When Do We Eat? 

Charlene Duline

© Copyright 2020 by Charlene Duline

Photo of Charlene.

I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.” - Groucho Marx

It was the fanciest dinner party I had ever attended, and I left hungrier than I had ever been. The evening began with a phone call from the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), of the U.S. Embassy to Tanzania. He asked - a euphemism for “command,” - if I would be his hostess at a dinner party he was giving that evening. He explained that his wife was out of the country, and the woman who had agreed to be his hostess just telephoned that she was ill. I needed to be at his residence in two hours. I assumed it would be the usual dinner party, and wondered why he needed a hostess. As I dressed for the dinner I fumed. I didn’t particularly care for this man. I found him rather cold and pretentious. I wondered why he hadn’t called the wife of a senior officer who had some experience being a hostess.

I arrived early at his residence as Foreign Service officers are required to do. The first thing I noticed was the dinner table. It appeared to be about one block long. Then I realized that several tables had been put together to make one extremely long table. The DCM informed me that the dinner was to bid farewell to departing U.S. Ambassador James Spain. The guests included Prime Minister Benjamin Mkapa, who later became President of Tanzania; the Foreign Minister who was the only other woman at the dinner, and other high ranking Tanzanian officials. At least I said to myself, there would be two women at this dinner. Tanzanian men tended not to take their wives to official dinners or receptions and I had become accustomed to being the only woman present at most official functions. Even when I hosted an official reception or dinner, I was often the only female present unless the Foreign Minister was invited, but I did not entertain on that level. So, while we knew each other, we did not mingle in the same circles. Tanzania had a small diplomatic community. Their officials certainly knew who we were, and all official Americans knew the Tanzanians in power.

When we went into the dining room, the DCM motioned where I was to sit. I could barely see him at the other end of the table. To my right was the guest of honor, Ambassador Spain, and to my left, Prime Minister Benjamin Mkapa. A waiter stood behind each chair. I was stunned.

If they could see me now, that old gang of mi

The soup course arrived. I tried to see if the DCM had lifted his spoon because the ambassador and the Prime Minister were not going to lift theirs until I lifted mine. Finally, I picked up my spoon. Oh, I groaned inwardly, it was going to be a long, long night if I had to keep guessing what the DCM was doing at the other end of the room. I managed to take two spoons of soup and one swallow of wine, and then my plate and glass were whisked away.

The fish course was served and with it a superb white wine. I wondered if the DCM was inhaling his food at the other end because at my end we only got to have a bite or two of food and one sip of wine. I blinked and my plate and wineglass were suddenly gone. I was a bit surprised. I don’t care much for fish, but I would have liked to savor my wine.

I'm eating fancy chow
And drinking fancy wine

The meat course arrived along with an exquisite red wine. This time I decided that I would somehow hang on to my glass of wine and not relinquish it until it was empty. It was going to be a challenge to cut the meat, eat, talk to the Foreign Minister and my ambassador, and hang onto that glass. I was tired of the servants yanking away the wines that got better and better. Not only that, but I had barely tasted the food. I was invited for dinner, and dinner I wanted.

I thought I would surely be able to enjoy my glass of wine during the main course. Alas, it was not to be. Again, the waiters snatched away the plates along with the wine glasses. Somebody in the kitchen was enjoying a lot of wine. I was beginning to feel a bit disgruntled. Dessert arrived along with champagne, and toasts were made to the outgoing ambassador. Ah, I thought, I can now relax because nothing will follow this course, and I can enjoy my champagne.

What a setup, holy cow
       They'd never believe it
       If my friends could see me now

I had taken exactly two sips of champagne when the DCM asked us to adjourn to the garden. The waiter behind me assisted in moving my chair so that I could stand up. I turned around to pick up my champagne glass, but it had been whisked away. I was furious.

Where is my champagne?” I asked the waiter.

Gone,” he said.

Hell, I could see that! Feeling homicidal and undiplomatic, I stomped out into the garden wanting the evening to end then and there. I had done my hostess bit and I was ready to go home. No, I didn’t want any coffee, cognac, or crème de nothing. I wanted some food and champagne, in that order. I sat in the garden hungry and sullen. After a few minutes the Foreign Minister got up to leave. I trotted behind her, saying goodnight to all. The DCM stared at me, but I was beyond caring. I had not had any dinner and I was hungry. What more could he do to me?

As we walked out to the driveway, the Foreign Minister asked with a smile, “Aren’t you the hostess? How can you leave early?”

I replied without a smile, “The DCM is probably asking himself the same question.”

She chuckled and stepped into her chauffeured car. I drove home in a huff.

I had never been so hungry in my life. At home, I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, disgusting food that I eat only if there is absolutely nothing else to eat. For the rest of the evening I kept saying to myself: I’ll just be damned.

The DCM never said a word to me about leaving early, or even a word of thanks. I think we both said to ourselves: never again. Later, I laughed when it occurred to me that that’s how the wealthy remain slim. They take one or two bites of those sinfully rich dishes and then the food is whisked away. No wonder they can go through eight or more courses. I’ll bet they go home hungry too. Finally, I had something in common with the rich and famous!

If my friends had seen me then, they would have died laughing!

[With apologies to Cy Coleman/D. Fields]

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