Food and Drink: How I ate my birthday gift

ASIDE from regular daily meals, grand occasions, entertaining and being entertained, there are various set pieces in our gastronomical lives: religious and secular feasts, weddings and christenings, birthdays, retirements. I myself look forward to the Year 2000 Dinner among the survivors who subscribed to the prospect a quarter-century ago, and whose current bank balance offers, if I am there to enjoy it, a Lucullan feast indeed.

Birthday dinners, in my family, are common. They begin modestly enough with the youngest fry more or less pigging out on what they most want to eat, and proceed up the scale of years with the evolving tastes of each. They are strictly personal. One has to guess what will most please the birthday boy or girl and what will go down well with the rest of the eaters: not always an easy task.

I remember well when Madame, then recently wed and living with stepchildren quite fiercely interested in food, was asked what she would like for her first anniversary dinner among us. Being disposed to seek anything but the spotlight, she said dismissively that what she really liked was junk food. That she was given, and it was not a success.

This past week I myself edged past a milestone of sorts, and the event was celebrated by a dozen-and-a-half close friends. Number Three Son provided the best of birthday presents by flying in from California for the weekend to cook the meal for his exacting parent.

Never has my kitchen had a more industrial aspect. The decks were cleared; huge pots settled on the stove, bubbling through the night; veal shank bones exploded in the oven, awaiting their designated use in making stock; expeditions went off several times daily to acquire this and that; the refrigerator filled up with pots of creme fraiche, with meats still wrapped, with gigantic salads. But from all this I was rigorously excluded. My job was to eat and enjoy.

Only occasionally would rumours reach me. There had been a debate about the making of a consomme: no matter how good, was this substantial enough fare for an opening course? Hadn't I once told Madame that the uses of a consomme were strictly limited to revival, and then only while the sufferer was wrapped in plaid rugs aboard a transatlantic liner at 11am? Well, that was an argument settled by Madame having forgotten to buy or rent enough bowls to serve it in.

Then on the eve of the event (for a full 48 hours went into the preparations), I heard an expletive in the kitchen. Was Madame injured? No, she had forgotten to put the flour in her pate a choux. Off she went for another dozen eggs and started bravely all over again. That Gateau Paris-Brest was made three times in one weekend; it is hard work; it would not work.

Meanwhile, of course, the house was filled with the fragrance of superior dishes cooking. Smells, like heat, rise; taking refuge in my attic studio did not help, save to sharpen my appetite. To accommodate so many, tables and sofas had to be shifted; the sounds reached me and made me feel guilty.

What I am describing will be familiar to many of you. These are the sights, the sounds, the crises, of a culinary event. An event differs from a meal. A meal is something you cook or eat. An event is something which, unless you have nothing to do with the making of it, you can have every reason to dread. The work required is prodigious; the concentration is extreme; total success is illusory; in one's exhausted nightmares looms the spectre of failure.

It is a good thing that Number Three Son is not only a fine cook, but a totally self-confident one. It deters him not at all to be making something for the first time; he brings science to bear on the delicate matter of how to extract a wonderfully soft terrine of broccoli and carrots from biscuit tins without spoiling the duck aspic on which he had worked for some hours.

No matter that the oven was refractory and the Paris- Brest was not rising; he and Madame spoke earnestly and long about the climate and convection while coaxing it along.

Making green and yellow squash into a suitable julienne required hours of chopping from the lady friend he had brought up from New York for the weekend: had she been told the task to which she was being condemned?

The result was a triumph. The mousse, with its accompanying mustard vinaigrette and fresh asparagus, was everything such a dish should be. The sauce espagnole for the four racks of lamb (the end product of a superlative stock) was perfect; the potato pie exceptional; the gorgonzola cooperated by ripening to perfection on the day.

It was the nicest of presents, a tribute, and so what if the pre-dinner kir (which I laced mysteriously with vieux calvados) had people's heads spinning. The next milestone is five years off, and in seven we reach the millennium]

The secret of food for such an event lies in its mystery. Food is the one tribute that is totally evanescent. Now it exists only in memory. It does not need polishing.