My parents are such consummate dinner party hosts that the morning after their festivities, I often wake up wondering if I’m meant to send a handwritten note thanking them “for being such wonderful parents—the duck was succulent, and the company, divine!” In their world, Gourmet never folded and chintz never went out of style; they remain blissfully unaware of the ‘comfort food’ revolution as they serve their friends wild rice and oyster bisque followed by pumpkin bread pudding. If they meet someone they like, they cement the feeling by inviting that person over for dinner. This has always been how friendships were made and kept and deepened.
In between parties, their house can feel like a convention center between the Men for Men’s Rights Assembly and the Celebrity Impersonators Summit. There’s no place to eat but the formal dining room, with its stiff chairs and dramatically dim lighting. Worst of all, we eat half-cold Boursin-sweetened potatoes and rosemary-crusted lamb from the night before for lunch and again for dinner. There are never cold cuts and a loaf of bread lying around to make a sandwich, or something simple to cook fresh for dinner (though the leftovers might be introduced with a plate of frozen hors d’oeuvres).
And we have a five-foot-tall cabinet filled with the kinds of potions that the heavy and complex recipes popular in the early ’90s might call for: half-finished bottles of Worcestershire sauce, Maille brand whole grain dijon mustard, organic veal stock, years-old aged balsamic with gently stained $40 pricetags, truffled oils, Madeira wine, and a domineering hoop skirt of spice rack with the nutmeg still sealed shut.
By the age of 18, I had lived in eight houses and five states. (I was not an army brat, though my father was once in the army and, as we shall soon see, I was indeed a brat.) As my parents’ child, I had made all of my friends, naturally, by hosting parties. There was a fiesta with homemade Choco Tacos and a Barbie shoe-filled piñata, a Christmas party in which eleven girls and I decorated gingerbread houses, and a “retro” Spice Girls party in 2003, for which we puffy-painted “GIRL POWER” on t-shirts while sitting on a plastic inflatable couch. I carefully chose the themes and lingered over guest lists with my parents: I would invite a friend from a sports team and another from marching band and one from the little stone Episcopal church my parents seemed to locate in every town we lived in, creating a kind of cross-cafeteria salon in which girls intermingled with each other in a way they never would at school.
“Sometimes salsa or powdered gravy would make it in. It was a sewer of condiments.”
This all sounds very picturesque—except for the baked champagne.
After one or two of these parties, a friend and I decided we’d gone on long enough without pranks. (It’s surprising that a group of girls, however noble, managed to go without them for so long.) We decided that the usual Truth-or-Dare stuff just wasn’t for us—it was pedestrian, and by this point, boys were planting moles the Thursday or Friday before a sleepover, asking a female acquaintance to find out during a round what some girl really thought of him.
This must have come after yet another afternoon in which I attempted to find something to eat, but ended up empty-stomached after staring with contempt for too long at a shelf of cayenne maple syrup and salted pesto aioli. Because I remember too well saying: “You know, my parents have all this stuff in our pantry—all these weird sauces.”
The plan was this: “You know what I could really go for,” one girl would say, “is a baked champagne.” And everyone would swell in affectionate agreement, because all of them were tipped off to say that baked champagne was so wonderful, so delightful, such a refreshing treat, the perfect thing for a Friday night. Everyone except one girl.
Then a friend and I would go to the kitchen and mix up one unholy mother sauce from the contents of our pantry: beef broth and minced garlic from a can with pickle juice and roasting glaze. Sometimes salsa or powdered gravy would make it in. It was a sewer of condiments.
For the rest of the girls, we’d brew several batches of chocolate milk, which was similarly brown in color to its toxic cousin. And then we’d deliver the goods. “Oh, this is so fresh,” we’d say, like oenophiles with sophisticated noses. “The best I’ve had in a long time.” “It almost tastes homemade.”
And the target would sit there, and smile, and say, “Sure girls, this really is great.” Or: “It’s a little different than I expected, but I can see why you might like it!” Or: nothing at all.
But eventually, I’d turn to her—the first chair in flute, or the captain of the volleyball team, or the sophisticate daughter of a college professor—and say, “You know, Ainsleigh, that’s just boxed beef au jus with balsamic glaze and anise fudge. And we’re having chocolate milk.
“Because baked champagne isn’t real.”
I don’t think anyone ever cried. No one ever spit it out. Usually everyone would erupt in hysterics—because nothing at 13 is merely funny—and the girl would laugh, a little embarrassed, sometimes relieved that she didn’t have to finish the stuff. This was as true in Ohio as it was in New Jersey, though Southern California was the exception (as it is for most fun things, I felt at the time); in Southern California, girls would get angry, as if this were an act of exclusionist aggression. So I usually kept baked champagne west of the Appalachians. (I should mention that I am in touch with only one friend from California, despite having spent eight years of my life there. Perhaps they were spoilsports, or maybe I left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.)
I wonder now how we chose our targets. I’d like to think we chose girls who could stand up to the stuff—who could get dealt a glass of baked champagne and manage not to fold—though I think it was usually whoever seemed least likely to get upset. In middle school, good citizens were rewarded with a sludge of condiments.
“A bad meal can inspire as much rich conversation as a transcendental one.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I looked back on this slumber party hit with anything but rosy memories. I was mostly proud of the appellation I’d created for the drink, which I’ve long felt was prescient of current trendy cocktails. But when I started to share the story with friends or people at parties, everyone recoiled. “That’s so mean!” “Did people cry?” And: “That’s so…evil.”
But was it, really? There is something singular about food hazing. While most hazing involves physical or mental abuse in a stupid hat, eating eighteen pounds of coleslaw or chugging gallons of milk has a youthful, anodyne sheen to it. You might get sick. It’ll be gross. But you won’t be left scarred. A bad meal can inspire as much rich conversation as a transcendental one. As my parents learned with their dinner parties, food brings people together better than most anything else.
Recently I was scrolling through Facebook, as one does in an air-conditioned office while eating salad for lunch, and I saw that a middle school friend of mine had gotten married. Her maid of honor? A woman she’d met when she had served her baked champagne.
Rachel Seville Tashjian writes and lives in New York. She has no children.