February 14, 1986 -- which is not that far away -- is a day to ignore essayist M.F.K. Fisher's dictum that you should never invite people to dinner who are so much in love that they have eyes only for each other.
Couples besotted with love are the perfect guests to break bread with on Valentine's Day. And what's even better is if you can the besotting: Invite two people who, upon crossing your threshhold, tumble madly into love. Any hostess who really puts her hand to it can usually take credit for at least one successful mating.
But even on Valentine's Day, however, there are rules:
First, and most important: Keep your intentions a secret. Tell two people that they are being invited to meet each other and often as not they experience an instant and mutual antipathy. In the days before the dinner, the proposed lovers have been free to fill in the outlines of the real person with the person of their fantasies, and the reality can rarely compete.
Those who don't fall into a disappointed despondency may go to the other extreme and, fearful of seeming too eager, spend the entire evening avoiding the person they were invited to meet.
One hostess, who had had the good sense not to announce that this was to be a matchmaking evening, walked into the dining room and discovered that her husband had told everyone to sit where they pleased. The people she wanted to mate were at opposite ends of the table.
And there she should have left them, conceding that the evening was a loss where romance was concerned.
Instead, she pried the woman guest out of her chair and trotted her around the table where she pried another woman (married) out of her chair so that she could seat Single Woman next to Single Man. Both of whom were so embarrassed by the procedure that they turned their backs on each other and spoke only to pass the salt.
It's not easy being Cupid.
Perhaps the best way to do it on Valentine's Day is to give up on trying to arrange the perfect match and, instead, invite all your single friends and let them find each other. The fact that no one person is being aimed toward any other will put them at ease, and you can make a joke of your intentions by leading them through the spells and rituals that couples have used for years to find their true love.
Many are a bit out of date. It is not easy, for example, to find roast hummingbird hearts at the corner deli, and one could live a long and lonely life waiting to count 100 white horses. Some rituals must be abandoned in a modern, urban environment, but others can still be performed. And given the trickiness of attraction, they are probably as effective a way of predicting -- or encouraging -- love as singles bars or classified ads.
Start by serving dishes that are traditionally associated with romance, such as champagne and oysters. The reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac has earned them a place in a variety of jokes (as well as on a variety of menus) and even if the mollusc fails to inspire love or lust, the effort required to open the damn things should form a bond of sorts between any guests assigned the chore. Not to mention how close two people can become when one is required to bind the bleeding hand of the other, which has just been pierced by an oyster knife.
Ask each of your guests to try these test from the Farmer's Almanac:
Touch your little finger and your forefinger behind the two middle fingers. Supposedly, anyone who can accomplish that (ital) digital feat can have any lover they want.
Have the women guests toss your cat on a quilt. (I know, I know, but he'll eventually forgive you and after all, it is in the name of love). When the cat jumps, as he most certainly will, the woman toward whom he jumps will be the first to marry.
Give each guest an apple and have them peel it without breaking the peel. One at a time, have them swing their unbroken peel around their head three times, then toss if over a shoulder. It should land in the shape of the initial of the lover.
Get out your tapemeasure. Some researchers have decided that there is a correlation between the length of people's forearms and the length of their marriages. Measure each guests arm from tip of middle finger to elbow. The men and women whose arms are closest in length are supposed to be better bets at having a happy marriage.
Play spin the bottle and post office. (It worked when you were twelve).
As each guest prepares to leave, hand him or her a hardboiled egg, the yolk scooped out and the hollow filled with salt. The guests are supposed to sit on something they have never sat on before (the cat?), eat the egg and walk to bed backwards. They will dream of their future mates.
No one ever said that love was easy.