If you’ve graduated from the kids’ table not too long ago, hosting a dinner party probably isn’t one of your top coming-of-age priorities. I used to think throwing one would be waving my youthful white flag and then spreading it out as tablecloth to discuss my upcoming high school reunion. I thought that in addition to my Home Economics classes, I needed to whip cream like Nigella or have Jamie Oliver’s oil-lugging abandon to throw a pretty fine dinner party. What I didn’t realize was I had an oven, good company, and time for trial and error.
Before you get a two-for-one pizza delivery deal to go along with beer and a blockbuster you’d just missed in the cinema—spend the great company of your friends by communicating with them, and not with Michael Fassbender’s water finding stick.
I like keeping within six to twelve people, an amount intimate enough that a person from the head of the table can hear the foot. This closeness may bring about unintended group hug vibes, which makes inviting seem like conceptual art. It’s hard but rewarding to make different friend circles have a go at getting along, and commanding seating arrangements may seem needlessly overbearing. Unless the Queen has her name right on her plate, don’t worry, your guests’ dinner-length survivor instincts will incite a free-for-all of choosing the best seats for them. They’re grown-ups.
An Oxford professor refused his students entry to his classes if they didn’t knock back a drink first. He believed it loosened the tongue and made people more intelligent. Break the ice, throw it into an aperitif.
I usually eat dinner at home by myself, getting oil specks on the newspaper, propping my feet up on another chair, and resting my oily fingers on the condensation of my water glass. Don’t let movies with high production values fool you with etiquette. I make a mean slow roast and then wipe my snotty nose with my arm to signal that ‘dinner’s ready.’ Dinner parties aren’t fun when you and your guests feel like cardboard. Make them so comfortable that they’ll take the last bite of a dish, even if it means having their feet up on a chair. Be a host, not a dinner fascist. Stepford, why?
No luau themes unless you’re still in the prom committee and all you have are pineapples. Dinner party themes are usually subtle and it makes things a little more memorable. Some involve neighbors moving their guests from unit to unit for every course. Lately I’ve tried using alliteration. For my dinner tonight, whatever on the menu will start with P. I’m glad words like ‘pulutan’ and ‘pannacotta’ start with P.
Unless you’re Flash, you can’t expect to come home from your office job past seven and have your four-hour slow roast ready by eight. If you think dinner will be ready at 12 o’clock then start on a Saturday afternoon. Plan ahead, I’ve had many a recipe sneak up on me with time I didn’t have. Everything in a recipe it seems, is fine print.
Always accommodate vegetarians. There’s nothing like a roast you can’t eat. When I was vegetarian, vegan households gave me more sustenance than a Lazy Susan of barbecued meat. Anything with lentils, beans, tofu is a safe bet, but alternatives to chicken broth can make food even more accessible.
I don’t really have culinary dreams, so my food tastes more like love than the micro-scraps of El Bulli. Sweat, but don’t sweat if it doesn’t taste great. They’re not here for a celebrity chef, they’re here because communal dining rocks when the cook’s on the table—in which case potluck means everyone is. In any case, be glad to accept potluck offers. If you need, you can spread the blame: ‘Steak well done? It must be from the salad you brought.’
What would you do if Woody Allen knocked on your door? Who cares. By the time you sit down, most of your guests have plunged into inevitable small talk, plowing through until it becomes natural. Talking about your food is great when you set the whopper down the center of the table, but the topic will begin to sound like talking about the weather. This is okay. By dessert, people who weren’t friends before you tossed the salad would be discussing their five-year life plans in depth. If you get worried about what people are going to say to each other, and at the same time, stay by the oven anxiously turning the temperature knob on blind gut feel, you’re not going to have a great time. Relax. Dinner parties thrive on a range of discussions, and you’re not Simon enough to ‘say’ anything.
Pate and posers
The fishbone in the dinner party throat is trying to achieve this ‘continental cuisine’ ideal (case in point: my Jamie and Nigella references). ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,’ people love to quote. By trying to evoke an old world I was never part of I’m stuck Googling substitutes for ingredients like celery seeds and salting pork because this was a method of preservation on eighteenth century ships.
I once got a bowl from local goods shop and had big plans of making it my roast/mashed/boiled/smothered potatoes bowl thinking it was very I don’t know—Irish. I left it out on the counter and my household help was making a fuss in the kitchen. I came in curiously and she showed me the white-painted metal bowl with a blue rim. “You know in our province, Mara, this is an arinola!” Translation: bedpan.
So it appears I get incontinence right, and not continental cuisine. And what I’ve learnt in my little dinners is that it’s better to use fresh and available ingredients, even from your herb garden, and know what they’re for. Otherwise, not only will you never find celery seeds, you’ll eat out of a bedpan.
There’s a certain sense of accomplishment, when you open the oven door four hours later and the roast calls to mind every rustic kitchen photo shoot ever made on a Jamie Oliver book (who by the way you can bag out for being mainstream, but other than saving the publishing industry, he’s helped me make many a great dinner).
People who are still stuck with the idea that a dinner party would completely collapse into its pudding if so much as a wine glass breaks, and that the host will climb on top of the table yelling ‘it’s my party and I can cry if I want to’—splash water on their face, give them a hug, and say ‘welcome to my house.’