The dinner is to be Italian -- crostini, pasta, breadsticks, zabaglione -- spread out on a red-checked tablecloth and accompanied by Chianti decanted into carafes so the empty bottles can be used as candleholders. And there overhead, awaiting the guests' arrival, dangles a line of laundry -- towels, aprons, jeans all clothespinned into place.
"The guests walk in and see the laundry and there's no way they're not going to laugh," says Judith Olney, creator of an "Evening in Naples," one of 20 "culinary events" in her new book, Entertainments (Barrons, 1981, $19.95).
Olney, who for eight years ran a cooking school in Durham, N.C., and has written two previous cookbooks (Summer Food and Comforting Food), has produced a book which feeds the eye as well as the stomach. Lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed, Entertainments adheres to the author's philosophy of "using the wit of food."
Do you have friends who can't find (or can't afford) babysitters? Instead of growling because there are babies underfoot, make them part of that boisterous Evening in Naples, where, says Olney, you should, "Let the children howl. Indeed, give them little pinches if they don't. Noise is positively necessary to the evening's production."
Begin to think like Judith Olney and you, too, will rent a parrot and plan a Rousseau jungle feast, complete with bread "beasts" nestling in a jungle of beans, asparagus and watercress.
Or perhaps if you are having a hard time winning your heart's desire, you will turn to Olney's "Dinner of Seduction":
"It is hardly necessary to point out that the menu contains within itself as many ingredients as possible that are reputed to be aphrodisiacs: caviar, eggs, pepper, cayenne, spices, nuts, seafood, chocolate. This should not be explained to the guest but rather allowed to enter the consciousness subliminally . . . Have the caviar chilled and the toast points, wrapped in a napkin, warming in the oven . . . Have a subtle programming of music moving from the austere to the unbridled on the phonograph. And then my little pepperpot, my pretty pattypan, turn down the lights . . . ."
As a thoughtful author should, Olney follows her Dinner of Seduction with "Breakfast the Morning After," but if your dinners and breakfasts are no longer a deux, you can treat the family to the much heartier "Maple Sugar House Breakfast."
Or invite everyone you know to a "Charcuterie Cocktail Party," where Olney reveals a pet peeve: "Cocktail parties where the unthinking host doesn't provide ballast for the guests. The food is all gone within the first half hour with maybe one huge cheese left and everybody clustered around it, scraping off little bits."
Not for her such meager fare. Instead, she offers an abundant spread of breadsticks, country loaf, saffroned bread on a rope, green sausage in brioche, vegetable pates, terrine maison with herbs, cucumber salad, sweet pepper salad, mushrooms a la Grecque, onions a l'Oriental, Nicoise olives and a variety of sausages, ham, boudins and cheeses as well as fruit.
Besides providing menus, recipes and instructions on how to achieve the effects that make these parties special, Olney provides inspiration.
"Cooking is close to macho with women," she says. "We strut our stuff in cooking. There's a whole dinner-party syndrome. 'What am I going to do?' and we get nervous and buy too much. If the dinner party goes wrong, it's not only the meal that's been rejected, it's you. This book was written to ease some of those troubling thoughts."
And indeed it does. When you begin to see a meal as a chance to play with food, when you bake your bread in the shape of a fish instead of a loaf, when you turn your dining room or kitchen into a back street in Naples, or a square in Provence, your enjoyment will surely be shared by your guests.