “Heat your fireplace to 500 degrees.” Also, Raphael had a log-cabin-size fireplace, while the one in my apartment was Greenwich Village-size. So while the raspberry sherbet was ready to go when it came time to feed the guests, the steak was not.
Today, as an experienced hostess, I know you must have something ready for your guests the moment they arrive. Forty minutes later, they want a meal. Alcohol helps, but guests are like infants: If they aren’t fed the moment they’re hungry, they get so cranky that you start thinking about dropping them on their heads.
That’s where this dinner party is, an hour and a half in: The steaks, which I figured would take 10 minutes to cook, are still raw on their skewers. The downtown writers, who arrived in appropriately high spirits, are glum. Then the doorbell rings. It’s my friend and former colleague Gary, who is also known (though not to my guests) as the Parent Shooter.
I had met Gary when I was 21, working my first job as a reporter at a restaurant trade paper. He sat in the cubicle next to mine. He was a lovely, low-key guy, and a good feature writer. He was also a poet who, like a ’60s television beatnik, played the bongos. Darkly funny, with the funny beating out the dark.
It took awhile for me to learn about his past. It’s not as if the first thing he said to me was, “Hi, my name is Gary and I shot my parents.” He doled out the story over several months.
He had grown up in Beverly Hills. His father was a famous songwriter who had co-written “Mairzy Doats,” “Twelfth of Never” and “Que Sera Sera.” Gary told me he was depressed as a teenager. He hunted in the California mountains and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Actually, he told me, it was a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
He had been sent there after he had tried to kill himself with sleeping pills. He told me he was vomiting in the bathroom when his parents came to see what was wrong — and he thought: “Why am I killing myself? They’re the problem.” Then he shot them, hitting his mother in the chest and his father in the arm. (Both parents survived the shooting.)
Fifty years later you might think, “What was Gary doing with a shotgun in the bathroom?” An online search will take you to a United Press International article dated Feb. 18, 1965, with the headline “Songwriter, Wife Are Shot by Son — ‘They Bugged Me.’”
Anyway, the years pass, I become a newspaper reporter. Gary moves to England, where he publishes an autobiographical novel, “Exile’s End.” Then he moves back to New York and, at the exact moment my steaks are not cooking, he rings my bell.
So, Gary arrives and I introduce him to my hungry, cranky guests.
“This is my friend Gary, who has just published a novel in England,” I say.
“What’s the novel about?” someone asks.
“Shooting my parents,” Gary says.
That gets their attention.
“I’m the best writer in America,” Gary says. “The book got great reviews in England and it just got published here, but nobody’s paying any attention. I guess what it takes to get attention in this country is to shoot somebody. Maybe I should go out and shoot somebody again. Heh, heh.”
I see two people nervously looking at the shish kebab skewers, which are glowing blood red in the fireplace.
“Heh, heh,” the guests say.
Gary disappears into the bathroom for a long time. Then he leaves.
After his departure, there is an eruption of euphoria, relief and excitement in my apartment. It’s the best Talk About the Guest Who Just Left ever. Nobody was shot, and the food is finally ready. I serve the steaks and sherbet and the guests love it. I go to bed happy.
The next day the psychopharmacist calls.
“Your friend needs treatment,” he says. “I wouldn’t touch him with Thorazine darts, but I’ll be glad to refer him to my partner.”
Gary is long gone, but I remember him fondly. R.I.P., Gary. You saved my dinner party.
Joyce Wadler, the author of two nonfiction books, wrote The New York Times column “I Was Misinformed” for several years and has just completed her first novel, “The Satyr in Bungalow D.”