In 1990 Teri and I built a home on a hilltop behind the Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California. The land was a rocky, rugged 20 acres carpeted with tall golden grasses and highlighted by groves of oaks and Douglas fir and outcroppings of serpentine rock. The site was spectacular but demanded attention, especially the labor of “weed-eating” each spring to keep the grasses at bay and thus lessen the fire hazard to our home. I often thought about putting guests to the task as a work-eat arrangement. Dinner guests arrive in the agony of hunger, and they’ll agree to do anything in the short term (replanting the front flower bed took only a few minutes one evening) for long-term gain (dinner).

Once when Teri was on an exotic adventure trip, I gave a dinner party for eight. I ushered my friends into the living room, served wine and engaged in animated conversation, but not a speck of food appeared. After awhile some of the dinner guests went into the kitchen and cooked a delicious dinner. So control and power, blended with a little group activity, are hallmarks of any good dinner.

Several years ago Teri and I gave a dinner party for our long-time publisher and friend Phil Wood to celebrate the publication of Fast Appetizers. He arrived wearing one of his signature billowy polka-dot outfits, created especially for him by a Hawaiian artist, and carrying an armful of wines and copies of his recent cookbook publications. Other friends arrived. I cooked madly as course upon course appeared only to disappear. Massive numbers of wine bottles were opened, and the din rose as one of Phil’s authors led the conversation on the custom of eating bugs in other cultures. He described how the Vietnamese coax tarantulas from their underground dens and then batter and deep-fry the hairy spiders, which led to much theorizing by all of us about suitable condiments.

Meanwhile, sunset transitioned into inky blackness with faint starlight since the installation of an outdoor lighting system had never been a priority of our “work-eat” program. A sudden frantic banging on the pantry door silenced the group. Then more banging. We rushed to the pantry door, and there stood an agitated shepherd, waving his arms and motioning into the darkness. His flock of several hundred goats, brought in by a neighbor for the purpose of “weed-eating” the spring grasses, had broken through the fencing and was moving across our hilltop, devouring not just grasses but roses, Russian sage, low limbs on our olive trees, and the vegetable-herb garden. We couldn’t see the goats, but the sound of their mastication and the image of our hilltop laid barren sent our group into an unbalanced frenzy. Teri supplied flashlights, and after much tripping, shouting and pushing (I fell down and was trampled by goats), we managed to push the intruders back through the hole, secure the opening, and return breathless and disheveled to the dining table.

Surprising dinner guests had entered, eaten and been expelled. “Weed-eating” had been completed in a matter of minutes. And the “work-eat” program, disparaged by some, already had me planning the next dinner party.