Monday, December 3, 2012

the dinner party is dead. long live the dinner party.

I wanted to dismiss it as just another bogus New York Times trend story, but it got me thinking. How often do I go to dinner parties, other than my own? Forget the term “dinner party,” how often do I go to someone else’s house for a meal, any meal?

Now, the article describes a world I have never, and will never inhabit. It’s dinner party as theater, where every component of an evening is orchestrated down to the serving utensils. It’s society ladies in caftans, seating arrangements and salad forks. It’s about as far away from the way most people eat and entertain as the moon. If this style of entertaining goes the way of the finger bowl, so be it, in my opinion. But does that mean the intimacy of having someone over to your home, feeding them and sharing real face-to-face communication is slowly dying?

Maybe it’s the term itself that needs to evolve. Even my own dinners are stretching the definition of “dinner party” – they are a soup and sandwich night with a friend, a brunch, a simple bowl of pasta eaten after a long day of work, with a bottle of wine shared among friends. There aren’t proper table settings at these meals, or candles, or centerpieces. Sometimes there’s no table at all. (I do love cloth napkins, though.) And as much as I fuss over menus and recipes, these gatherings aren't really about food. They are an excuse to connect with people I love.

Recently, Dan and I saw some close friends who live in another city. We sat in their beautiful living room and drank champagne and talked and talked until suddenly it was very dark outside, and our dinner plans of going to a restaurant started to evaporate. So we ordered pizza and ate it around the coffee table, opening another bottle of wine. And it was fantastic. I left feeling good that we didn't fuss over where to eat, or spend time in the car driving to a restaurant. We kept things simple and it made the night, and the conversation better.

I went to another party this weekend where one of the hosts said, up front, don’t come hungry. So we didn’t. In the end, there were homemade pigs in blankets, chocolate cookies and very fine Manhattans, but this party wasn't about eating. It was a reunion of sorts, where friend after friend walked through the door, re-forming a social circle that I completely took for granted a few years ago. Back then, it was nothing to assemble these people for drinks at a bar or dinner at our house. And now, we're all spread out in different boroughs and states, never in the same room at once. But somehow, everyone made the trip. I laughed so hard that night, my cheeks hurt.

Is a dinner party, with home cooked food, and cocktails and across-the-table conversation better than standing around someone’s kitchen with glass in hand? Sometimes. To me, almost always. But is it always doable? Of course not. People are busy, feeding people is expensive and time-consuming and if you want to have a big party, it can be really challenging to do anything beyond BYOB. But in a perfect world, there would be a little bit of both, or a fusion of the two. Maybe takeout Chinese with cloth napkins. Or a potluck with 20 friends. Or wine with homemade finger food. A shared meal can transform an entire day or week, it doesn't matter what's on the menu.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

I think there should be more caftans at your dinner parties. Next time I come over, Mabel and I will wear matching ones.

Like the demise old-school linen tablecloth restaurants, I think the so-called death of the dinner party is part of the "casualizing" of the American meal. It's the same thing as Momofuku being considered fine dining - you're right, it's not that the intimacy of the meal and face-to-face conversation is dying, it's just that we're approaching it in a different way. I personally like this way better - and I say this as someone who owns many serving utensils, though not a single place card holder.

Daniel said...

Give our struggles with her winter coat, I don't think Mabel would consent to wearing a caftan, but she would probably like finger bowls if she could drink the water after the fingers have been in it.

Lisa said...


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