The wine bottles were beginning to pile up and the guests to pile down when the host appeared to announce that dinner was served. Not, however, the promised paella; it would be hamburger.
On their way into the pan, the fish had emitted an odor that suggested they would be better fed to the garbage disposal than the guests. More drinks all around, and for the host, a frantic search of the kitchen for a way to make his meager loaves feed 12 people.
It is at times like this that many chefs bless the door that blocks them off from the hungry hoard. The pie that flops unseen on the kitchen floor can be scooped back into its dish and covered with whipped cream, and only the clumsy cook need know.
But alas, it's lonely amidst the pots and pans with only spoiled fish and fallen pies for company. Increasingly, today's hosts and hostesses have decided they would rather share their errors and their cooking with the guests, and in the process, the American kitchen is undergoing yet one more change.
Once when cheese came from cows not from Kraft, when bread was baked and beer was brewed, the kitchen served as the buttery and bakehouse, brewery and stillroom. It was where hams were hung for smoking and herbs for drying and where the cook, coughing and choking in the smoke, swung cast-iron kettles over the flames.
It is now romanticized, hung about with perfectly polished copper pans and called "the country kitchen."
Kitchens shift slowly, moving from one style to another with much less speed than other rooms of a house. It is a great deal cheaper to change a slipcover or buy a new lamp for the living room than to re-design a room full of expensive and weighty appliances. And so the American kitchen has meandered, always a bit behind the times, from open hearth to enclosed cook stove to ice box to the humming wonder of the all-electric kitchen.
"Queen Anne in the front, and Mary Anne in the back" was the description given the Victorian home with its opulent parlors and plain kitchens.
"The lady of the house gave all her time and attention to the front parlor, where she reigned amidst her fashionable, English-inspired splendor, while her servant--a young, native-born farm girl--was hidden away in the back kitchen," writes Gwendolyn Wright in her book on domestic architecture, Moralism and the Model Home. But even then, reality had bypassed the room; by 1880 only about 20 to 25 percent of urban households had even a single servant.
It took almost 50 years before the modern woman was able to stand in her servant-less, space-saving kitchen, as compact and cunning as a ship's galley. And 50 more before her grandchildren decided that the kitchenette was a cramped and unappealing space and that what they wanted was a return to the Great Hall, with everyone milling about in a single room.
Into our midst, heralded by truffles and flourishes, had come the star of the '80s, the amateur chef, followed by a cast of thousands, all grouped around the stove or chatting at the chopping block.
"I love cooking now," says the wife of an architect who had opened up their entire first floor into one enormous room with kitchen and couches all jumbled together. "As long as you don't shriek when it happens, people don't notice when things go wrong. The trick is to make whatever you do look as though it were what you planned to do.
"Once, when I was searing lamb chops, I set fire to the pan and charred everything. I tossed them in the garbage, got eggs out of the refrigerator and made omelettes. I think people must have assumed that was the way I prepared the omelette pan."
Obviously, in order to serve as an entertaining space, a kitchen must have room for more than the cook. Some people are lucky enough to have big rooms that can hold a brace of guests. Others are lucky enough to have big budgets and can knock out a wall, spreading the kitchen into the living room and dining room or forcing it out, through a greenhouse, into the garden.
The rest of us must rely on ingenuity.
The first step in creating an entertaining kitchen is to consolidate. If you don't use something, get rid of it. A lot of space is wasted by useless gadgets. Then consider whether you're making the best use of what you do have. Cabinets, unlike mountains, are not fixed in space. They can be shifted or even eliminated to create more room.
A shelf run around the top of the kitchen may provide as much storage as one cabinet, and a pot rack hanging from the ceiling can hold a cupboard full of pots and pans. Neither change is expensive. The first, if you are handy, being as cheap as the cost of lumber, while pot racks sell for as little as $27.95 at The Kitchen Bazaar, 4455 Connecticut Ave. NW., and Seven Corners Center in Falls Church. If you live near a store catering to the horsey set, you can use tack holders instead. They are even cheaper, but hold fewer pots.
Do make sure your ceiling is high enough, however, or you will have guests knocking themselves out on cast-iron skillets, littering the floor with bodies, and making it difficult to get from stove to sink. There are other gadgets that can give you extra storage space.
Williams Sonoma, at Mazza Galleria, Wisconsin and Western Aves., NW, sells a wire rack which fits on the back of a closet door. The eight adjustable shelves in either 18-inch ($39.50) or 24-inch ($49.50) width make use of the dead space in a kitchen closet, letting you put things out of sight (and clearing room for at least one thin guest).
Places like Hechinger's and other stores which carry kitchen ware are full of handy little stacking racks to fit under the sink. Nor should you ignore the Murphy bed approach. An ordinary, large bread board can be hinged so that it flops down when not needed.
When people redesign their kitchens today they tend to want them to look either as though they're in a village in Ireland--stuccoed walls, tiled floors, lots of natural wood--or in a factory, all functional and shiny with chrome. Kitchen Bazaar is catering to both tastes with a range of butcher-block tables, ranging in price from $395 for one 24" x 24" to $895 for a kitchen island 36" x 48", and stackable wire shelving.
Their high-tech Metro Wire shelving consists of chrome-covered modules, as versatile as an erector set with the added advantage of not needing dusting. The posts, which can be stacked on top of each other, come in heights from 14 1/2 to 86 inches, while the shelves are 12-24 inches wide. Make one set of shelves table height and put a marble slab on top for pastry; add a cushion to the top of another and you can tuck a few guests in on top of your crockery.
Kitchen Bazaar is also the outlet for a series of food pictures put out by Alexander and Mary Nokes Berry of Gourmet Grafiks, Alexandria (reproduction botanical prints of pears, apples or grapes, $7.50; photographs of mushrooms, onions and strawberries, $12.50 to $45 depending on whether or not they're framed).
Another place to visit when you're planning to revamp your kitchen is Conran's, 3255 Grace St. NW, source not only for cabinets, tables, etc., but for the ultimate idea book. Terence Conran's The Kitchen Book ($37.50) will convince you that no kitchen is a hopeless cause.