In other cities, people gather together because they cannot go one more day without seeing their dear, good friends, but in Washington, often as not, a party is a business meeting with food.
Lobbyists munch tiny little sandwiches of rare roast beef while trying to line up a congressman's vote; ambassadors stand at their residence door looking genial and confused as strangers rush by, heading for the smoked salmon and some elusive State Department aide.
In such a setting the flaws that friends forgive us stand out. After all, when you've set out to impress, you'd damn well better.
The desire to get it right -- no matter who's coming to dinner -- may be what lures so many people to the Kitchen Bazaar's annual seminar on entertaining. And the advice that all the experts offer is that no matter who your guests are, when they march in through one door do not let common sense slide out the other.
"People shouldn't overreach themselves when they entertain," said Carol Cutler, president of Les Dames d'Escoffier (an organization made up of women in the food profession) and author of the Woman's Day Complete Guide to Entertaining and various cookbooks. "They should do something they're comfortable with. If you do meat loaf well, don't be embarrassed to serve it to company. After all, pa te' is nothing other than meat loaf that's had a few cocktails."
David Vaughn, wine writer and lecturer, was equally realistic about what real people actually serve. When asked about what temperature to serve wines, he recommended, "The worse the wine the colder you want it. Cold is an anesthetic. If you're serving Chateau Tennis Shoe, freeze it and serve it on a stick. A fabulous white wine, I'd only put in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. You want to taste it. As for storing wine, well, I wouldn't put it in the trunk of my car in August, but if you're only keeping it for a few months, it can live where you do."
As for what to put the wine in, everyone on the panel agreed that champagne should always be served in a flute-shaped glass, that the best all-purpose glass is shaped like a tulip, and that the only one that's a disaster is the sherbet coup glass, which Vaughn said, "dissipates the nose. You can't smell the wine."
Cutler recommended that when doing the dishes after a party, you wash the wine glasses separately, without detergent. "Detergent stinks," she explained, and then, lest anyone think she was being vulgar, hastily added that "stinks" is the word used by wine people. "Michael Mondavi says it's impossible to use detergent in the dishwasher without the glasses picking up the smell and retaining it. Put the wine glasses through without detergent and the hot water will clean them -- though you may have to check for lipstick stains."
Columbia Catering, which figures that 15 bite-size hors d'oeuvres per person will control the hungry masses at a cocktail party, controlled the hungry masses at the seminar with stuffed cherry tomatoes, stuffed snow peas, tiny puffs filled with cheddar cheese and several mousses, one striped in bands of pale green (avocado), white (sour cream) and black (an icing of caviar), which looked like the flag of a newly emerging nation but tasted better.
Vaughn had recommended a half-bottle of wine per person for this same, theoretical cocktail party, but this, after all, was a working seminar, and though the bartenders poured out Vaughn's wine choices -- a Joseph Phelps 1984 Vin Blanc and a 1984 Sanel Mendocino White Zinfandel -- surely the crowd didn't drink that much.
They were able to come back after the intermission to question the experts and learn:
*To "watch the vermouth at the bar." Cutler said that while most people pay attention to brands of gin and vodka, they won't notice that the bartender has stocked a cheap vermouth, which will ruin a martini. "I don't know where they find these things."
*To include hired help in your party budget. "Nothing screws a party up as much as a hostess running frantically back and forth between the kitchen and living room," said Bina Kiyanaga of Columbia Catering.
*That good choices for summer wines are Macons from the southern region of Burgundy. "They're a good buy right now," said Vaughn. Buy them to drink young. These are not wines to lay down."
*That the newest eating fad, according to Carol Cutler, is "grazing -- a little of this, a little of that. I've been to a cocktail party in Madrid which started at 10 o'clock where the waiters first passed the nuts and what have you, then cold fish, then hot mussels and kebabs, and vegetable fritters, and then desserts. It was a complete meal standing up. The original grazing is a Spanish cocktail party."
*That there is now a commercial wine cellar called The Wine Rack (363-5409), for those who are serious enough about wine to lay bottles down for the future. Your wine can be stored in a locker there -- the smallest holds 12 cases -- at the right temperature and conditions. "If you're buying very good wines," said Vaughn, "it's worth it, since the cost works out to about 60 cents a bottle a year."