PERDITA HUSTON began her weekly For Women Only dinner parties in 1978 when President Carter appointed her regional director of the Peace Corps for North Africa, the Near East, Asia and the Pacific. She was born in Maine, studied and lived in France for 20 years, worked in Algeria and is the twice-married mother of two daughters and a son.
Sitting in the almost-redone living room of the Mount Pleasant home she purchased last fall, Huston explained the origin of her For Women Only dinner parties. "Because of the size of the region I administered for the Peace Corps, I was obliged to do much traveling.
"When I wasn't out of town on Peace Corps business, I thought it important to be at home with my son, Pierre, who was then 7 years old. Also, because of my travels, I began losing touch with many of my friends, but instead of trying to see people one-on-one in restaurant situations, I devised this scheme of giving weekly dinner parties.
"Right about that same time, I also came to realize there were a lot of women in my situation: single women in high-level jobs whose professional lives were presenting certain problems and often overwhelming their private lives. In many ways, the women in the Carter administration were pioneers who needed supportive networking, so I decided to limit my guests to women only.
"What I did was simply expand my Sunday cooking to include preparations for a Monday night meal for 12. I would often make couscous or a lamb-based soup, which is used during Ramadan in Algeria to break the fast at sundown. It's called chorba, which means soup; in fact, it's called The Soup. It's very spicy and good enough to be an entire meal. Often I would just prepare a huge tureen of it along with hot bread and a big salad. Desserts were simply fruit and cheese.
"The response to my Monday night For Women Only dinner was really overwhelming," she continued. "I always used my finest china and crystal and silver candlesticks. In other words, I treated these occasions the way most hostesses treat conventional male/female dinner parties."
"Our dinner table conversations are unusually candid. We talk -- or argue -- about U.S. foreign policy or discuss problems common to women in management positions, such as how to combat stereotypes or sexism in the work place.
*"It is a joy to see that women can be totally open with each other and share their problems in a way they couldn't -- or wouldn't -- if men were present. You see, a woman who has a man in her life can -- just like a man -- go home and discuss her office problems with her mate. But a woman without a 'special' man still has the same problems and still needs to talk them out. We get a lot of feedback from each other and, because of our experience, can suggest various people to see, organizations to contact or strategies to develop. Because they are so supportive, these dinners have become very important to many of us. When the number of my wine glasses diminished through breakage, my guests presented me with a superb new collection."
After Jimmy Carter's defeat, Huston became a scholar-in-residence at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, which caused a two-year interruption in her For Women Only parties. But when she returned to Washington, in 1982, she immediately resumed the Monday night dinners. Although the paint in her dining room was still wet when the first group of women dined there, no one seemed to notice since the table was as elegant as usual, the food as tasty, and the conversation just as exciting as it had always been. Chorba
Two large onions, chopped
One large bulb of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 lbs. stewing lamb, cut into cubes
6 tablespoons tomato paste
4 oz. dried chickpeas (soak overnight)
Salt, pepper, cumin, thyme to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Two dried chili peppers
6 oz. fresh angel hair pasta
One fresh tomato, chopped
Olive oil and water, as needed
Cut onions and half the garlic into small pieces and brown with the spices in olive oil. Add cubed lamb and brown well. Add the tomato paste, cover with water and stir so tomato paste dissolves. Add soaked chickpeas, chili peppers and 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Let soup simmer until meat is tender, about one hour. Add pasta. Cook for one minute and remove from heat. Add another 1/4 cup cilantro, the chopped tomato and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Float the remainder of the chopped garlic on top of the soup, and serve.