Dinner parties have made me nervous in the past. For this reason, I’ll be hosting my gathering at a smoky, rowdy izakaya in Tokyo, with everyone around us soaking up icy beer and the evening steadily escalating into a real party.
Our chef is Giorgio Locatelli, of Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli. While I want delicious food, I don’t want someone who’ll take the job of cooking it too seriously, and Locatelli fits this bill. The first course, as the guests congregate, will be unfussy: glasses of grower champagne (they’re all good) and trays of Scottish oysters. To level up, we’ll all take our shoes off and sit cross-legged around a low table.
My first guest is the Chinese YouTube star Li Ziqi. Wordlessly, but quite convincingly, her videos portray a farming and cooking life in the Chinese mountains, where days seem to pass in bucolic bliss. Her food looks wonderful: freshly roasted tea, taro chutney, pork braised with chestnuts, rose-petal ice cream. Li’s image sits at odds with China’s troubled agricultural past, so I’m interested to know how (and why) these films are produced. Less politically, I might also ask where she sources her enviable Tupperware.
We’ll have a moment for Stanley Tucci, actor moonlighting as sommelier, to bring out bottles of Domaine Landron-Chartier muscadet — a natural wine that someone else served at a party earlier this year and which set the evening nicely alight. My second guest is the Italian artist Canaletto. I hope he’ll approve of sashimi and pickles for our next dish, perhaps alongside something a bit Venetian such as sardines and anchovies in a light fried crumb, with big bowls of aioli. (If Locatelli wishes to throw in some more bacaro-style snacks, that’ll be fine.)
I tidied up some of my books during the first lockdown and came across one about Canaletto that I didn’t know I had. It relates the story of his hardship in later years, when copycats devalued his work and he had no choice but to go on a get-out-of-debt tour of England with an easel, miserably painting castles for money in the rain. I’ll ask him about this, and I’ll also explain what’s happening when people start Instagramming their plates of fish.
For the main course, we’ll have a banqueting spread of fennel porchetta and Tuscan barbecued meats, medium rare, with as many greedy side dishes as Locatelli has time to make. Italian vegetables are surely the best in Europe and I can rarely say no to pasta, so we’ll have some pumpkin and pine nut ravioli, with a duck ragù bigoli for good measure. The wine should probably be Italian, but as I am ever more certain that Barolo is a rip-off, we’ll settle for an honest Chianti.
My third guest is the singer Aretha Franklin, lifelong hero of my playlists. Franklin disliked being interviewed, but there was nothing she couldn’t say in music. I would be tempted to ask her at least about the Sydney Pollack documentary Amazing Grace, filmed at her 1972 two-day gospel concert at the New Temple Baptist Mission Church in Los Angeles. She later disapproved of the film and requested the delay of its release, in spite of the genius in her performance. But if she doesn’t wish to speak about it, I will also be content just to sit near her.
The fourth guest at the table is Betsey Trotwood, a literary aunt to end all literary aunts, from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Trotwood, like Canaletto, came into my life in lockdown, some 20 years after I was supposed to have met her on my undergraduate course at university. I adored this book for the affectionate fun that Dickens has at the expense of Copperfield’s youthful vanity. But Trotwood also stood out, for her hilarious and ultimately heroic judgment of character in a novel that has scanty forgiveness for unkinder women.
By this point, we’ll be eating the most perfect crème caramel, which I think will compare favourably to the cooking of the housekeeper at David Copperfield’s London lodgings, where Trotwood has to decamp when caught in a blackmailer’s bind. (I still laugh when I think about Copperfield’s dinner party disaster, in which he anxiously overdoes the wine, and the food is slow and terrible.) Since I dislike dessert wine, I think here we’ll switch back to champagne.
My last guest is Thomas Annan, the Scottish photographer who in 1866 was given a melancholy commission by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust to capture the overcrowded slums in the east side of the city, before they were cleared and demolished. Sobering up, we’ll have pots of black coffee with squares of chocolate and Japanese petits fours, with cherry, plum and strawberry flavours.
Annan took his photographs on long exposures, and the results are a little ghostly — the opposite of Canaletto’s crisply drawn Venice. The middle-class Annan stood with his camera at a distance from the slum dwellers, but engaged them eye to eye, with something sad and strange captured in his images. I will ask him what he noticed in the year he spent shuffling about in these dark back alleys. (And in order not to repeat myself, I’ll get Canaletto to explain Instagram to him.) For those who want to prolong the evening, we’ll teleport over to London, in time for last orders at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell.
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