Reviving a lost art

“Well let’s face it, who on earth besides antique dealers and gay couples actually still gives dinner parties?” –Nigel Slater, food writer

Oh, Nigel, Nigel, Nigel. Tsk tsk.

I recently attended a dinner party.

Or should I say a dinner pahtay.

Hosted by a perfectly straight couple with nary an antique in sight.

And this got me to thinking—when did we lose the art of the dinner party?

I think my parents’ WWII generation was the last one to really get it right.

My recent pahtay hosts revived a dying pastime.Fine table setting at home

And it was delicious, literally and figuratively.

There is something so soothing and yet so invigorating about cocktails in the living room with the requisite introductions and catching up. Your friends looking like themselves, only better, because they upped their game with a swingy new top or to-die-for shoes.

And a dinner table where couples do not retreat into their couply clusters, but are purposefully scattered so the conversation gets going. You know, at some point, someone will laugh until they cry. At another, someone’s blood will boil with passion for a topic, a cause, a challenged comment.

When done right, with intention, it’s all good.

On this evening, our conversation ranged from trips to wine country, to artificial intelligence, to quantum physics. With a couple of far less intelligent and classy bits thrown in to balance the load.

Dinner was served in courses. Our hosts were not frantic or rushed or any of the usual things cooks can be.

And it got me thinking—why don’t we do this more often?

The kitchen work. Well, yes, there’s that.

But take away the courses and china, the swingy top and to-die-for shoes—make it a potluck with the same lively conversation—and you still have a winning recipe.

Why don’t we gather more often? Mix up groups of people? Tell them, as my hostess did, to bring just themselves and “interesting conversation”?

I’m a bit worried, as I look at my kids’ generation, that the art of gathering over food and good old-fashioned conversation will be lost.

Gathering in a friend’s home, kitchen work be damned, is headier than a restaurant. If you want real connection. Elbow to elbow. And stockinged feet up on a coffee table at the end of the evening.

My hosts had a gorgeous home. One was trained as a classical chef. Another guest was a wine connoisseur and kept us flush for the evening. Most attendees  were easy minglers.

This helped our evening.

Table settingsBut, great dinner parties are held in tiny homes with chipped plates. Log cabins with snowshoes by the door. Studio apartments in big cities where recent college grads gather, despite their lack of greenbacks.

It’s not the home, the dishes or even really the food that matter.

It’s the gathering. The conversation. In my case, admittedly, the wine also.

We are losing the habit of coming together, at least in many parts of the States. We work hard and long hours. We push our children to excel. We play hard, which increasingly seems to mean a round robin around the water cooler of who went to the most exotic/ecofriendly/unheard of place on holiday.

When my parents knew they were dying, they did not want to speak to me of their accomplishments. Or their possessions. The memories that come to mind as one is leaving this world?

Children being born. Love shared. And hopefully, if we pay attention to it, gatherings. Filled with light, love and laughter. Gatherings at which we solved the world’s problems (arguing over the method, of course), gave each other a shoulder to lean on, laughed until we cried.

Gatherings at which we connected. In a real way.

These are the things of which my parents spoke. Times of love and connection stood out amongst all the memories from which they could have chosen.

I bet there are people in your sphere of influence who would love to gather. The divorced mother, the widow who lives a few floors down, the old friend you haven’t heard from in ages. The couple that always keeps you laughing.

Is that the rustle of pages I hear? “The Joy of Cooking”? Excellent choice.

And the pop of a cork? Even better.

Set the table. I’ll be over shortly.


23 Comments Add yours

  1. Such a lovely and interesting post, Kay. I don’t think such gatherings are a lost art at all.

  2. I very much miss the summer cocktail parties my parents would always have when we vacationed at our summer cottage. And the highlight of the time there was always Dad’s birthday party.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Well observed. Community gatherings in general are less common these days. Every club or society used to have an annual dinner/dance – they are very rare now. Pubs and bars used to be the natural meeting place for men but that is much less the case than 30 years ago. I guess that, for whatever reason, people don’t feel the need to congregate in like-minded groups so much.

    And quite honestly I usually dreaded having to head out to dinner parties when I was married. Much soon be at home with a book 🙂

  4. markbialczak says:

    Beautiful piece Kay, for a lost art. Back in the old job, one of the perks was the “Cook of the week” feature rotation. One time I carefully chose a letter of request from the file to prepare for my turn and chatted with a nice woman on the phone and thought she’d make an interesting story for both her food knowledge and lively banter. When I arrived at the appointed time for our extended conversation and food viewing at her house, I noticed a line of cars out front. And a crowded living room. And name cards, including one for me, in her formal dining room for the dinner party she’d set up for her cook of the week interview.

