The hostess

When you are in a restaurant and the waitress asks, “Sweet or unsweet?” about your iced tea, what do you say? I always ask for sweet tea. Seems like anyone would, except diabetics and crazy people.
My friend from college, Courtney May, isn’t crazy, but she orders unsweetened tea. I don’t think she ever eats anything that contains sugar or fat. I guess it is possible that when you are starving, as Courtney must be, a salad with fat-free Italian dressing tastes pretty good.
I wear a size 14. It’s not so bad when you consider that the average American woman wears a 12, but it hurts to think about the fact that two years ago, I was a 4. That was when I was breastfeeding Chloe, who is now three.
Motherhood made me thin while I was nursing, but I gained a lot of weight when I weaned both my girls. My oldest, Merry, is eight. I’d like to think I wear the weight well, but most of the time it’s obvious that I could stand to lose a few pounds.
No one needs to point this out to me, least of all Courtney. She and I were roommates at Wesleyan and have remained friends, partly because we live within driving distance of each other. I live in the small town of Berryville, Virginia; Courtney lives in Alexandria. Either we meet halfway in Middleburg for lunch and shopping or I go to Alexandria.
I can’t say we see each other often, maybe twice a year. We both have children and busy lives. I am a working mom and Courtney has a lot of social obligations as a mother and the wife of an attorney. She also works out every day. From what she has told me, I’m guessing she spends a good portion of the time her daughter is in school either running or attending an exercise class. She used to be a lawyer, but I don’t think she has any interest in practicing again.
Courtney doesn’t come right out and say, “Jill, you’re fat.”
Her way is to say, “You look great.” It’s kind of like the time I served my boss a slice of undercooked quiche and he ate the entire thing and said it was delicious. I don’t know if Courtney is trying to be nice or if she really wants me to think I look great so I won’t ever try to compete with her.
Today I am getting dressed to go to Courtney’s house for a baby shower and I am looking at my selection of wrap dresses designed to flatter a voluptuous woman. If I wear heels or platform shoes, that will take a few pounds off, too.
I guess you have to wear a dress to a baby shower because everyone at Courtney’s house is also in a dress or skirt. Courtney is in a green Lilly Pulitzer cardigan and a floral skirt. Courtney is a size zero. You literally could not pinch an extra inch of fat anywhere from her body. She is almost completely flat-chested and she likes it that way. She eats egg whites for breakfast, a fruit salad for lunch, and chicken breast with steamed veggies for dinner. No dessert, of course.
When we were in college, Courtney gained the freshman 15. Sophomore year, she started an exercise routine and saw fast results. She quickly became addicted to fitness and got up every morning at 6 a.m. religiously to run before class.
My inability to resist indulgent food and beverages only got worse when I graduated and got a job at Northern Virginia Style as the resident food writer. Try writing about food without thinking about it. You know what the current food trend is? Cupcakes – miniature cakes in every flavor and color imaginable. There are lots of new bakeries and cupcake cook-off contests. I write about cupcakes at least once a month.
When it comes to food, I am no expert or culinary school graduate. My experience is really limited to eating since every time I try to replicate a recipe I am left with the ruined remains of what was once meant to be, say, beef bourguignon.
You would think it would be hard to screw up cupcakes. Not for me. If I am sitting on a panel of judges at a cupcake cook-off fundraiser, I can tell which ones are made with quality ingredients, but normally when I bake a batch myself, they are less than perfect.
Today, Courtney is doing double duty as baby shower hostess and ambassador of goodwill as we are collecting money for a charity that Memphis Kennedy, who graduated from Wesleyan with us, has chosen. Memphis said she didn’t want or need any baby gifts and asked that we instead donate the money we would have spent to Project Safe Reach, an organization that helps find homes for orphaned African girls.
Of course, we would have all preferred to bring Memphis gifts and watch her open them, but the truth is that she doesn’t need anything. Her husband is a real estate developer; her father is a doctor and her baby will have everything he could ever want or need.
The cause near and dear to Memphis’s heart is Project Safe Reach. Recently she went on a mission trip with her church to a village in Zimbabwe where several girls were actually listed for sale as if they were livestock. The church group secured a temporary home for them in a Russian orphanage and the girls were adopted by European families soon thereafter.
Memphis tells us the story as she shows us slides from the trip. She tears up as she describes the way teenage girls in the village are married off in their early teens. They are branded as the property of their husbands and basically treated as slaves all their lives. It’s imperative that each and every one of us do everything we can to help them. We listen attentively while sipping mimosas and eating bruschetta. What a downer this is.
