Eliot was right about April being the cruelest month, though our reasons are different from his. In this season of azaleas, cherry blossoms and the belief that even a life flattened by winter can renew itself, the government has chosen to make the income tax come due.
Instead of kites dancing on the breezes, we face forms piled on the carpet and the nagging thought that a kinder government would have set the deadline in February, when everyone is already depressed, instead of spoiling spring.
Now, having written the check to pay for all those $748 pliers, there is little left for entertaining. How to live like a king and pay like a commoner?
A friend in Chicago found a way by adapting the old ritual of group suppers -- where Millie brings the Jell-O mold and Mabel makes the macaroni -- to more sophisticated tastes. She and her friends formed an eating club, five couples, each containing at least one person who likes to cook. Once a month the group chooses a theme for the dinner and designates one of their number as host/ess. The hostess coordinates the courses, provides the setting and chooses and buys the wines.
Although the hostess doesn't cook, she's in charge of traffic control. Think what a mess it would be if two courses, cooking at different temperatures, had to share one oven. By working it all out in advance, the hostess can change one of the dishes or borrow a toaster oven. And the coordinator also makes sure that the meal doesn't wind up too starchy, too white (as in chicken, mashed potatoes, creamed onions . . .) or too weird.
The group's last dinner -- a New England supper -- was held while the weather was still cold. One person brought cream of onion soup, and the second cook followed up with cornmeal pastries stuffed with creamed lobsters and clams. That put an end to the creamy dishes. The main course was a crown roast with apple and pork sausage stuffing. Another cook brought acorn squash cooked with maple syrup and a corn pudding to serve on the side. The person responsible for dessert made both a lemon tart and gingerbread, and to finish the meal, the hostess added cheddar cheese and apples.
"One of the points of these evenings is to extend ourselves," the organizer explained. "I was chosen to be hostess for the New England dinner because I do that so badly. I'm a great guest, but a lousy hostess.
"If you only have to do one thing, it's easier to do it well. If you know you have to cook a whole meal, you become very realistic about what you can do. When each person only has to cook one course, they can spend more on ingredients and give much more time to it than if they had to do five."
Since several of the couples have spent time in Greece, their next dinner will feature food from the island of Corfu. "However, we will not have kumquat liqueur," said the organizer of that evening, exercising the host's privilege of eliminating all that he loathes.
While an eating club is lush living for a small outlay, it's no good if you have the kind of friends who think an oven is a perfect place to keep the unpaid bills. On the other hand, why not? You could adapt the idea by having a Take-in/Take-out Club. Wing it the first time, asking all members to bring their favorite take-out dish. A little bromo will soothe any stomach upset by pizza, Peking duck and pecan pie and it will be worth it to find out the food fetishes that lurk in the hearts of your friends.
After the first free-for-all, organize your non-cooks on the same line as the cooking group. Even if they can't bake or broil, they can learn to fetch. Given the number of take-outs, restaurants and caterers available in Washington, anyone who can use the Yellow Pages can contribute a dish to a group meal.
Some restaurants, while not offering a regular take-out service, will provide food if you bring the containers to put it in. One man who lives near a Mexican restaurant lugs a huge silver tray around to their kitchen when he's expecting guests, and then makes his way back home laden with empanadas, tostados and seviche. If there's a restaurant whose food you long for, ask. All they can do is say no.
An eating club evening has benefits other than financial ones. So often we see the same people over and over again. We see them because we like them, but friendships, like marriages, can slip from comfort into boredom. The conversation trots along the same old path, and usually the evening contains no surprises.
Set up an eating club and you've opened a new area of interest. Just the fact that everyone present has spent the last month reading about the foods of a given area in order to find the perfect dish will lead the conversation in that direction. A little music, a lot of praise lavished on each and every dish and the evening will be as pleasing to mind and soul as it is to taste.