Examining the Dinner Party

Food and Entertaining – January 2017

Face to face friendships and food go hand in hand, at least in my mind. Put them together and they produce one particularly daunting concept: Modern Entertaining. Is it actually an oxymoron? Surely we’re all entertained at every moment of the day, but “entertaining” is something different.

Any search for books on entertaining will lead to cookbooks rich in recipes but also with table settings, quick time-saving tips, and themes for everything from a zoo animal birthday party to a black tie “James Bond” soirée. Honestly, these days it feels like what we really need is a book that tells us how much bandwidth we need to have a party of 10, and what power cords to have so our guests will never have to face dead phone batteries. No, food and entertaining are inseparable. That used to be because dinner parties brought people together.

My first book of the year was written in at the height of making in-person connections over a lavish-socially conscious table of epicurean delights. The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, was originally written in 1825 in France. This book holds a strong enough sway in the food world that it’s been translated and reprinted a number of times for use in culinary schools and for the amusement of anyone willing to break through “the Professor’s” flowery language.

The concept of food as entertainment is alive and well. These days we have popular food bloggers, food-centered TV, and celebrity chefs. There are major social movements about what we should or shouldn’t eat and why, and producers of food receive more attention than they have in decades.

In the Professor’s day, a dinner party was an art. Food and the appreciation of it was and is a full-on hobby. When assembling your guest list, you want people around your table who appreciate it as much as you do… and spread the word.

The composition of a dinner party is best when attendees have a variety of professions and a shared love of food.

Never host more than 12, and be sure guests are of varying ages.

Be careful to check your guests have enough shared connections that no one will be left out.

Food facilitates relationships, as the Professor’s anecdotes demonstrate. Regular dinner parties provide the occasion of meeting often. Good food is a vehicle for sharing your care for someone and their welfare. Dinners provide memorable shared experiences, and above all indulge a shared interest of everyone involved.

Of course, this isn’t how we host now. Sitting down for a dinner with friends requires time people have allocated to other kinds of entertainment. The culture of having personal chefs and a staff for the kitchen went out of fashion too, so the title of my second read for the month definitely speaks to that. Hostess Without Help was published in 1971 by Helen Worth, a name I didn’t know before I picked up this one of her several books on cooking.

You’ll be a bit hard-pressed to make it past the dated cover art of her books, but the recipes include timeless classics and gems of the era that are sure to take you back. This particular book caught my attention on my library’s clearing sale shelves because it has more than just recipes. There are handy little guides for helping a party go smoothly when there isn’t a staff of servers and chefs behind the scenes.

The dinner party, at this point, is all about the host/hostess, not the guests. The pleasure of the guests is a credit to the host, and that’s something the host desires but not a result of the food on its own merit, or the skills of the chef. At this point, the chef is the host/ess, and the real glory is in how well the tasks of throwing a dinner party are juggled to make an acceptable overall experience. Shortcuts are badges of honor. The source of ingredients is less important as rare items are much easier to get. The purpose of the food is to be a catalyst for an expressly social evening. This isn’t to say you still wouldn’t die of embarrassment over serving something terrible – it just means you’re a bad host/ess rather than your chef got a bad batch of fish from the grocer.

The meaning of food, that you now makes yourself, varies depending on who you’re cooking for. Cooking for your family, especially if you’re the mom, comes with its own pressures and pleasures. “Entertaining” in terms of hosting a meal, used to go on every day when the kids and working spouses got home. Some moms were masters and nostalgia worked in their favor. Have you ever been served something familiar and thought, “This isn’t as good as my mom’s”?

So, book three of January was one of focused on hosting family with food. The Family Baker: 150 Never-Let-You-Down Basic Recipes was published in 1999, and includes tips on making food more social, just like Hostess Without Help. This tips, though, are about bringing children into the kitchen, dishes with history and stories of their own to tell, and food that begs to be interacted with and handled.

The fun thing about this 90s book, and the soulful recipes in it, is seeing the shift in the value of the maker’s time continue from the 70s cookbook. For family baking, which is its own brand of entertaining, the connection with shared experience and connection are reemphasized, even romanticized.

Just about every recipe in the book has a “title” (which the author notes is important to the experience of making as well as eating the finished food) and a story of its origin or a scene to help conjure up what this recipe should mean as far as experience goes. It’s not only the food that binds people together, but continuing the tradition of a successful and loved recipe.

The author shares one story of her and her husband on a trip to an estate auction. She’s so nervous, even with a plan in mind, that she’ll face stiff competition for a box of hand-written, well-used recipe cards. To her surprise, and I’m sure a bit to her consternation, she gets them on the first bid and no one seems to appreciate the value of the batter-speckled little pink cards the way she does.

The title of the book also hints at some gems inside. Basics are outlined, things that were once assumed as common knowledge, or that were treated as trade secrets in the time the Professor wrote The Physiology of Taste. They’re worth learning, however. With this new push to recover health and home cooking, it literally pays in savings to know how to measure dry ingredients, to bake only with room temperature eggs (unless otherwise specified), and to leaven with yeast without killing it.

After spending so much time in the food realm, I selected my final read with the social benefits of entertaining in mind. There at the same sale at my library, I drifted over to the social sciences area where I found and picked up Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. I didn’t need to be convinced of the importance of social networks, just to get a better picture of how they are now (and if mine is especially pitiful, or if everybody’s has issues).

The dinner party, the kind experienced and described by the Professor, has some real backing in this network science. According to Connected, the richest ground for meaningful connections (especially in employment and spouse seeking) are 3rd degree connections – friends of your friends.

That rang true for me personally. My younger brother found his wife after his friend group consciously decided to host events and gatherings to expand their group. Each was told to bring a friend of theirs the others didn’t know. Within a month, my brother met and began dating his soon-to-be wife.

Connections are strengthened by common connectors. Tightening the social network improves the influence of its members, and getting the same group together does improve the mental and emotional well-being of those involved. Baking with family, in that way, deepens the connections of relations. Sharing the meaning of the recipes to shared family history can certainly help the exercise.

Networks aren’t all good, however. The spread of ideas and disease are similar, and a too-tight network can result in a major skew to the members’ thinking away from commonly accepted behaviors/values. Just consider the awkwardness of being at a party with people whose views all agree, except for your own. Or when a bit of gossip goes flying out of hand as it goes through your friend circle and it’s completely different when it comes around again from an unexpected place.

The book goes more in depth, especially with larger networks, but my principle interest is in personal networks, friendship connections, and those immediate people around who you would want to invite into your home or two a social dinner.

I do think it would be nice to revive the dinner party. I know there are some people who pull this off quite well, and a few for whom the whole idea is enough to give them anxious feelings. A meal with excellent food – excellently sourced and perfectly prepared – and a diverse collection of people who are skilled enough to carry on a balanced and engaging conversation does sound very attractive. Personally, I’d rather have an expert do the cooking so nothing gets ruined and the focus can be on the assembly of friends at the table. Sounds like a goal to work on.

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