In my first apartment in New York, my roommates and I didn’t have a table, so we ate on the couch, side by side, squashed in front of the television with takeout containers of pad kee mao from the Thai restaurant across Second Avenue balanced on our laps. So in my next apartment, the one I lived in for more than a decade, I was determined to make up for it with a giant dining table. I had visions of people sitting for hours, passing food around, popping open bottles, getting cozy. But tables are small. Instead, I ended up with two and a half tables from my local Ikea’s deeply discounted “as is” section of damaged furniture, extended by a leaf in the center and bolted together. It wasn’t perfect, but it looked almost seamless from a distance and could comfortably seat 24 (and uncomfortably seat 26). It was ridiculous, but it was also a dream come true.
I’d left work in restaurant kitchens to write, but when no one wanted to hire me, I kept on cooking. Between translation and copy-editing gigs, I put the giant table to use and ran a supper club out of my home, cooking a set menu with my boyfriend for as many people as possible. Friends, and friends of friends, emailed us to book seats, and we wrote the menus on postcards. At first, we mostly recreated what we’d each cooked in restaurants, or riffed on dishes we’d eaten and loved, or flipped through old cookbooks and bookmarked the pages. There were plenty of finicky little dishes balanced in spoons and repurposed candle holders, but also a low-key clam-chowder night with homemade bread. I scooped out strawberries and filled them back up with sweetened, strained strawberry juice mixed with tequila, setting it with gelatin to make little Jell-O shots to go with dessert, a strawberry roulade with whipped cream. I made ice cream with toasted brown bread crumbs tossed in dark, salted caramel, or with fresh peaches and cream cheese. I butchered oxtails to make ravioli filling, and stood over hot oil frying chicken for hours. Everything takes a little longer when you’re cooking for 24, even getting it to the table.
There’s a reason most dining tables seat six or eight, not 24.
Because my kitchen was unfinished, and without a counter, we plated all the food on a potting bench leaning against the wall. I cleared the table between courses, and my boyfriend, a former dishwasher, did dishes between courses so we didn’t run out of plates. It was a tiny, barely self-sustaining business that worked for nearly five years, and it was also a way to make sure I actually saw my friends, and met their colleagues and got to know whom they were dating, and generally caught up on all the gossip, particularly when I couldn’t afford to join them on extravagant dinners and trips.