I make out a check for $100 and hand it to Memphis for Project Safe Reach. This is horrible. I could have gotten her a lovely baby gift for $75, maybe even $50. But, hearing about this travesty overseas, my conscience cannot let me spend a penny less than $100.
It is time for cake. At the center of Courtney’s dining room table is an almond-flavored cake with white chocolate icing and raspberry filling from Le Bon Patisserie, the French bakery two blocks from Courtney’s house.
“Here you go, Jill,” Courtney says, handing me a plate with slices of each kind of cake. “Don’t be too hard on my favorite bakery. We know you’re the resident cake expert.”
First of all, I would never criticize Courtney’s cake even if it were terrible. And second, I never met a piece of cake I didn’t like and Courtney knows this. She has actually watched me eat cake from Food Lion off the tray with a fork. At one point, when my metabolism was a lot faster than it is now and I had just finished studying for an exam, I would just sit down with a whole cake and go to town, no slicing necessary.
But that was then and this is now. Two slices is my limit. I watch Courtney graciously serve everyone. Most of the ladies just nibble at their cake. I eat two slices. But then I stop and pour a cup of tea. I do have some sense of moderation and restraint now that I am in my late thirties.
I watch Courtney and am not surprised to see that she eats no cake. How can anyone serve cake like this and not eat it? I will never understand.
The following weekend I take Chloe and Merry to Merry’s soccer game. It’s always hard keeping Chloe occupied while Merry plays. She wants so badly to play soccer with the big girls, but offering to kick the ball back and forth with her on the sidelines seems to only make her angry. Lately I have taken to giving her Merry’s Nintendo DS, which she has learned to play almost as well as Merry.
After the soccer game, the kids want to go to McDonald’s. There must be someplace else. We live in a town with several restaurants and they want McDonald’s again? We can’t go to the Chinese place because it will take too long. The diner will be too crowded. Reluctantly, I pull into the McDonald’s parking lot, trying to think of something on the menu that I would actually like to eat.
It is no use. A Big Mac is too fattening, even for me. I ask for 20 chicken nuggets, two small orders of fries and two small drinks. I will share with Chloe, who never eats more than two nuggets and four French fries.
As we eat, I stare out the window. An obese man gets out of an old Buick and walks around to the back passenger side door. He opens the door and gets out a walker, unfolds it, and then helps an elderly woman get out of the front passenger seat. They begin to make their way into the restaurant.
Biting into my third stale chicken nugget, I taste a piece of gristle. Rather than swallow it, I grab a napkin and discreetly spit it out.
“What are you doing?” Merry asks.
“I just became a vegetarian,” I tell her, and I mean it.
I feel a little guilty throwing away our leftover chicken nuggets, but it occurs to me that I was never really doing anyone any favors by eating all the food they left behind just so it didn’t go to waste.
Months later, it is my turn to host a baby shower, this time for a coworker, Marla Frankle. I call Courtney one evening to ask her advice about the invitations. Unlike Courtney, I don’t host many parties and the thought of it is starting to stress me out.
“I would just go with something you can make at home,” she said. “Just buy some pretty stationery and print your own.”
Sounds easy enough. Just then, I have another call. It is my editor, Phil Howard. He wants to know if I can rework the piece on Greek pastries and have it finished tomorrow to go with the preview story on the festival at the Greek church this weekend.
“I’ve got to go,” I tell Courtney. “It’s work.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” she says.
It isn’t the first time she has said that to me. I know what she means and it is true that working for money is a time-consuming venture.
I thank Courtney for her advice about the invitations, but I don’t think I will take it. The last time I tried to print invitations at home, the ink smeared. I think I will order some beautiful invitations from one of the printers in town as well as a fabulous cake from the bakery. Marla is one of my favorite coworkers, and I know from experience that I probably won’t see her much after she has the baby.
After finishing the new version of the Greek pastry story, I send it off to Phil. Hopefully this will be more along the lines of what he had in mind. The original version was, I suppose, a little too colorful. I think my recent transition into vegetarianism has me waxing sentimental about all things culinary. I do miss eating meat sometimes. What would I do without the occasional baby shower, the only excuse I have to eat decent piece of cake? I would be a woman who writes about eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce and then goes home and eats pasta with Prego and Little Debbie snack cakes for dessert.
No, that is not me. I do have style. I am going to buy that blue dress I saw online for Marla’s shower. It’s a splurge, but I’ll have it for a long time. I thought I would lose weight after a few weeks without eating meat, but I haven’t. I am solid, not in who I am, but who I want to be.


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