Save the Dinner Party!

SO I read in article in the New York times today and it really made me stop and take notice.    It was an article about the Death of the Dinner Party.  IT can be read in its entirety here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/fashion/saving-the-endangered-dinner-party.html?smid=fb-share

Normally, when I hear about the death of a concept or fad I ignore it or dance…. Well that was really only Jay-Z’s Death of Auto Tune, but that’s because it’s quite a good song.  But for some reason, this article touched a nerve. 

SO for those of you who are too lazy to read the article- which I understand completely- the premise of the article is that people aren’t having people over anymore for conversation over food anymore and that in fact conversation and manners are both dying out.  Basically the death of western civilization in my mind.   According to the article, “It is the idea that, having cooked for others, one will then invite them to table that has run into problems. ‘Conversation is in trouble,People have been brought up to express themselves rather than to exchange ideas.’”  Yikes.  So result #1, we’re not talking to each other anymore.  That doesn’t bode well for mankind.

 The article goes on to talk about the rise of technology and the fall of basic human decency– People don’t commit to plans and people don’t respond to invitations.  The article quotes Miss Manners, Judith Martin, as saying that “The influence of hand-held devices, has been disastrous for the social contract. ‘People don’t even respond to dinner invitations anymore.  They consider it too difficult a commitment to say, ‘I’ll come to dinner a week from Saturday.’’ Not only do they cancel at the last minute, they do it by text message.”  Again, how rude!  I’m guilty of it myself, because I hate talking on the phone-  literally, for years my job involved talking to people on the phone for most of the day so now, I’ve become phone averse and yes, I have cancelled on people by text.  But I feel bad about it afterwards.  And because of karma, I’ve had people do the same to me, and it’s annoying.  But I do believe that there is a special place in hell for people who don’t respond to invitations at all, and I don’t mean facebook invitations,  I mean actual email or phone based invitations (yes, I’m including texts).  It’s just rude.  I really want to grab them and shake them and ask what’s wrong with them, and then call their parents and ask what sort of monsters they’ve raised.  Seriously, it’s an email, reply back yes or no.  It takes two seconds and whilst some people have high stress, high powered jobs, most people should be able to take 10 seconds to reply to an email offering them free food.  SERIOUSLY.  There are only a handful of people I exclude from this rule, 1, Doctors and 2, The President/Prime Minister.  But I’m pretty sure that when Oprah emails Barack about coming over for lamb chops, he gets back to her.

 Hand in hand with this of course, people don’t know how to conduct themselves in a formal dinner setting and as a result, people aren’t buying china patterns and the kind of silver trays that were a staple of my childhood are falling into disuse and even being discontinued.   This does make me a bit sad, not because I’m worried about not having them myself- or even for my eventual children- although a decrease in demand will decrease the volume of options and patterns.  I know my children will have the same experience that I’ve had of seeing someone who knows how to entertain and who has the tools to do it set a formal table and polish silver and put together a nice dinner for 10 that involves cloth napkins and a soup spoon.   IF they don’t learn from me, they will from my mother.  I know my children will know the difference between a soft cheese knife and hard cheese knife; a white wine glass, red wine glass, and water goblet; and a grapefruit spoon, soup spoon, and dessert spoon- it wasn’t beaten into me exactly but I was taught and I’m glad I was because it’s made me a better person today.  But not everyone was.  A lack of appreciation for what goes into setting a formal table probably is another reason why the dinner party is dying out.  IF you don’t see the value in different spoons, finger bowls, napkin rings, etc, it’s unlikely that you’re going to buy them, which means you don’t have them, which means you can’t do it.  

“What is surprising is that fewer still see the point in accumulating china, silver and crystal at all, a truth driven home by the dwindling of departments devoted to table-top appointments at traditional purveyors like Tiffany & Company. ..Things like the classic Tiffany bamboo silver, designed by the midcentury design god Van Day Truex in 1961 and kept in stock for years, were discontinued some years back, part of a purge that swept away all but a handful of patterns.”

