PREMATURE OBSEQUIES: THE DINNER PARTY IS DEAD.
LONG LIVE THE DINNER PARTY!
If newspaper reports are to be believed, the formal dinner party is dead, gone, a thing of the past. Where once people hosted such social events around a table and in a dedicated room, it’s now all elbows-on-the-table and supper-in-the-kitchen. Well, I’m proud to say that I’m not giving in yet. I will resist the zeitgeist and do my bit to preserve this relic of happier, more civilised times.
For a start, I have an aversion to eating in the same room as that in which I have cooked, so that puts paid to eating in the kitchen. I blame David Cameron for this trend. As if Brexit were not enough, his “kitchen suppers” and his faux casualness are partly responsible for this lamentable business.
I also blame Dermot Bannon whose missionary zeal in promoting open plan living is threatening what I consider to be the fabric of Irish society. Okay, part of the fabric of Irish society, i.e. the complete and unalloyed wisdom of having different rooms for different purposes. It served us well from the time humankind learned to build. We gave up open plan living when we moved out of caves into rudimentary dwellings. And then, thousands of years later we’re talked into it all over again.
So, my dinner party rule number one is... Actually, let’s pause for a moment and I’ll explain that I don’t like the phrase “dinner party”. There’s a touch of the Hyacinth Bucket about it. We ask people to “dinner” if the acquaintance is slight, to “supper” if it’s old friends.
But, dinner or supper, rule number one is that it must be in the dining room, seated around our oval dining table, with a sideboard to hand for serving. There are candles (ecclesiastical beeswax ones are great) and proper wine glasses. The old Waterford tumblers and jug will come out; what’s the point in having them if they’re not used?
Anyway, this is all completely out of fashion, it appears. The contemporary way is to perch around the kitchen wherever you can find a chair and, you know, be informal. Or uncomfortable, whichever way you want to put it.
Then there’s the question of punctuality. If you say 7 for 7.30 there’s a kind of tacit understanding that it would gauche to turn up at 7. Having said that, anything after 7.45 (without a very good excuse) is plain bad manners. However, the current way, I read in the papers, is never to turn up on time because your hosts may be still in the shower. Why specify a time, then?
Now we come to the question of pacing. The modern way is to feed guests within two hours of arriving, I’m told. Two hours? This is daft. Guests should be fed within, at most, an hour, otherwise they will make very expensive inroads into the booze. Once at table – not perching around the kitchen! – the pace can slow. An interlude between courses is essential but the modern tendency to have no structure to a meal is like letting the toddlers take over the kindergarten. Take it slowly but don’t let the pauses become uncomfortable.
There also seems to be an idea – part of the contemporary sense of entitlement, perhaps – that your guests should volunteer to help tidy up at the end of play. Whatever about volunteering, they must never be allowed to do so. Apart from being ungenerous, they are more likely to smash precious heirloom items of crockery or glassware than you are.
Guests are advised, these days, not to bring flowers because the hosts must rush around and find a vase for them and this will distract them from the slow-cooked shoulder of lamb on a bed of couscous. Rubbish! It’s always lovely to receive flowers and finding a vase takes about sixty seconds. Less controversially in the current mood, good chocolates are always welcome (to then be shared along with coffee after the meal) and you can never have too much proper cheese.
“The age of the napkin (ring) is over”, I read. Well, not for us. We use both as a matter of course every day, but we’re fortunate enough to have inherited both. And if you have them, as many people do, why leave them in a drawer? Dinner with friends is the time to use them. And the same goes for proper cutlery. What’s the point in having such stuff if you’re not going to use it? Otherwise, just put it on eBay.
Getting out and using the full panoply of dinner party paraphernalia doesn’t mean that the dinner has to be a stiff affair. On the contrary, it should add to the fun of evening. And if you use it to try to intimidate anyone, or for social kudos, you’re a pariah.
It’s important to stress that if you don’t have good cutlery or glassware or napkins or rings to hold them, it doesn’t matter. It’s the company and the fun and the sense of sharing that is key. If you cook a meal with consideration and care and gather people round a table (even in the kitchen if you’ve no other room) and even if someone has to sit on a picnic chair, and the wine is served in tumblers, you will have hosted a proper dinner party.
But if you have a dining room, if you have all the “good” accoutrements, share them by dragging them out and using them. It adds to the sense of occasion, to the sense that you’re definitely not having a cheese toastie and a mug of coffee in front of Come Dine With Me.
One commentator on modern living writes: “Do not be too ambitious. Ultimately, no one cares. They will remember how drunk they got and what a laugh they had. The food is almost immaterial, a mere framework for social interaction.”
Part of this is good advice. It’s never a good idea to experiment or, worse still, cook something for the first time when entertaining. But there are limits. It’s the generous, hospitable thing to do when you have people round your dining table to make an effort in the kitchen. Within your ability and comfort zone, of course.
So, no, the food is not immaterial and if your friends come to dinner to get drunk, you should really consider transferring the gathering to a pub. Or getting better behaved friends.
But yes, food can, indeed, form a framework for social interaction. That’s the whole point of asking people to break bread with you. And there should be plenty of laughter. It’s all about people and making an effort for them because you value their company. Ultimately, if you remember that, you won’t go wrong.