The New York Times recently published an article about the death of the dinner party, Guy Trebay’s Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner. But it was a strange obituary. At the end of the article, I couldn’t be sure that the dinner party was actually dead. And even more confusing, it made me want to host one immediately. Like all such observations, this one is related mostly to a specific demographic, New York society hostesses, now aged or deceased, and their circle of acquaintances. But apparently younger people are not taking up the call to replace them for various reasons. Everyone is too busy to prepare or attend a dinner party. People don’t own enough dishes or flatware for entertaining and, anyway, don’t know how to cook. Conversation is a lost art. And finally, meeting at restaurants is the preferred venue.
Often, declarations that announce the demise of some practice usually mean that the practice has transformed. It’s true enough that sterling silver is a thing of the past, no longer on the registry for any young person that I know. It’s true that people don’t cook as much as they used to and more often nourish themselves with “take-out” or restaurant meals. If conversation is a lost art, the reason may be that it has become more direct and possibly less “artful.” And yes, everyone loves a good restaurant, where the food is predictably delicious and the workload non-existent if you’re counting only food preparation, service, and clean-up, not the work you do and the hours that you devote to it to pay the bill.
But it’s also true that cookbooks are proliferating like viruses. Some so large and comprehensive that you can hardly lift them while others are narrowly specific. Olives, Anchovies, and Capers by Georgeanne Brennan happens to be sitting on my desk. And I’m sure you could find entire books that focus on recipes for each of those ingredients. Food magazines are abundant as are celebrity chefs, chopping and slicing on your television screen. And the internet is filled with recipe websites. Even vacations can be organized around cooking lessons. Given the huge amount of all this instruction in varying formats, a lot of people must be trying to cook at a level that goes beyond everyday eating.
My young daughter and son-in-law live in a loft in Oakland, California and are both employed by software companies. A counter separates their small kitchen from the living area. When they eat in, they sit at that counter. They don’t own a dining table, and when they invite friends, and they do, they serve from the coffee table. They prepare all the food. Guests sit on a large L-shaped couch and eat from plates in their laps. Some people sit on the floor. The conversation flows effortlessly and energetically, some serious, some humorous. Everyone is eating. Everyone is talking. If it acts like a dinner party, it may be one. But formal place settings at a table, elaborate cuisine, and restrained or formal conversation are absent. And when the in-laws come to town, my daughter asks me to host them because I own a dining table. I see such a table in her future.
They could easily take everyone to a restaurant, but they prefer a domestic setting because it is still the best one for uninterrupted socializing. The dinner party is anything but dead. It just looks different. And while restaurants are wonderful, dining out has a beginning when you order the meal, a middle when it is served, and an end when the server brings the check. In between, you must not talk or laugh enough to distract neighboring diners from their own conversations. Dinner parties at home have no such restraints. Guests interact with one another around a table or not, and the interaction takes on its own rhythm, generates its own energy, and ends only when tomorrow’s responsibilities manage to infiltrate consciousness. The dinner party is alive and well, and this is the season to give one. Happy Holidays!