 Eventually it stops being important and that’s how we get to where we are today- ikea plates and paper napkins.  

According to the article, “What has also occurred, said David E. Monn, a prominent event planner, is that party manners have become so rusty from disuse, and guests so generally clueless, that a need has emerged for people like him to train socialites not to eat peas with a knife.”  Again, I’m not worried about my children not knowing how to conduct themselves but what about their grubby mates?  I’ve seen some of our friends eat, it’s not pretty and I Shudder to think their kids could be worse.

 Another side effect of people not entertaining anymore is that people don’t know how to do it and as a result they panic and they think they need to do something super elaborate rather than just serve basic food well.  So not true, the spaghetti and meat sauce I made last night was easy and I would have happily served that to a group of 6 friends.  Throw together a salad and storebought garlic bread and it was fine.  People are so scared of what to make, that they forget that they’re offering people free food.  Just serve anything that’s not going to kill them.  If they don’t like it, or if it doesn’t turn out well, they really can’t complain because they didn’t pay for it or lift a finger to make it happen.  May be that’s a really smug attitude but I’d hate to think that there are people who don’t entertain because they’re afraid of not knowing how to cook.  My grandmother always said if you can read, you can cook.  And I firmly believe that’s true.  IT’s sort of the point of this blog.   Water put on a stove will boil eventually, food put into an oven will cook in some way, shape or form.  Set a timer and trust a recipe.   It’s not important what you cook for people but just that you cook for them.  I believe it’s how you express love and friendship for those around you.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are definitely two types of people in the world, those who enjoy throwing dinner parties and hostessing and those who don’t.   No extra credit for guessing which one I am.   But I can’t imagine that there are people who don’t enjoying GOING to dinner parties.  (I’ll get into the lack of etiquette on another day, because there was a related article on that – http://runway.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/28/more-than-setting-a-table-rules-from-experts/?ref=fashion).    In the main article, Alex Hitz is quoted as calling dinner parties, “The Great Social Equalizer”, he says, “Every single one was different…What they had in common was a sense of fun and community and gathering people together for good simple food.”  It is sad to think that we might be losing that- an opportunity to get together with friends and talk and come together.   Dinner parties, for me, at least are the low stress option.  There’s no bill to sort out at the end (and consequently no annoyance or discussions of how cheap so and so is for wanting to split things out to the penny), no one kicking you out or hovering to get you to leave before you’re ready (although when the host and hostess go to bed, it’s normally a sign), and you’re not paying stupidly marked up prices for bottles of average wine (but I also reserve a super special place on my sh*t list for people who bring cheap wine to my dinner parties, seriously, a couple brought a bottle of $3.99 wine to one of my dinners and as The Runner will tell you they will forever be branded accordingly), and you also don’t have to deal with other people’s annoying kids or annoying diners around you. 

For me, having people over means that everyone gets to relax and enjoy themselves (well everyone except for the host and hostess who have spent hours cleaning, shopping, cooking, serving, and then re-cleaning- but I do sort of enjoy that as well).  I agree with the article when the author writes, “Even the best restaurants don’t approximate the intimate spirit of eating at home…My favorite part of dinner is just sitting at the table talking for hours, and that doesn’t exist when you are at a restaurant…. We think there’s nothing better than sitting around the table with family and friends.”  Amen to that.

So I’m going to do my best to preserve the dinner party, that’s one of the reason why I started this whole He Runs, I Cook schmazzle.  Not just to justify my cookbook collection or to air my thoughts.  At the heart of it, was a desire to connect with friends and to do something nice for them.  To sit around a table with family and friends on a Sunday.  To reconnect, to share a joint experience and build a sense of community.  It’s not going to happen if we’re all sitting alone reading through our phones at Sushi Train, and it’s not going to happen if people give up and just go out to eat all the time—although so many major Sydney restaurants have closed recently, I wonder if people are really going out to eat….. Anyway, so that’s my promise for 2013, to keep the dinner party going and to make sure that it doesn’t die out on my watch!  I hope you can join me!

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