For months I’ve been in constant motion, throwing myself into projects, side jobs, dinners; idle hands, and some such nonsense about the devil, as my rationale. So when a friend, Kenyan Paris Lewis, asked if I’d host a Memorial Day shindig at his upstate home, there was narry a pause before I said yes.
Interior and set designers, Kenyan and his partner Meghan Auld, are artfully restoring the James Oliver Manor in Stone Ridge, NY, a historic stone house that briefly functioned as the State Capitol for U.S. founding fathers during Constitutional formation. They are scavengers with keen, whimsical eyes, who see the beauty in yellowing Deco dentist’s drawers, a taxidermy bear wearing a top hat, a set of old amber apothecary bottles, a vintage safari hat on display like a bouquet. The house is a cabinet of curiosities and with its many barns and sheds, a cavernous third floor and enormous hearths, it’s the perfect backdrop for a fantasy party. Of course, I said yes!
Three weeks out from the official launch of summer, we had our first conference call: it would be a fundraiser! There would be fireworks and archery! There would be performances and DJs and dancing beneath the stars! My cohorts–Greg Almas of Assembly, Meshakai Wolf, Kenyan and Meghan–had big plans and we all began to execute them at exactly a snail’s pace. I was silently concerned: I’d been asked to host a party, but this was sounding to me, more and more like a festival. Yet one week out, I sent the invitations (hey, maybe the less time people had to plan, the fewer people would be able to make it).
I asked my dear, dear old pal Chris Miller (a chef & restaurateur with Miller’s Near & Far, Warren 77 and Hometown BBQ) to do the food (which was probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done), and he’d agreed (perhaps one of the craziest things he’s ever done). “I’m thinking a whole animal,” he told me. “I’ll get us a goat.”
Chris and I met at The Manor on Saturday afternoon–he with a 70 lb. lamb & 20 lb. baby goat from Paisanos in a cooler in the back of his truck–and I with all the old Ironstone platters I could carry–and we went vegetable shopping. In the car we exchanged worried glances: we were expecting about 50 people, the party was in 26 hours and there was no table, nowhere for the theoretical guests to sit. More worrisome, the 2 additional refrigerators (one of which was for the beasts) were not even cold yet. The ladies we’d left picking parsley and shelling garlic in the kitchen didn’t seem particularly committed to slaving for the next 26 hours, and we needed indentured servants to pull this off. Supposedly people would help us cook, but it was clear already that my “Hostess” duties included being a committed sous chef, which I would enjoy anyway.
When we got back to the house with our asparagus, radishes, cucumber and 144 local eggs, we laid the ground rules: no one was to attempt to cook in the kitchen while we were prepping (“If you’re hungry, order pizza or fire up the grill, but stay out of our way”); don’t leave dishes in the sink. “If you help us, we will make it worth your while,” we told the musicians and hipsters that floated through our kitchen like pollen on sunbeams. I bribed a lovely Swede named Emilie–our truest and most loyal helper: I would make sure she had a full glass of rosé for as long as she remained our kitchen minion. She was the only one who obliged and will never be forgotten.
I tried to task people with jobs they would enjoy. “Dears,” I told three waify 20-year-olds who were braiding each others’ hair and humming in the dwindling light of the front yard, “You can shell peas and watch the sunset at the same time.” “Ladies, you can compose poetry in the kitchen, while you zest 20 lemons…please?” I know what desperation sounds like and I heard its distinct timbre in my voice.
Naturally, like at a wedding, it was the night before the main event that was the most fun (at least for me). At that point, we’d only been in the kitchen for about six hours, I wasn’t wrecked yet. A house meeting in front of the fireplace in the front parlor was full of laughter and list-making on butcher’s paper. Tasks were doled out and bourbon was passed. Tipsily, we wandered through the hallways and stairways and secrets of the house, listening to musicians strike drums and strum guitars. The girl, Heather Boo of the band Beaû, who’d shelled my peas had the haunting wail of a siren, beckoning us up to the cavernous 1200 sq. ft. attic.
At 6am on Sunday, Kenyan (who was working constantly, had given up his bedroom, and probably hadn’t slept at all) subtly rallied the troops by blaring 1920s music from the kitchen. Only Chris and I emerged, groggily putting on our aprons, like Civil War soldiers pulling on their suspenders, readying for a nearby battle.
Like Salinger’s Franny and her repetition of the Jesus Prayer, we cooked without cessation, which is to say, that even when we were having a conversation with the folks in short shorts and floppy hats, skinny jeans and sundresses who arrived first in a trickle and then in a torrent, we were actually thinking of the citronnette and tatziki that needed mixing.
By 11am, we’d gotten the lamb onto the spit and were sewing potatoes, preserved lemons, olives and onions into its belly. I adored every part of this endeavor. My relationship to meat is another story, too long for this post, but to really put your hands on the flesh, to really acquaint yourself with what you are doing, well, it’s the only way. There are no mysteries or illusions: you are eating a noble beast, it deserves respect, and I have nothing but that for it.
