Eastown Abbey

Downton Abbey–now in its third season–chronicles the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at the lavish estate (Downton Abbey) of which the Crawley family is a steward. And that’s what’s so fascinating about the series set in post-Edwardian England: the exploration of two separate worlds–nobility and servants–living together under the roof of a grand estate (itself virtually a character in the series). Our own home in Eastown, Grand Rapids, was chosen as the location for the 2013 Michigan Winter Beer Dinner on Sunday, March 3. Like Downton Abbey, this post offers a behind-the-scenes look at the throwing of a dinner party from the perspective of those orchestrating the event.

What made this dinner party so unique was its inspiration: the pairing of beer with food so as to enhance the enjoyment of each. To that end, every dish was expertly paired with a Michigan brew and–in most cases–beer was a key ingredient in each dish. And here’s what we found: the beer and food played off of each other in wonderful ways. From the French Onion Soup, made and drank with Dragonmead’s Final Absolution (a Belgian Style Trippel Ale); to Potatoes au Gratin with Mushrooms, Gouda, and Arcadia Ales London Style Porter; to Brewery Vivant’s Solitude Panna Cotta, the flavors between food and drink danced with each other, making each more than it otherwise would have been on its own. Perhaps this is why paring food with drink is sometimes called “marrying”, since human marriage is designed–in part–to do this, to make each partner more than he or she would have otherwise been, but with this distinct difference: in human marriage, one often becomes better through personal suffering while in the marriage between food and drink, it’s nothing short of bliss.

And yet, pulling off the dinner wasn’t all bliss; it was a lot of work–stressful: but, then again, there are two types of stress: distress (“bad”, unproductive stress) and eustress (“good”, redemptive stress). This was undoubtedly an instance of the later. True, the night before the event, it wasn’t until 4:00 in the morning that the cooking and cleaning were done. And, the day of the dinner, my co-host Dan Mattson and I found ourselves grateful that the guests were running a little behind as we busied ourselves in the kitchen, prepping for the five course meal that was about to be served which featured ten different dishes. Once the guests had all arrived, were seated, and the courses started to roll out I was reminded (yet again) of how these events never afford the hosts much time to sit down and–with the guests–relax and enjoy the meal. There are always dishes to be cleared and prepping to be done for the next course: plating salads, caramelizing Gryere cheese atop the French Onion Soup, making whipped cream for the dessert course. It was in the midst of all this kitchen activity that Dan and I paused, but a moment, to hear the din and laughter of the guests in the dining room just beyond the kitchen door. There is nothing more gratifying than hearing the merriment and mirth of friends old and new and to think that you had a part to play in it, realizing all the while that something more was happening, completely independent of you, that was so much larger than you could possibly orchestrate.

I made mention in last week’s post (a photo journal of the 2013 Michigan Winter Beer Dinner) that the event was covered by local food magazine Flavor 616. What you’ll not read in its account of the event is how the writer covering the beer dinner (Tiffany) and her husband Jameson (himself a skilled chef), by the end of the night could be found cleaning dishes in the kitchen. Here are two individuals, virtual strangers at the beginning of the evening but friends by the end of the night, who became servants of the servants. Maybe it’s true what they say: it is better to serve than to be served.

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