What images are conjured up by that phrase? Something grand and glorious? More casual? Something that today might be referred to as a get-together? I’m thinking if it involves four or more people, spending most of a visit sitting at a dining table in a private home, eating and conversing with relish – let’s call that a Dinner Party.
The NYT Magazine’s October 2017 Food Issue focused on “The Art of the Dinner Party” with contributions from the likes of Gabrielle Hamilton and Dorie Greenspan. All told, thirty pages of stories about memorable or failed dinner parties, and those that changed history.
It triggered reflections and memories. Do I even have "dinner parties"? Do family gatherings for seasonal celebrations count? Is there an “art” to having parties? That almost sounds intimidating.
I’m tempted to say that the “art” is in the food. Plan that well and the dinner party is artful and successful. Gabrielle Hamilton disagrees. She believes that a dinner party “is about what is said, not what is eaten” - that the food is just the props. Even as a child, she loved dinner parties. “For me, it was always a bit of an adult thrill to come downstairs on a Sunday morning, the household still sleeping, and find the table - the long formal one in the dining room - strewn with the last debris of the late-finishing dinner party given by my parents the night before.” Anxious to have her own, she began in the ninth grade and, with respect to those that she planned in the early years, her guests always disappointed her. In time she accumulated some perfect friends who knew how to behave at a dinner party - the “art” having just as much to do with the guests - as if it was an improvisational tableau unfolding on a stage set by the host, with the play’s "acts" replaced by dinner courses.
I appreciate her perspective, and yet when it comes to dinner parties I have planned or attended it is mainly the food I remember – more so than the people or conversations.
I have known some people who belong to a circle of friends that have bi-monthly dinner parties. Though never involved in anything that routine, I do recall having more frequent dinner parties when first married - and oddly that was at a time when my cooking credentials were negligible. In fact, I tended to routinize the meal and some memories of the menu make me laugh out loud.
Once prosciutto entered my life, a classic starter was a wee glass dish (I love wee glass dishes) with an artful display (was it?) of a slice of cantaloupe, with prosciutto, cheese and grapes. This was an exotic departure from typical “banquet” menus at the time which began with some combo of fruit cocktail, a half grapefruit dotted with a half maraschino cherry, and/or a glass of tomato juice.
Trips to Germany and Austria inspired the addition of a soup course to our dinner party menu - bouillon mit ei - which translates to broth with an egg yolk floating in it - and dotted with chopped parsley. The laughable part was that the bouillon did not come from hours of cooking, but from a cube - or maybe it was the (discontinued) Horne’s Chicken Soup Base that my grandmother and mother swore was the secret to fabulous “home-made” chicken soup. Guests were invited to give their soup a stir and the egg yolk turned the dish into creamy yumminess. Was I more adventurous then, or naive? I’m not sure how guests today would react to a course served with a raw egg. Mind you – a recent trend that some call Vietnamese Coffee adds a raw egg yolk and condensed milk to coffee.
The main course would likely have been Chicken Vienne – a recipe torn from a long forgotten magazine in the last century. With powdered thyme and pepper in the breadcrumbs, and sautéed in butter, it was sublime. I have no photo of that, but it was reminiscent of schnitzel. (And speaking of schnitzel – I really miss the schnitzel from The Coffee Mill in TO, which closed in 2014 after a half century.) What did I serve with the Chicken Vienne? Maybe rice pilaf and honeyed carrots.
Dessert was often trifle. A hilarious made-up recipe: cut up a purchased pound cake and place it in the trifle dish; make a small packet of raspberry Jell-O and pour that over; cover that with a drained can of fruit cocktail, a layer of cooked Bird’s Eye custard and then a layer of freshly whipped cream. Everyone seemed to like it.
I cannot recall varying that menu much, though I must have to spare guests from repetition. These days, my menus reflect a greater variety and I never repeat the same one twice..
Today, I love to plan dinner parties, and most are for groups of women. I begin thinking about the menu weeks in advance, and actually have created a template that I use for menu planning. I do not like to be rushed or overworked and so my planning outlines things that can be done up to three days ahead, and then on the day - if all goes well - I am not hidden in the kitchen with last minute cooking.
A good friend mentioned that she has a book where she has recorded the menu for every dinner party she ever had. That would be precious! I had known that Jacques Pépin does that – and the pages in his keepsake are embellished with his artwork.
The NYT article offers up dinner party trivia – records of dinner parties that made people famous, began movements or destroyed reputations and careers.
Interspersed among the stories are “fantasy dinner party” questionnaires. Here are my answers.
Whom would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Turns out that answering this is considered to be a fun activity and the internet is filled with people’s answers. Of all the NYT questions I found this to be the toughest and my answer is long - don’t worry, answers to the other questions are short. How to decide? I did not necessarily choose people I admire most - some of them might be intimidating at a dinner party. Luminaries and creatives are not guaranteed to be charming. Some I would prefer to invite to afternoon tea for a more quiet chat.
For my dream dinner party, I want guests who’d be warm, good conversationalists, with a sense of humour, willing to invest in the good cheer of all. No one depressing. No conceit or self-centredness. Diplomacy vs. provocation. I'm a political junkie, but would prefer no politics. No one who comes with a Secret Service entourage. They should be interesting, be curious, have a good story and tell a good story, with maybe a mensch quality.
I’m not sure I’ve got this list right, and realize that many of my choices seem to come from radio or TV, from CBC, BBC – such as guests on BBC’s Graham Norton Show. They are people I have seen or heard talking. I can hear their voice and how they might add to the dinner party chorus. This all assumes that their public persona has some authenticity.
In no particular order, here are my guests - and I may need a bigger table: Joanna Lumley, Shelagh Rogers, Vicki Gabereau, Elizabeth Baird, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Jamie Oliver, Jacques Pépin, Peter Ustinov, Nora Ephron, Christopher Hitchens (I know the last three are both departed), Ian McKellen - AND I’d have an entire Newfoundland contingent, having noted before my inexplicable penchant for all things NL - Rick Mercer, Gordon Pinsent, Shaun Majumder, Mark Critch, Alan Doyle. (Oh, oh - this is not the best week to publish a list that is not 50% women - but they are strong - they can handle the odds.)
What food would you serve?
Elements of the menu might be a bit fancy, but not too edgy and it would have European roots, mainly Hungarian. I’d end with one of my Hungarian showstopper desserts – Somloi Galuska, or Gundel Palacsinta (neither of which are on the blog yet – oh dear…)
Where would you host it?
My house, which is old with outdated décor - after dark, with low lighting.
What would you drink?
Choices would include: Prosecco, Niagara and Prince Edward County Wines, and this great cocktail. Here’s your recipe to go with this blog post: ½ oz Sortilege (Canadian Whiskey and maple syrup liqueur), ½ oz Berentzen Apfelkorn, 1/3 oz Dekuper Buttershots and 3 oz fresh cider, mix with ice.)
What sort of music would you play?
Figuring that out could drive a person crazy. The easiest would be a Pink Martini playlist. They are my favourite group and I am counting down to their next Toronto appearance in May.
How would you get people to leave?
Not sure if that would be a problem. I'd play, the Beatles song “Goodnight”.
So, there you have it! Read more about dinner parties – some planned and some spontaneous, some formal, some simple fondues - in the NYT article. How would you answer some of the dinner party questions? Use Comments to share your dinner party stories! Wishing you happy and delicious parties in 2018!