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Shabbat Dinner: Easier Than a Drunk Paris Hilton

Last night I went to the fanciest dinner of my life. The mansion had not just a staff, but a manager, as well as a chef, an assistant chef, and valet service. The other guests included Jane Smiley and Ann Patchett, as well as the chancellor and fiction faculty at Vanderbilt. I was contacted by the mansion’s chef more than a month ago asking in detail about what I do and don’t like to eat, what kind of fish I’ll eat, and how I take my bourbon. To say I had high expectations for this dinner is putting it very lightly.

And it was nice, but honestly, it wasn’t that nice. As twelve of us gathered around the table, it felt totally bizarre to me not to start the meal with Kiddush (although I can’t imagine the Chancellor, who’s Mormon, leading us). There was bread on the table, but it wasn’t challah. And while conversation was interesting, I wouldn’t say it was lively. Which is all by way of saying that I came away from the dinner thinking I prefer Shabbat dinner with my family and friends over “Fresh Ahi Tuna dredged in corn tortillas, baked and served with Jalapeno Tartar Sauce,” no matter what author is seated across from me.

Growing up, my family had company over almost every Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Typically we invited people on Tuesday or Wednesday and cooked Thursday night. If something didn’t come out the way we expected, or if it turned out somebody was allergic to carrots, or couldn’t eat chocolate, my mom would shrug and apologize and come up with an alternative on the spot. If a kid was unhappy with Spanikopita, peanut butter was always available. And conversation at those meals? Unstoppable. On several occasions we’ve had people come for lunch and stay so long we ended up bringing out dinner as well. In addition to heated debates and amusing anecdotes, typically we sing Zemirot and end with Birkat Hamazon. Trust me when I say this is way easier and more fun than waiting to be appointed Chancellor of a university so you can delegate the work to your chef.

If making dinner for five seems intimidating, consider a potluck (and I’m not just talking out of my ass hereI’m having a potluck Shabbat dinner at my apartment this Friday night). E-mail some friends, consider vacuuming, buy a couple bottles of wine. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. The best Shabbat dinners are not the ones where you make place cards and fold the napkins into swans. It’s when you get the banjo player and the Akkadian professor talking about Saturday Night Live, or the astrophysicist and the pathologist talking about foreign policy. That’s where the gold is.

And the best part about all of this? Even if you don’t have a mansion and aren’t planning on serving baked brie and rye crisps for an appetizers, everyone will be impressed by the effort you put into it (you don’t have to tell them you spent half an hour throwing stuff under the couch and making brownies out of a box). So get to it, people! Shabbat is only two days away…

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