Mid-August. Oh dear, oh dear. How are you doing on your summer checklist? You’ve been to the annual meeting of your favorite nonprofit, right? Right. How about a gala? Check. A book sale at your local library? Check. A talk by a political notable? Check. A play at a repertory theater with real, live actors? Check. A concert? Check.
You’re almost done. Of course, you have been to a cocktail party, but to check that one off you have to have been to at least one a week. Around here, we don’t exactly have cocktail parties in the winter. First, we do not call what we drink in the winter “cocktails.” We call them drinks.
Second, drinks are always followed by eating sitting down. Though one can surely make a meal of the generous (and fabulous) hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party, all the eating is done standing up. A winter invite involves sitting down with food, usually some of which you have brought yourself.
Though the polite people passing the hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party may be the very same people with whom you will sit down to share a meal in the winter, it is not OK to engage them in lengthy conversation. They are at work, and summer is short. A tacit nod and a promise to get together after Labor Day must suffice.
Summer cocktail parties are a place to meet new people. Maybe they are new to our summer communities, or they are established summer people with houseguests in tow. It’s a bit like opening a Christmas stocking. What’s inside all those enticing packages wrapped in their summer dresses, ties and blazers? An author? An investment banker? A fashion designer? Somebody famous, or somebody who knows somebody famous?
At a winter dinner, the guests are usually people you know and like, and didn’t have a chance to catch up with all summer. The talk is local. Kids, grandchildren, the latest road construction project, whether you’re going away in the winter, where and for how long and, of course, what you did the past summer.
Dress is whatever you had on that day, with hair combed and a swipe of lipstick, and footwear is entirely weather-dependent. Just as you would never dream of slipping off your strappy sandals at a cocktail party, so too would you not enter a friend’s house for dinner in your Bean boots. They are left in the mud room.
We are efficient in winter. Drinks and dinner may be completed in less time than a summer cocktail party. After all, we are buttoned up in a snug living room rather than outside on a deck with a spectacular view. Keeping in mind that most of us are thinking of bed when it gets dark, we are sociable but not inclined to linger.
Summer cocktail parties are no small undertaking. The drinks flow freely, the food is elegantly catered, and it is possible that some of the guests might be a tad, well, judge-y. No hostess wants to be the subject of a negative review. No effort is spared in making sure everyone drifts away to dinner in a happy afterglow.
Nowadays, there is one cloud on the horizon of every cocktail party hostess, and that is politics. With a large guest list of people who do not know each other well, one never knows who thinks what about current events and the people who shape them. Political sentiments are riding high these days, and no one wants an evening marred by a testy exchange, an all-out shouting match or, heaven forbid, a thrown cocktail.
Even polite disagreement can leave a guest bearing ill will toward a perfectly innocent host at whose home you encountered a feisty ideologue all too willing to advise on just how benighted your own beloved view of the world is.
At a winter dinner, we know who the rabid partisans are, and we either agree to a detente for the evening or are courteous enough to follow a host’s advice to zip it if a particular subject comes up.
The long-established rhythm of the Hancock County seasons is one of the nicest parts of living here. We are overwhelmed with activity in the summer and wrung out by fall. We give a sigh of relief when we can settle into the quiet of winter, a good book, walks in the snow and friends by the fire.
Then winter lets go and we begin to notice out-of-state license plates, stores and restaurants opening, and green shoots poking up in the gardens. We shed our hats and mittens and, when that first cocktail party invitation arrives, we pull the blazer and tie and the flowered dress out of the dry-cleaning bags with high anticipation. It’s summer again.