    Most interesting experience for that feature I ever had, to say the least. The conversation was lively and her food was superb. It was tough to take notes for my piece, though.

    1. candidkay says:

      Wow. I bet you wished there were more like her, in the end. Although I’m sure your waistline didn’t:). I love that she made it an event to celebrate.

      1. markbialczak says:

        Yes, I couldn’t take too many cook-of-the-week assignments like that. It turned into a three-hour, 3,000-calorie event, Kay. Oy.

  5. You’d be welcome any time at our table!

    1. candidkay says:

      I’d be honored to be at your table. But, I might request a view of the garden:). Understandable, right?

  6. i love this post; the dinner party is an event, and an experience, not just a means to an end and yes, you’re right: when done right, it’s so gracious and lovely. my brother likes to talk about favorite books or film to keep conversations going. when a table is gorgeously set, it’s a sight for sore eyes. for me: sometimes it’s just as satisfying as the food about to be served.

  7. justme3362 says:

    So. Well. Written. 🙂 thanks for sharing!

  8. I like entertaining. I just hate the cooking and clean-up. Still, I do it anyway. My friends have gotten used to my limited menus but we always have great wine, conversation and they bring dessert!

  9. drranjani says:

    I think having impromptu gatherings during festivals/holidays makes the season better for the host and the guests. I have been in a position where I wished I had been invited for a holiday dinner. I now try to include people who need to feel part of a tribe into my holiday parties. Great post.

    1. candidkay says:

      My mother was always very good about inviting “strays” to our Xmas party. We had a big tribe and a lovely party–and it didn’t occur to me until I was older and unable to travel home for that party how it felt to not have it. I think it’s wonderful you do the same and include people. It makes such a difference.

  10. Amy says:

    All flags wildly waving in agreement! I fault modern life as the culprit behind the decline of dinner parties. We all need to unplug, reboot, and get back to the simple art of welcoming others to join us. Whether we’re throwing a backyard grill, a Sunday brunch, a potluck, or a five-course dinner party with crystal, china, silver, and all our best linen, what matters is most is connecting, conversing, and sharing with others. xox

  11. Erica says:

    I don’t have the Martha Stuart cooking or decorating talents, but I always enjoy having you pop over for a glass of wine and conversation:)! (Holidays or no holidays)

    1. candidkay says:

      And I love being there:). No Martha Stuart bit necessary!

  12. Jan Wilberg says:

    Sometimes I think people are scared off by the incredible perfection of Martha Stewart and Real Simple. It’s hard to remember that the point isn’t really the food or the centerpiece. It’s having to put the leaf in the table and find the extra chairs in the basement. When that happens, everybody feels special for having been invited.

    1. candidkay says:

      You’re so right, Jan! And no one is intimidated. But I admit to perfectionism. In a major way. A recovering perfectionist.

    2. I agree with this and, I’m afraid, suffer from it also. I try to rember that my friends are coming to see me, not my sparkly perfect home and decorations. Well, I hope they are anyway. Beautiful post.

  13. katpegimana says:

    I miss such dinners/gatherings where guests talk and laugh freely. But nowadays, people are consumed by technology – they are constantly checking their phones whenever there’s a lull in conversations – but lull does happen in any conversation, it’s a natural thing! Or perhaps now, this checking of mobile phones is causing lull in conversations 😦

    Thanks for sharing, good stuff 🙂


    1. candidkay says:

      I think you are far from alone in missing these kinds of gathering. I live far from my very large family and I so miss the get-togethers. Feeling part of a tribe, blood relation or no, is so key to combating the feeling of isolation technology can promote. Thank you for stopping by and the kind words.

  14. This is wonderfully written, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I believe a part of it is the advances in technology- so much easier to send a group text or email to meet at this restaurant or that tavern for a few drinks, some apps, and quick conversations. Also, as you stated so well, we are too busy being busy and important. I know that my parents (now in their early 70s) came from a generation that believed in hard work, but they had limits. They worked during work hours (the nearly extinct 40 hour work week) and socialized on the weekends. We are cheating ourselves out of this. You have me thinking that I should have people over for a holiday drop-in. We have a small condo, but there’s room enough for conversation. Best, Karen

    1. candidkay says:

      I hope you do host that holiday drop-in! This time of year is hard for so many people and it always amazes me how one little event like that can brighten up a friend’s outlook for the whole week.

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