Is the dinner party dead?

Megan and Don Draper aren't  forgetting the art of the dinner party any time soon.

Megan and Don Draper aren't forgetting the art of the dinner party any time soon.

I thought dinner parties might be dead. I searched my memory for a night of Frank Sinatra in the background and beef wellington on the plate; for a memory of the type of monumental hangover that can only be the product of tawny port and durries at dawn ... oh, sorry, wrong decade. That’s an old (foolish) me…

I searched my diary too. Nothing. Restaurant meals, yes of course, but meals sitting at someone else’s table? Nothing. Niente! What happened? Did I grow a beard or develop a smell? Is my charisma fading or my conversation limited? Or did people get busy, get children, get more stressful jobs, get into Saturday night British crime shows on the national broadcaster?


I needed to strike back. I had to find my form, even if no one else was. I had a dinner party last week. I put linen on the table — my grandmother’s old lace tablecloth and un-ironed Belgian linen napkins (I’d read some serious food stylist’s comment recently that un-ironed table linen was very “directional” and I took her comment seriously, very seriously indeed).


But my dinner party bore very little resemblance to most in that tawny-port-muddled memory of mine. For a start, I served the main course at 8pm. Historically, I have quite a reputation for a midnight main course, dessert by 2. 2am. And then there was the wine. A bottle of decent Australian pink bubbles and three-quarters of a bottle of red and we were done. Four of us drank less than two bottles of wine. Dessert was up by 9.30pm. Cups of tea and chocolate by 9.45. I kissed my friends goodbye around 10.15. Put the dishwasher on. Bed by 10.30. Am I/are we getting old? Maybe. But it was a Monday night. A school night. The only night that four busy women, two of them with small children, one of them a night-shift-worker, could manage to get their diaries coordinating.

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By the end of the night we were agreeing that it had to become a regular thing; maybe we’d start a Monday night supper club. Quite apart from the food — and my chicken tagine and pear clafoutis (based on a terrific Neil Perry recipe in his Good Food) seemed to be well-received — it was a delicious, nurturing affair of laughter, confidences and warmth.


Perhaps it had something to do with the weather... Google searches for “dinner party” peak in winter (searches for “lamb shanks” and “apple crumble” go off the scale in the middle of the year; incidentally, according to Google searches, Western Australia and South Australia are the dinner-party capitals of the country.) Perhaps we were feeling the need for digestive and spiritual warmth.


And then I discovered dinner parties aren’t dead anyway. On Twitter you told me, basically, what a terrific social failure I am:

“I love dinner parties - my partner and I are really social people - we host or attend one once a week” (@GoodFoodWeek)

“Dinner parties alive and very well - love being able to control the space, keep the racket down... (@KenBurgin)

“Regularly. Host and attend at least once a fortnight. That's 24 a year by my count...” (@Vignoramus)

I got emails too. Brisbane-based Fiona Tristram, who keeps the blog The Self-Raising Kitchen, described intimate dinners on the back deck of her 1930s Queensland cottage. “What I love about the dinner party is the personal touch you get to put to a person's dining experience. I think people love the fact that you've gone to the effort of inviting, choosing a menu, risked life and wallet at the markets, and finally taken the time to cook, just for them.”


Sydneysider Amelia Hanslow wrote to tell me of her rather more exotic dinner party. In Kenya recently with her partner, Ben, who was training with local marathon runners, she invited local athletes to dinner at their guesthouse. “I prepared a leg of mutton slow-cooked in local Guinness, local honey and toasted cumin. Along with this I made tortillas from uga flour (what they make ugali from), a salsa of tamarillos, tomato, green onions, lime and coriander, and guacamole. I made punch of local fruits as the athletes are pretty much non-drinkers while they train. Unfortunately all they did was talk about running.”


Sydney public relations consultant Georgia Macmillan shared details of her excessive dinner party habit. A family dinner for eight featuring blue eye and citrus salad, and tarte tatin to finish; a meal for 14 for her husband’s birthday — ”most big burly boys so I kept it fun with pulled pork + slaw on Bourke Street bakery rolls”; a “BIG Fat Greek Feast for 20 guests … It was a four day effort and I'll never do it again. I think there were something like 8 dishes + halva and pomegranate cake for dessert.”


And Georgia identified an issue I’ve heard from other dinner-party-givers: “Sadly the return invites aren't as plentiful as I'd like. Our generation doesn't really entertain (plus I'm told there's too much pressure when I come around… seriously, I'm happy with a BBQ!).


Me too. I’m happy with a barbecue too (do keep that in mind) — and perhaps some tawny port for old time’s sake.

 

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @StephanieAWood1

Email: stephanie.wood@fairfaxmedia.com.au


7 comments so far

  • Fantastic story Stephanie! Long live the dinner party. I love the whole process ...from planning the seating arrangement, to music, agonising over recipes for weeks in advance, sourcing produce, sending invitations and then the excitement of the guests' arrival. It's a far more intimate affair than eating out at a restaurant and the memories last for a life-time.

    Commenter
    GMacmillan
    Date and time
    May 24, 2012, 11:40AM
    • We used to host and attend dinner parties BC (before children) and probably will again once the kids are of a certain age, but until then it's too much hassle and expense. Lunch, on the other hand, works well for us, but lacks the sophistication and atmosphere of a DP. As for unironed linen napkins, that's a direction worth ignoring. It would be like wearing an unironed shirt with a suit.

      Commenter
      George Sanders
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 11:41AM
      • Gosh - even on a Thursday night (aka a school night) our six and a half people dinner party (the half being the first child in the group who is normally happy watching recorded episodes of Dora until they crash out on the couch) is able to get through at least 4 bottles of red wine. Maybe you need guys at your dinner - they are big drinks and prompt the ladies to refill their glasses.

        Commenter
        @GoodFoodWeek
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        May 24, 2012, 12:44PM
        • Love this story. I grew up in Perth, and held my first dinner party at age 16, so there must be some truth in your google stats! Still constantly have friends over to eat, but I hate calling them dinner parties, too much pressure. Just call it 'coming over to dinner, so much easier!'

          Commenter
          FoodieSpy99
          Date and time
          May 24, 2012, 2:33PM
          • It's a good generous thing to do and there should be more of it but as a single person it's quite a lot of work, (especially the tidying up...altho' that great dinner party giver Margaret Olley said you should tidy up after the guests not before). And it's expensive...so yes, one hopes for the return invitation. Plus am not sure that people are so good at hosting? maybe a bit of a lost art?

            Commenter
            rosemadder
            Location
            prahran
            Date and time
            May 24, 2012, 5:38PM
            • After a long period of none of this style of entertaining we had a dinner party on Saturday night. Keep it simple, keep it simple I kept saying to myself, though somehow there were still a few solid hours of preparations. It was the best way to see old friends, so much better than having coffee or some lousy rushed Friday night BBQ with the kids buzzing around. We used all the lovely things we've been given over the years and my children are the perfect age to set the table, do a cameo appearance in their PJs offering olives around, then off to bed (everyone else had to get a babysitter, it is a free meal after all).

              Commenter
              KimDB
              Date and time
              May 25, 2012, 2:21PM
              • I say bring the dinner parties back - eating in is the new eating out :)

                Strangers for Dinner is an attempt to revolutionize dinner parties and help people make great friends.

                Commenter
                strgr4dnr
                Location
                sydney
                Date and time
                May 29, 2012, 9:54AM

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