You may want to hold a dinner party inside your refrigerator, but it really won't fit. And though there was a man who every August staged a chess tournament in his bathtub (contenders wore bathing suits), he was thought to have crossed the line that separates the amusing from the mad.
It is hard for people in other parts of the country to understand the problem of entertaining in Washington in August -- particularly official entertaining, where it is considered impolite to drip perspiration on one's dinner partner. Congress blessedly goes away, sparing host and hostess sopping senators and representatives in crushed seersucker. But enough people remain to meet and mingle to make entertaining a problem that needs thinking about.
The coward's way out is to confine the guests to a darkened room, serving up frozen daiquiris while the VCR drops everyone under water to see "Secrets of the Titanic" -- or, using the same theory that recommends warm baths and hot food to offset the heat, takes them on a dusty "Passage to India." This also precludes conversation, which in August can be a good thing, since all talk seems to focus on how many days the temperature has been stuck in the 90s.
Worst is pretending that your guests aren't all damp and slithery and that the mousse hasn't melted in a puddle on the plate. Worst is acting as though August is a pleasant and enjoyable experience, and life should continue as usual, with sit-down dinners and five-course meals, and candles adding their flickering heat to the already stifling night. And worst of all is choosing a moment in August to introduce a man and woman whom you suspect might make a match of it. They won't.
Even if your house is air-conditioned, even if all the guests arrive in cooled cars, there is still that sprint between one icy refuge and another, where the heat attacks and eye makeup begins to slide off and suits to wrinkle.
So here is one way to entertain during August which will keep you in touch with your friends, while still preserving the distance necessary to survive the heat.
Have a garlic festival, an evening devoted to the stinking bulb. They celebrate the love of the clove annually in California, not realizing how useful garlic can be in forging a distance between one overheated person and another. You can emulate a Provencal feast centered around bowls of aioli, the garlicky mayonnaise, to be used as a dipping sauce for platters of fresh vegetables, roast chickens, snails, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, whatever the market yields that would pair happily with garlic. (If imagination fails, there is a very pretty new cookbook published by Little, Brown & Company, called A Taste of Provence: Classic Recipes from the South of France, by Leslie Forbes, $19.95, which is as redolent of garlic as is that section of Southern France.)
Another way to cope with the heat is to turn it to good effect by inviting your more talented friends to an evening of drink and creative endeavor -- the joint writing of a steamy sex novel. You can use the money you make from the made-for-TV movie to rent a house on Nantucket next year.
You also could pioneer a southern version of a northern tradition: In New England, spring is the time for the ice-out contest. Contestants bet on the date when the ice will melt. In Washington, one can place similar bets on an ice-off competition, with guests testing their tolerance for sitting on a block of ice. The person who can sit longest wins. Of course, contestants all must wear bathing suits, and the block of ice should be picked up at the last minute (see Ice in the Yellow Pages for places that sell it by the block), otherwise the testing ground will melt before the contest begins. A Polaroid camera can record the expressions of the brave contestants and the winner gets all the photographs.
Or stage your own summit, practicing de'tente through imitation. In Russian novels, people are always eating sunflower seeds and drinking vodka, a menu that does not require turning on the stove. Put the vodka bottle into a milk carton filled with water, freeze it and then peel the carton away. Play balalaika music while the guests drink and soon they will have not only forgotten the heat, but everything else as well (make arrangements that allow them to forget about driving themselves home, too).
Yes, it's all silly -- but so is living in a city where the summer temperature hits the hundreds.