Welcome Mats 

Getting to the bottom, as it were, of the dinner party.

What's the purpose of a dinner party, if not to impress people? We all love the companionship, the food, and the drinks -- but be honest. If you're the guest, and somebody cooks steaks, and they're better than yours, you're feeling a little small, aren't you? And if their place looks nicer than yours, you're ready to do a remodel before you have anybody over. You think, Okay, when this party rotates to my place, I need to get with it. And that's because you want to impress everyone with your signature sole ambassador, because it kicks the crap out of these lame-o steaks.

So then you bring everybody over to your place, and you spend all day cleaning, and you polish up the nice silver, and you get out the fancy china, and nobody can even talk to you for about three hours before the guests arrive, at which point you magically transform from the Controlling Beast of the Kitchen to the Gracious Host of the Evening, deflecting praise with gentle self-deprecation, giving a little tour of the house to show the work you've done, agreeing that yes, the sole is quite good, but you think maybe the sauce needed more salt.

I tend to focus on the table settings. If I'm at your place, I'm all about your grandmother's Wedgwood, and I'm thinking, Oh boy, just wait'll I get these folks back to my place and show 'em my table settings!

I have the same chef's ego we all do, a couple of "go-to" dishes that I know I can pull off, and the same expectation that when the party's at my place, I get to dominate the conversation. I also take a certain blue-collar pride in the fact that my set of china was purchased at an estate sale for $5.

And on top of all this -- or, rather, underneath all this -- I've got cheesy laminated placemats!

We all need a collection, right? One of my first travel columns for the Flyer was about a motorcycle collection in Birmingham. The owner wasn't even into motorcycles, particularly; he just wanted a world-class collection of something, so he did some research and found out the market for World-Class Motorcycle Collections was wide open.

So I decided that I too wanted a unique collection of some sort. And when I went to the U.S. Virgin Islands later that year, I was in a gift shop and I fell in love with a "Magnificent Magen's Bay" laminated placemat. A tradition was born.

I have a simple rule for gathering placemats: If I go to a place and they sell placemats, I have to have one. Travel partners aren't sure what to do -- shouldn't a professional travel writer have some finer collection? -- but tell me this: Do you know anybody else with a collection of cheesy laminated placemats? That's what I thought.

You should see it when I have people over for an evening of what I call Chicken Providence. I call it a "variation" on Harry Nicolas' Chicken Newport, from a brief career working for him, but the truth is, I don't think I remember the whole recipe. Sometimes I bust out the wok and do a Szechwan stir-fry, which makes a lot of noise and smoke. Next comes the $5 china, and I get to parade my parsimonious panache.

And then I assign placemats -- and start talking. Or you might say, dominating. Strutting my stuff, as it were.

Linda, as my date tonight, you may have the original placemat, from Magen's Bay -- oh, and it just so happens I romped on that beach while I was in the Virgin Islands on an Elvis Cruise, writing about it for the Flyer. Yep, wrote a story about that day, so I got paid to romp on that beach. You didn't know I went on an Elvis Cruise? Well, let me tell you about it

Kerri, as a lover of animals, you get the one from Glacier National Park, with grizzlies on it. I saw a grizzly from afar there -- got close to one in Alaska, but that's a different story -- but in Glacier I got so close to a mountain goat that I could have petted him. Got paid for that too! John, you like to cook, so you can have Bon appetit de Normandie, with pictures of cheeses and wines and mussels and recipes on the back. The copper pot I used for the potatoes tonight came from a little village my parents and I stumbled onto over in France. Christie, you like to dance. You can have the cheesiest placemat of them all, the one with the tango dancers on El Caminito in Buenos Aires. Dan, you like to fish, so tonight you'll be dining on "Tropical fish of the Bahamas." And Mike, as the boater of the group, you can have the Grand Canyon placemat. I've never floated the canyon, but I did a little tour of the Four Corners area a few years back, and I took a Christmas card photo from the South Rim. Anybody want to see my Christmas card collection? Lots of stories there.

And now I can tell people I got paid to write about my laminated-placemat collection!

Thank goodness for the placemats. I do like to hear myself talk. •

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