It is just about now, with Valentine's Day behind us and only the aconite to promise an end to winter, that entertaining fails. To go out is a bother of boots and scarves and runny noses; to stay in and lure more adventurous souls through the ice with promises of good red wines and winter stews presumes that a) your friends are not as lazy and as reluctant to face frostbite as you are and b) that they will not be battered back home by a snow emergency.
Is there nothing we can do? Well, yes, there is. We can imitate nature and go dormant, storing up for the return of the social season. Make this a time of the planned dinner party rather than the actual one.
Curl up in front of the fire with cookbooks and plot out new menus, so that when the spirit of conviviality returns it will not be one more invitation to friends to come and share "the chicken dish."
It's easy to turn to the same old pages in the cookbook because there's never time to experiment. But if you are taking an entertaining sabbatical, the long, lazy evenings can be spent reading through old cookbooks and stocking up on new ones. Stock up on stock as well, so that as you read, soup stocks simmer on the stove, scenting the entire house with their rich smells and giving you the base of dozens of soups and sauces to pop into the freezer.
One new cookbook I have particularly enjoyed has a recipe for a winter vegetable stock which uses up the vegetable leavings and yet produces a surprisingly rich broth.
It was published last June, though regrettably I didn't come across it until the end of summer -- regrettably because it is a sophisticated and creative collection of vegetarian recipes, and summer, of course, is a cornucopia of fresh vegetables; before you groan, it is not one of those awful efforts where the virtue of not eating fellow creatures is supposed to make up for the inedibility of soy loaf.
What makes The Greens Cookbook (by Deborah Madison with Edward Espe Brown, Bantam Books, $19.95) a current favorite is the creative way it uses winter vegetables in things like a curried parsnip soup, a winter squash tart, and wide green noodles with cauliflower and broccoli, tossed with mustard butter.
After you've spent a night or two reading cookbooks, dig out your address book and be as creative in your future guest lists as you are in your future menus. There are so many people we plan to see again and then don't. Having taken some time thinking about what to eat, think about who you would like to eat it with.
Expand your guest list to include those acquaintances who have slipped out of your life or those you met briefly but would like to know better.
There is one other way the long winter evenings help with entertaining. Curled up with a good book, one can meet hundreds of hosts and hostesses who, over the centuries, have written of the pleasures and despairs of the table.
Some of the scraps you come across can be used in invitations; some are ideas for things you can do yourself. Others are simply for amusement and comfort.
Has anyone ever described better than John Keats a party that went on too long? " ... The fire is going out and no one rings/For coals, and therefore no coals Betty brings,/A fly is in the milk-pot -- must he die/Circled by a Humane Society?/No, no; there, Mr. Werter takes his spoon,/Inverts it, dips the handle, and lo! soon/The little struggler, saved from perils dark,/Across the teaboard draws a long wet mark ... "
The overly creative cook is nothing new. That witty 19th-century clergyman, the Rev. Sydney Smith, writes to his hostess, "Let me beg of you to take more care of those beautiful geraniums, and not let the pigs in upon them. Geranium-fed bacon is of a beautiful color; but it takes so many plants to fatten one pig, that such a system can never answer. I can not conceive who put it into your head."
It is the Rev. Smith who also offers excellent advice for houseguests: "I find, from long experience, that I am never so well received, as when I state to my host the brief duration of his sorrows and embarrassments."
Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway offers up a cruelly perfect description of a certain kind of hostess who "had her toadies, minor officials in Government offices who ran about putting through little jobs on her behalf, in return for which she gave them luncheon."
Combine your winter reading with experimenting in the kitchen and private -- and therefore affordable -- wine tastings, and by the time you are ready to venture back into the social world, they will say of you, as Chaucer wrote, "They had a Cook with them who stood alone/for boiling chicken with a marrow-bone,/Sharp flavoring-powder and a spice for savour./He could distinguish London ale by flavour,/And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry,/Make good thick soup and bake a tasty pie."