I have always held a deep suspicion for the concept of the “dinner party”. In theory, some pasta with your pals. In practice an awkward act of class establishment and adulting performed by terribly self-conscious children – all the meal planning and awkward chatter, and warm wine and pretending to be our parents. And increasingly, a whole economy.
Which is not to say I don’t enjoy them. No, I very much do, from both sides. I enjoy inviting people into my carefully scented home, feeding them the food my boyfriend has cooked, encouraging them to stay a little longer, a little later, perhaps some chocolates now. And I enjoy going to other homes, shoes off by the door, some funny little rituals around crisps, enthusing over homemade bread, dragging secrets out of new friends as we finish our drinks. But still, the culture and evolving business of the dinner party, it makes me shiver a little.
For instance, your fantasy dinner party? Well, the nerve of you! Expecting Iggy Pop, Malcolm X, Self Esteem, Bette Davis and Boudicca to roll themselves for free from bed and grave to sit around your breakfast bar as avatars of a personality you want to project? How dare you! If Marilyn Monroe could rise again for one night only, do you really think she would choose your suburban maisonette to make small talk about body image over your attempts at a Jamie Oliver bruschetta? Are you honestly going to force Gertrude Stein, Andy Warhol, Dostoevsky and Kanye to listen to your thoughts on the problem with Twitter? To drink your soup? To play Never Have I Ever just so you can heave out your embellished story about the threesome in Manchester? Get a grip, seriously.
Did you know there are dinner party influencers on TikTok now? I read a whole thing about it on Eater – post-pandemic, dinner parties are back, it said. And “a growing niche of guides, services and influencers is emerging to demystify hosting: welcome to the new dinner party economy.” You can buy downloadable guides that include a shopping list, menu and recipes, with a checklist breaking down tasks into days and minutes, “including small touches like lighting a candle in the bathroom and putting on music from a provided Spotify code right before guests arrive.”
There are dinner party services that rent out “tablescapes”, and there are dinner party conversation cards with “appetite-provoking prompts” such as: “What’s your ultimate comfort food?” I don’t know, by the time we got to the “What’s your ultimate comfort food?” section of the evening I think I’d be smashing my way out of the bathroom window, taking the host’s dog with me because he was a good boy and nobody deserves a life like that, but each to their own. I am, however, into the table-setting rental company which allows you to send the plates back still covered in sauce.
But on the whole, it’s all very “murder mystery party” isn’t it? Rules, props, performances wrapped up in a cardboard box, for people who want to have a nice time, but need to hold an adult’s hand for the scary bits. Which is fine, of course it is. Of course we all need a little hand holding every now and then, especially through the dark tunnels of friendship and across the busy roads of adolescence. My concern, though, is that, in trying to get it right, with the menus and fancy plates, those throwing the dinner parties lose the chance to get it wrong. Which, surely, is where the fun exists. Which is where the walls between us crumble, and by revealing our vulnerabilities, whether relationship or dessert-based, new connections can form. In the rubble pleasure blossoms.
The pretentious aspirations of the dinner party, while adding an element of glamour (something rare and wonderful and in short supply) to a meal also threaten to drain an evening of its soul. Give me pizza and the telly on, give me hosts accidentally high on gummies, give me a kitchen table half-tidied of homework rather than an exquisitely designed wildflower bouquet. If you were being honest, your fantasy dinner party would not really consist of two dead authors and a model who’d (sorry) hate you. You would not willingly serve Dorothy Parker mousse. No, your fantasy dinner party would be your three best friends and a fish and chipped bitch. It would be standing in the kitchen with a newly single sister telling you what sex is like in 2022 while you try not to burn yourself on the chicken. It would be your first love ringing on the doorbell unexpectedly after 10 years and apologising for everything over Marmite on toast.
Much could be rescued by simply removing the word “party”. “Dinner” alone does not require tablescaping. It does not rely on a surprising and bold combination of guests, chosen for their contrasting opinions, beauty or wit. Dinner is a large plate of food and gossip, maybe seconds. Please, internet, capitalism, fashion, I beg you: do not take this away from us with your stylish persuasion. Do not take away the simple joy of cooking badly for people we love. Do not make me vajazzle my tea.
July 17, 2022 at 12:57PM Eva Wiseman