Our base camp was the kitchen, but periodically, when we needed a break from picking parsley, we would walk across the back forty to check on the lamb. In order to do so, we’d pass girls in bikinis catching the sun, a “Bushmills Shack” bar and a homemade outhouse that Kenyan had built the day before, and a sawdust speckled guy building us our trestle table. The antique legs were standing in the middle of the grove, the in-progress top pieces were on their sides in sections.
At the fire pit, we basted the lamb using a wand of rosemary and thyme sprigs, dripping in preserved lemon juice, minced garlic, olive oil, and any other delicious dregs from our prep. As it cooked, the bolts we’d secured through the lamb’s hind quarters and shoulders loosened in the softening flesh. Wearing buckskin gloves we tightened them, but there was something disconcerting about the way that when the spit turned the heavy beast, the weight redistributing with an alarming shudder. I looked at Chris with concern. “It is what it is,” he said. All the comfort I needed.
As I grilled 20 lbs of asparagus and charred pink lemon halves, I could keep a hypnotized eye on the lamb and the desirous dogs that circled it. I also confoundedly watched the progress of the table. I’d learned as a child from my perpetually entertaining mother that the first thing to do was to get the table set so that you could focus on the food and your guests. All I wanted to do was set that table; I couldn’t help but think, “If the table were set, everything would be okay,” but of course, it couldn’t be set, because it was still being built…and sanded…by a blonde model…at 4:47….when dinner was meant to start at 6pm.
I left the last batch of flatbread grilling to my trusted friend Kazusa of Lovely Day and her boyfriend and went inside to clean up. We’d been wrestling meat all day, standing in smoke and heat, and drinking rosé like lemonade to calm nerves. Out of my gamey clothes, stretching under a tepid stream of water with soap smells in my nose was a gift. I considered remaining in the shower semi-permanently, but given that the well was already low, I forced myself to dry and dress. I reemerged downstairs a new person in my favorite summer frock with an apron over it that my aunt made by hand in the ’70s, found the day before in my mother’s linen closet. Finally, it was time to enjoy the party.
Thank you to Kenyan (me of little faith!) for getting that table done so that my nerves could calm and we had a place to gather. Many hands make light work, remember, and in that final hour, when all the elves were hungry to help, the table was set in seconds.
Dinner was only an hour behind schedule at 7pm (which if I’m honest was how I’d always foreseen a 6pm call time). Mediterranean lamb with tatziki & minty salsa verde; potatoes with preserved lemon, olives & onion; bulger salad with pistachios, herbs & manchego; grilled asparagus with charred lemons; greens with avocado, radish pine nuts & pecorino. There was just one issue. We had 60 place-settings, yet an alarming number of people were asking where they could find plates and forks.
“How many people can there be here?” I asked Greg, through my fog. “I think there are close to 90,” was his response. The waifs and hippies who we’d quarantined from the kitchen for 24-hours, plus the legions of guests who had driven up under the auspice of a feast were ravenous. It was a feeding frenzy, and in my enjoyment of the twilight, the arrival of my pals, the cooking being over and the promise that I’d shortly sit to enjoy my first proper meal in 36 hours, I was a bit too relaxed and polite about getting myself a plate of food. Guests firsts, was how I’d been raised, after all.
Bad call. When I went to the buffet table to make myself a plate only the dregs of our labors remained. Snapping from my daze, I managed to find a large saucer and scraped the remaining bulgar salad, some lamb skin, a spoonful each of tatziki and salsa verde from the bowls–just a taste of everything together was all I needed, anyway. As I was departing the buffet table to find a place to sit, a guest came up to me and asked me about the flatbread: “I saw you grilling some flatbread before, and I don’t see it here…Was just wondering where that might be.”
The f-ing flatbread. Remembering I’d left it warming in the oven, I was instantly consumed by fear that I was about to burn down a historic landmark. I put my plate and rosé down hurriedly, lifted my dress and literally sprinted into the house. Of course, there was no fire; the oven had been on low, and I quickly put it on a platter and carried it back out. When I got to the table, I screamed as though I’d been burned. Someone had taken my tiny plate and there was literally nothing left to eat!
Admittedly, I cried. Food is pretty much all I think about generally and it was certainly all I’d thought about for 36 hours. I was starving and exhausted, and just on the cusp of letting go and having fun and sinking my teeth into our slaved-over feast. People couldn’t tell if I was joking with my weeping because insane laughter at the preposterousness of the whole thing kept creeping in and turning up the corners of my mouth. Greg adorably found some scrapings for me to nibble on and Claireban ministered with rosé and a cocktail from the Bushmills shack and I was more or less fine again in no time.
People keep coming up to me and telling me that it was the one of the best weekends of their life; last night, someone told me that it was like “Shangri-La.” I laughed. In Shangri-La, hopefully I won’t have to slave in the kitchen….well, actually, what kind of paradise would it be without cooking?
The Manor is available to rent for private events, weddings, product launches, retreats, location, studio space, prop rental and more. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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Photo credits to Brie Welch, Kenyan Paris Lewis & moi.
Tags: countryside, Dinner Party, Event, Holiday, Lamb, Summer, The Manor, Upstate, Whole animal