Saturday, June 10, 2006

How to Throw a Dinner Party

Pretty Lady was recently conversing with a dear friend of hers who, unfortunately for them both, lives on the West Coast. This friend indulged in a rant upon the dereliction of social responsibilities among her circle of West Coast friends. "I'm the only one who throws dinner parties anymore," she bemoaned. "I stopped doing it for awhile, but that just meant we had no social life. Nobody else goes to the trouble."

Pretty Lady commiserates entirely. Her dinner parties, at one time or another, have been modestly famed in the communities in which she dwells. These parties have run the gamut from four-course, invitation-only, sit-down affairs, to completely impromptu beer-and-taco parties that lasted until 3 AM. In latter days, however, she has become Cast Down, and for various reasons has refrained from attempting them. She is very sad that this particular friend does not live on her block; if they ever do so, she looks forward to years of mutual dinner party reciprocity.

It is a social tragedy of no minor proportions that modern Americans fail to appreciate the value of the dinner party. Well, they DO appreciate it, at least at the end of one, when--mellow with wine, good food, and excellent conversation--they congratulate the hostess with earnest emotion welling up in their eyes. But this appreciation generally fails to extend to 1) reciprocity or 2) courteous, considerate behavior when invited to the next one. If excuses are ever offered for this shameful dereliction of duty, they boil down to 1) it's too hard, and 2) I'm too busy.

For shame.

In Pretty Lady's view, dinner parties represent the epitome of Life as it is meant to be Lived, with grace, depth, enjoyment and affection. They are the ultimate reason for everything else--the daily slog of the job, the headaches of traffic, bills, childbirth and intrusive medical procedures. Failing to throw or attend dinner parties is akin to baking an elaborate cake, after growing and processing all the ingredients from scratch, and then forgetting to eat it. Thus, the petty excuses of difficulty or busyness seem, to her, to be wilful self-deception of the highest order.

However, she understands that the modern would-be hostess may suffer merely from a default of education. She may find herself thoroughly intimidated by the intricacies of menu planning, cookery, place setting, and getting all her friends to agree on a place and time to arrive. Particularly the latter. But I shall address that in a moment.

So first, it is necessary to understand that in order to throw a dinner party, one does not have to be a professional chef. It is not even required that the hostess know how to cook, though it is considerably cheaper if she does. It IS required, however, that the hostess have a modicum of ability to plan and anticipate, even if this planning only extends to a run to the corner store, fifteen minutes before the doorbell rings, or a timely phone call to the nearest Chinese food delivery service.

(Upon more than one occasion, Pretty Lady has found herself invited to a dinner party, and upon arrival, found herself throwing it instead. That is, she was the one to plan a menu, shop, and cook dinner. She didn't particularly mind at the time, having a talent for this sort of thing, but it would be nice if she could actually relax now and then, and let somebody else do all the work.)

So. When throwing a dinner party, it is paramount to understand 1) how many people will be in attendance and 2) how to feed all of them. If one is planning to cook, it is best to use a pre-tested recipe, preferably one which is so familiar that it can be assembled on autopilot. The ingredients for this recipe must be purchased in advance. It is permissible to send a guest to the corner store for emergency beer and cilantro, but it is execrably bad form to say to a guest who has arrived at 8 PM, bottle of wine in hand, "So, what do you want to eat?"

As regards such niceties as place settings, candles, decorations, music etc; these are all fine and dandy, but not worth stressing about to the extent that one neglects to converse with one's guests. There is nothing more annoying than being absorbed in a deep discussion about quantum physics with the chiropractor next door, and being interrupted by a neurotic hostess who exclaims, "Oh-oh-oh, I forgot the chocolate sprinkles, don't touch that, it's not perfect, oh, oh!"

It is inappropriate for guests to be subjected to 1) music which is so loud as not to permit easy conversation; 2) forced entertainment, such as slide shows, readings of bad poetry, and Star Trek videos; 3) nasty personal fights involving one or more of the hosts. This is why dinner parties are infinitely superior to socializing in commercial venues, such as bars and restaurants. The host who endeavors to mimic the atmosphere of a bar is displaying his or her own bad upbringing.

In fact, the entire purpose of a dinner party is to provide an environment which permits and stimulates an easy exchange of comfortable conversation. This is not the time for grandstanding.

So, when throwing a party, the minimum requirements are: 1) food; 2) wine; 3) comfortable places to sit. All else is optional and left to the discretion of the hostess.

Now, as far as the responsibilities of those persons INVITED to a dinner party, Pretty Lady has some strong words for you. Shape up, people! Failing to RSVP a dinner invitation until two hours before arrival time, or failing to RSVP at all, or bringing extra people without asking, are UNACCEPTABLE. This behavior is arrogant, inconsiderate, gauche, and punishable by never being invited anywhere again. So is showing up at 11 PM when dinner was scheduled at 8, showing up in such a chemically altered state of mind that conversation is impossible, and failing to show up at all, because a more attractive opportunity presented itself.

In fact, Pretty Lady's West Coast friend has taken to writing on her invitations, in place of the usual RSVP: "If I do not hear from you by this date, you are DISINVITED. I will assume you are NOT COMING. You MAY NOT bring extra people."

Horrifying, I know, but desperate times require desperate measures.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Does this mean I can come over to your place for dinner soon?

Pretty Lady said...

Sadly, I have foresworn the dinner parties until there is a quorum of civilized persons living in my general vicinity, who understand and respect the concept of "RSVP, and show up." We may be waiting awhile.

Anonymous said...

How about a party of two? You, Me.... and a nice dinner and a movie!

nevermind, that doesn't sound like a dinner party, that was more like a date. Ha!

Anonymous said...

If excuses are ever offered for this shameful dereliction of duty, they boil down to 1) it's too hard, and 2) I'm too busy.

Or socio-economic status is too disproportionate... so while holding a dinner party in the 4,000 sq ft summer home for 8 people is very enjoyable, holding a similar dinner party by someone else in the 800 sq ft modified bungalow, on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, is not so much.

Pretty Lady said...

Now, now! I do not consider this any excuse at all, given that the vast majority of Pretty Lady's most successful dinner parties have been held in locations nearly identical to the 800 sq foot bungalow you describe. It is attitude, rather than circumstance, which makes the party.

And one can be extremely creative in adapting locations to suit one's needs. Upon one occasion, I recall, a friend and I commandeered the gazebo on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park (which seats precisely eight, no more and no less), bringing coolers full of Greek salad, wine, cheese, homemade strawberry shortcake, and many candles. The fog drifting over the lake, illuminated by candles, made an astonishing backdrop for intimate conversation.

And it was entirely free; we did not even request permission.