Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple–it engenders the best conversational exchange with everyone’s participation.
The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher
Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.
I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher
During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I needed guidance to learn one decent party dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.
Gradually, and gratefully, the entertaining routine evolved into a shared partnership. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.
Left to my preferred activities, I carefully prepared the table. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads to reflect the candlelight.
After echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine in fading candlelight and remembered the best parts of the evening.
My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.
I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but also some advice for the perfect guest.
Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.
GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
The art of good conversation and story telling is central to a successful party of any kind. I also believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about afterward. When guests have departed, before candles are snuffed for the night and you head to bed, there are a few moments spent remembering everything from mishaps [such as our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or ideas exchanged during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews. Optimally, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the spirit of friends present around the table hours earlier.
For guests, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while returning home. Once, my husband and I laughed out loud during a taxi ride in Paris about the enforced departure from our host’s home. We were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.
GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.
There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” to dinner parties. Americans are almost always on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late ritual. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.
GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. Invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe down kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.
About the wine…When living in Taipei, Taiwan we had an experience of marked East/West differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of our Chinese host’s home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. Then they executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.
A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We love hosting an informal dinner of homemade pizza topped with arugula and served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful tapestry down the middle of the table. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]
GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.
Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. I believe they might recall coming home, from their own night out, to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and drained coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship around a table.
I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But it is indelible in my mind as the communion of wonderful people around a grown-up table.
Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party] –Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant