For her husband's 40th birthday, Jayne Bridge Taylor wanted a party with little to-do. But on the morning of the festivities, she was in the throes of a major undertaking.
Flying about the kitchen of her Capitol Hill townhouse, she dispatched a guest for ingredients; catered to two young kids -- "Mommy, I'm thirsty," said three-year-old Ashley -- and whipped up seafood gumbo, guacamole and tortillas (dashing out to the herb garden for a dash of this and that); fashioned shark-shaped hors d'oeuvres from puff-pastry dough; baked a cake in the shape of a "40"; assembled a tray of veggies to go with a ripening brie; and broke out a case of Italian wine -- to be drunk by a score of guests.
If this weren't enough, she was also mulling over the problem of building a Navy destroyer and consulting a Pentagon friend every so often by phone. The next day, Taylor -- for whom parties are a business -- would sculpt a cake in the shape of a battleship to the delight of a retired captain.
"I'm normally extremely organized," Taylor said, and stopped to answer the door: It was a long-awaited delivery man, with birthday balloons for her husband, James. She tied them to the front stairs and scurried back to the kitchen. "I have to be organized for catering, though I'm not when I'm entertaining just for ourselves. But, don't worry, this really isn't as crazy as it looks."
In this seriously social town used to the scale of Ridgewell's, Taylor is a one-woman catering firm -- with this her busiest season. It's a do-it-yourself operation: She generally uses her own gas oven and stove -- "I can't cope with electric" -- loads the tasties into her station wagon, rushes them over to hotel or home and then directs the serving.
From kids' birthdays -- for which she likes to create light-festooned gingerbread houses -- to formal dinners -- for which she might prepare a subtly spiced veal piccata for 30 -- she keeps a close watch. "In catering," says Taylor, 35, British-born and Belgian-trained, "presentation is everything."
Taylor, who works some 50 f.etes a year aside from her own, often enlists the aid of a butler or bartender. Her preferred colleague, versed in both skills, is an ex-owner of a Greenwich Village cabaret -- before that, an investment adviser, actor and college English instructor -- by the name of James Healey. He allows that there's more to a proper do than free-flowing food and drink.
"The secret to a good party," says Healey, 45, "is a host or hostess who's free to get people to mix. The host makes sure everybody meets everybody else, and gives them just enough information to converse on. 'I'd like you to meet Maud, who's interested in artichokes and has seven children in prep school,' for instance. If the host is shy, the party is doomed. You can tell it's going badly by the glazed looks in some people's eyes when they're ordering their drinks.
"When I was in the restaurant business, I had a house in New York City with a concert grand and pipe organ on the ground floor -- and three pieces of furniture. So, every Monday night, between 8 and 10 o'clock, I'd have over from 20 to 200 people for the best music and entertainment in the city. There'd be an open bar and music of performance quality -- singers from the Met, concert-organist types or cabaret performances from people I was producing. I limited it exactly to two hours. At 10 o'clock, I'd announce that it was time to go out for dinner -- dutch."
The moral to the story? "It's very simple," Healey says. "You want people to meet one another when they can focus on something outside themselves, and talk about something other than the problems of their lives."
In his current incarnation as butler/bartender, for which the requirements are a tuxedo and "a sincere delight in pleasing people," Healey's ministry is much the same. "I'm one of those people trained to create situations in which society can move along in a decorous fashion."
y James Taylor's birthday party, as Jayne recounted the next morning while mixing up a butter frosting to battleship gray, went off without a hitch. The gumbo lasted the night, even if the chocolate cake vanished without a trace. And the guest of honor claimed to be genuinely thrilled when a young lady doffed her streetclothes to reveal Wonder Woman. The shark hors d'oeuvres, which took more than an hour to make, weighed on Taylor's conscience, though. "Isn't it awful?" she said. "I forgot to serve them."
But now there was a more pressing matter: the emerging ship of cake. Armed with a page from "Jane's Fighting Ships" and slabs of chocolate cake, she set about making the Callaghan, a World War II-vintage destroyer, numbered 792. "With a project like this, I rarely know what I'm going to do," she said. "I often have just an idea, and go along from there."
With hull and superstructure done -- several pieces deftly joined -- she began coating the construction with thick gray frosting. For such details as the placement of candlestick guns and toothpick radar, she consulted her husband, an ex-Navy lieutenant, and, at one point, phoned a Coast Guard officer who lives across the street. She delivered the result of seven hours' labor -- bordered by piped frosting and black licorice -- to the Four Seasons Hotel. It was presented, candles blazing, to the distinguished old seaman.
"The cake was a hit and a half," said the captain's daughter afterward. "We took it home and showed it to friends. Part of it fell on the floor. I'm afraid we ate the rest.""