Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul serves up some Whole Foods value to capture the attention of reader-guests at a book party for 85A.
It’s official—Michael Cunningham is my Writer-Boyfriend. In our house, Chef and I use “boyfriend” to designate someone on whom we have an enormous crush of respect. Cheyenne Jackson is Chef’s Broadway-Boyfriend, while Raúl Esparaza is mine. Secretly, I’ve harbored a thing for Michael, best known as author of The Hours, since I started reading his treatise on the pleasures of Provincetown called Land’s End. I read it every summer—and nearly came unglued when I spotted the author just two doors down from the house we’d rented in P-town at a Fourth of July party he’d detailed in the book. At that time, I couldn’t bring myself to even way at him I was so starstruck.
But after Michael’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, if I saw him now, I’d give him a hug and a kiss. His take on writers and their readers should be required reading for every author. He explains that in his writing classes at university, he asks his students whom they are writing for? When they invariably answer, “themselves,” he gives them this lecture:
I tell them that I understand—that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I meant that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.
I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.
We have large difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite shows.
What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.
Amen, Boyfriend Michael. Which is why I was so gratified that yesterday afternoon friends took time to come to our house and meet writer Kyle Thomas Smith, author of the new book 85A. My full review appeared on the blog yesterday, but suffice it to say that I believe this is a book deserving of our busy attention, and that to Michael’s point grabs the reader from the opening line, “Every detention, every chip of glass piercing my forearm from the inside, every minute the 85A is late drives me that much closer to London. I repeat: London, London…”
To help hold the attention—and palettes—of our guests, Chef and I worked to theme the food we served at the party to plotlines in the book. Whole Foods Market Upper West Side offered to help us out, but threw out another challenge—could we do it on a budget of $100? Please, as a frequent Whole Foods shopper, and a team-member-by-marriage, I know all about navigating my shopping cart to find the best values for entertaining on a budget! Here are my tips and menu:
- The Whole Deal. On your way into the store, pick up a copy of this newsletter with recipes and coupons inside. It will point out some items you might overlook—for my cheese platter I got a 350g wheel of imported Isigny Ste. Mere French Brie for just $6.99. Always a crowd pleaser—and I would have totally overlooked at the cheese counter had it not been for the write-up. I also selected a NY State Toma Pepato cheese (Seamus, the main character, winds up in NYC) and a Cotswold cheese from Britain (Seamus dreams of London). Serve with some WFM 365 brand Organic Water Crackers.
- Hummus. One of my first Big Apple roommates Shannon told me, “It’s not a NYC party without hummus.” And I’ve always lived by those words. In Dallas, we never had hummus—but here, I’m addicted to it. We decided that Seamus, the main character in 85A, probably had never tasted hummus either until he walked into the hippie bistro in the book. While you can buy Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand hummus which I found delicious, Chef told me an even better value was making it from scratch. You can find chickpeas in the bulk section of the store—the night before the party cook for several hours in a crockpot, cool overnight. Day of party put in Vita-Mix or professional grade blender add in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic powder—really whatever flavors float your boat. Voila, it’s a party.
- Chips & Dip & Veggies. I like to mix the 365 brand Blue Corn and Yellow Corn chips together. Slicing veggies yourself cuts down on the pre-packaged costs—some zucchini and carrots and peppers will do. The WFM brand Artichoke Jalapeno dip has a nice kick to it.
- Cucumber Sandwiches. Funny, but these things fly off the platter. And perfect for a book starring a kid dreaming of England. Buy white bread (yes, they have it at Whole Foods), cut off the edges, butter the bread, and place small slices of cucumbers (take out the seeds).
- Dessert. I always like to serve a little something special about 30 minutes before the party is scheduled to end—it’s a sweet reminder to guests that the soiree should be winding down. I wanted to do something apple related since Seamus ends up in the Big Apple, and they were stacking up on my counter from our weekly CSA. Mark Bittman to the rescue. Core the apples, stuff with brown sugar, dates, raisins and walnuts. Top each with a slab of butter. If you have some dessert wine around, pour a little over the top. Place in dish and microwave for 5 minutes or so. Turn and baste in their juices—add more everything if you desire. Cut up and serve in a big bowl.
- Sodas. In addition to seltzer, I like to spice up the drinks display with a few of WFM 365 Italian Sodas. My favorites are Blood Orange and Lemon—very refreshing, and a festive alternative for guests who don’t drink alcohol.
- Wine. The Whole Foods Market Upper West Side has a Wine Store next door that has a tremendous selection for terrific value—my selections are all under $10. My go-to afternoon event wine is the Opala Vinho Verde from Portugal—it’s fruity, not too sweet, and has some light bubbles giving it a party feel. For red, try the Vida Organica Malbec from Argentina—just enough punch to hold its own with the spicy dip.
So grab some Whole Deals at Whole Foods and eat up—and read up—on 85A. Trust me, it will grab your attention and never let go.