Barefoot Contessa Parties!
by Ina Garten
Photographs by James Merrell
Published by Clarkson Potter
264 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
It was Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, one of the architects responsible for the Bauhaus movement of design, that said it first: God is in the details. I've always understood that to mean that perfection -- or at least its pursuit -- is in the small things, easily overlooked. Those tiny extras, either done or undone, that complete the picture. These are things you wouldn't miss if they weren't there and that most people don't even see, however their inclusion makes the difference: it makes the good great and the great sublime.
Whether or not Ina Garten is a fan of Bauhaus or even architecture, these are words she intrinsically understands. Just a dash through her most recent book, Barefoot Contessa Parties!, makes this quite clear. Of all the glorious photos in Barefoot Contessa Parties! -- and there many, all by James Merrell -- one in particular brought the details phrase to mind: Illustrating a brief section called "Inspiration From the Season" Garten has included a brace of photos. On the left is a place setting, quite formal, in a lovely-afternoon-in-the-country kind of way. A linen napkin lies casually across a plate. You can see portions of other plates and napkins at the edges of the frame. A bottle of a stout French wine -- it looks as though it might be a Chateauneuf-du-Pape -- is positioned just out of reach. And there, at the center of the table, lovely little crystal vases with arrangements in each: of radishes. Their tapering white roots and their beautiful red flesh are both underwater. Above the water, the leafy greens push their way in all directions. The result is a riot of garden color. Not quite the floral arrangement one would expect at a dinner party. Yet it's beautiful. And that combination -- the beautiful and unexpected -- makes it memorable.
None of this, however, is in what Garten says. It's just -- when you see her work -- who she is. What she says, however, is sensible and worth paying attention to if you enjoy entertaining:
I keep telling myself that my friends won't have more fun if I spend two days making a daquoise for dessert than if I find a delicious pound cake at a bakery and serve it with store-bought lemon curd and fresh raspberries. In fact, they'll have more fun, because I'm relaxed and having fun, too. Keep your eye on the prize -- it's fun!
As happy as all of this sounds, Garten does not mess around. Even Garten's most casual parties -- a lunch in the garden or an outdoor grill -- have an elegant edge. The sort of casual get-togethers where you'd expect Martha Stewart to sidle up to Ina and say, "Darling, the heirloom tomatoes in your Tomato and Fennel Salad were really a Good Thing. Where did you get the seedlings?" In fact, this sort of thing probably even happens between the two purveyors of beautiful food because there's actually a Stewart connection: Garten, who is a caterer and owns a specialty food shop called The Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, New York, also writes the "Entertaining is Fun" column in Martha Stewart Living magazine.
The fact that this is entertaining on the same level -- don't doubt it for a second -- as Martha Stewart is not cause for intimidation. Garten really does underline the fun portions of her menus.
"The challenge for a party where people don't know each other is getting them to connect quickly," Garten writes at the beginning of a section on having a pizza party. "This is when I love to have an interactive party -- where the guests help make the meal."
From a section on giving a Sunday breakfast, Garten tells us that "A good party is not about the food, it's about the people. Now I invite friends I really want to see. I make sure the music is fun, to get things going. I plan a menu that is more about assembling food than cooking. And, finally, I make sure everything is ready before my friends arrive so I can be a guest, too."
Barefoot Contessa Parties! is the follow-up to Garten's very popular Barefoot Contessa Cookbook published in 1999. Sixteen party themes -- from "Sunday Breakfast" to "Fireside Dinner" -- include a cheerful introduction from Garten, an appropriate menu and well-executed recipes, complete with photo illustrations by Merrell. It's a lush production and one that -- with Garten's constant drone of "Have fun!" ringing in your ears -- makes you want to scurry for your Filofax in order to start planning a guest list. | July 2001