One of American literature's most painfully evocative moments is the Copley dinner party in The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells (1885). The nouveau riche Lapham and his family are forced to navigate the treacherous currents of the proper society meal and, unsurprisingly, the arriviste Lapham makes a complete bugger of it all. It's a modern tragedy, nothing short of devastating.
While the rigor of social dining has largely dissipated, there is no doubt such structured meals exist to this day. Within the past year I have attended meals that, while featuring foods of an extraordinarily high calibre, were also fraught with high expectations of proper behavior. Wield your napkin incorrectly...hold your fork in the wrong manner...misuse the fish knife...you're dead.
One can wag their disapproving finger at such strictures, but I love them. The best dinner parties are comprised of balanced expectations of equal parts elegance of manner, interest of comment and, of course, excellence of food and drink.
All that said, the bottom line is no one wants to attend a dinner party that's so up its own ass no one enjoys themselves.
I host guests at least twice a week, and have done so for several years, and I dine out on the other nights. Having done so, I've arrived at certain "fundamentals" -- I prefer the softer "guidelines" -- for guaranteeing the best dinner party mix of decent behavior and relaxed debauch.
Here they are:
- Know your table: why invite eight guests when your table only comfortably seats six? Or four? Don't pack your guests in like sardines; invite only as many as makes sense.
- Know your people: it's OK to invite an introvert, but no more than one. The conversation should sparkle at your table and if people can't contribute to that dynamic, you need to make the hard choice not to invite them back.
- Do your homework: what do your guests like in the way of food? What do they abhor? Dietary restrictions? Will someone drop dead if you serve a peanut? Find these things out beforehand -- just ask -- and you'll save loads of embarrassment for you and your guests.
- Menu logistics are critical: if you need two things in the oven at once, and one cooks at 350 and the other at 450, you're screwed...plan ahead. Write out a detailed run of show, capturing what goes in the oven/on the stove when, at what temperature, and for how long. If you realize two things can't be in the same place at the same time at the same temperature, change the menu.
- Keep table settings simple: a charger with a ringed napkin at every place; a water glass and a wine glass for each flight; proper cutlery (including a dessert tool at the top of the charger); a bloom in a bud vase; and, a place card with the guest's name. These are the basics and every dinner party I throw has them.
- Chill salad plates in your refrigerator.
- Set any cheeses out an hour before serving.
- Do not collect plates until the last person has finished dining.
- Give people a break between courses; enjoy cigarettes or a topical conversation.
- Invest thought in how the wine can compliment the meal.
- Never rush your guests; someone will always be the slowest eater -- run the meal to their pace.
- If you attend a dinner party, always send a thank you card.
If I could attend a dinner party every night -- either hosted by me or a friend -- I would never go to another club or bar as long as I live. Who needs them? The best interactions, the most lasting friendships, many of the most sensual memories of taste and texture...are to be had at private dinner parties.
Host or attend enough successful dinners and you know it's not about fancy -- although a gorgeously laid table (fine silver, crystal, flowers) and stunningly presented food are never unwelcome. It's about obvious love for your guests and passion for the experience you are offering them.
It's not about gourmet -- a 9-course French meal may equal, but never surpass, a salad of heirloom tomato slices on plain baby arugula with sesame/orange zest dressing, a roast chicken with potatoes that have savored in the drippings, and a slice of New Y0rk cheesecake. Nothing can. And it's dead simple to prepare. Every bit of it.
There's no excuse for coming in under par when you invite guests to your house. The extra step is not a long one...it's a thoughtful one. Put some effort into you dinners and your guests will surely sing your praises and you will all share a happy lifetime memory.