… a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew… But those were just the props… the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since” – Gabrielle Hamilton
Dinner parties for many likely conjure up images of exquisitely decorated tables adorned with sterling silver cutlery and fine wines and surrounded by ladies in cocktail dresses and tuxedo-clad men. However, guests at the earliest of such social gatherings likely wore animal skins and ate with their hands, for the seeds of the ‘dinner party’ were essentially sown during the Stone Age when communal feasting was born from the necessity of not wasting surplus food.
“Humans were trending toward domestication and with this development came momentous technological innovations,” writes anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa, for Scientific American. “For example, nets, fishhooks, and weirs allowed for mass fishing techniques.”
Such advancements, coupled with the development of seed processing allowed humans “who lived in favourable conditions” to “stockpile resources”, but they had to be consumed before they spoilt: “This extra was deployed toward social means by individuals looking to establish reciprocal relationships… Group meals were a social contract.”
Later, the Greeks and Romans engaged in famously fabulous feasting, traditions continued by European royal dynasties before being refined by the Victorian upper-class. “The Victorians added a lot of speciality tableware to their dinner parties,” culinary historian Julia Skinner tells Vox. “… Things like special lettuce and pickle forks, for example, as well as separate plates for every single possible food, speciality glassware, different spoons for every course.”
So, how amusing that millennials, already blamed for killing off everything from golf to conversation, are now also saddled with the death of the millennia-old dinner party. With rents and house prices at record highs (for those ‘lucky’ enough to have flown the family nest), and actual living space at record lows, younger adults lack the time, the room, and probably the inclination, to splash out on such extravagant banquets.
But that doesn’t mean they’re shunning social occasions. Far from it. Studies have shown that generation to value only health to be the most accurate indicator of success above friendship, and it’s said that with marriage coming later and later in life, such friendships and socialising are more vital than ever.
The seated dinner, with all its etiquette, protocols and tradition, is, mulls New York Times writer Guy Trebay, “under threat”. But the dinner party’s not really dying, it’s just that, well, the times, they are a changin’…
Adhering to the old school philosophy, Martha Stewart once mused that etiquette dictates that cooking and preparation should begin as much as a week in advance and that the party should be themed—with the menu and decorations all tied in with said theme. Even if you’re planning a smaller and less formal gathering you can still have some fun with the décor, the dress and what goes down…
Red Carpet: Everyone loves dressing up, so why not go way over the top by making everyone dress for the Oscars? A good one for actual Oscar night.
Come Dine With Me: You host, but everyone brings a dish, the best to be voted on at the end of the night.
Great Gatsby: The classic jazz-era dress-up is a great time to get experimenting with some speakeasy-inspired cocktails.
Ethnic Eating: Pick a country and everyone dresses like a local to sample its fare. Make sure to check on everyone’s spice tolerances beforehand.
Game Night: Get competitive over charades or board games, and maybe incorporate some shots.
Murder mystery: Take game night up a notch with a murder mystery night, there are plenty of online sources offering downloadable scripts, such as Night of Mystery (nightofmystery.com).
Friendsgiving: This has taken off big time in recent years, a millennial take on the US Thanksgiving tradition, that sees friends gather together to celebrate their bonds sans annoying family members. It’s usually done just before Thanksgiving, though can be done any time of the year—and why not incorporate one of the above themes?
Even well-to-do culinary goddess Nigella Lawson admits to not being “a formal dinner party sort of person”. Life in general has become a lot more laid back, and that means the rules are more relaxed—though plenty of basic old school manners still apply…
Don’t arrive to a dinner party on time. The host won’t be ready. But don’t arrive too late, as the food might already be. Aim for 15 minutes but be no later than 30.
Flowers are always welcome, but don’t just plonk them down on a busy worktop, your host has enough to do. Find a vase and put them in water.
Depending on the size of the party, consider the host’s fridge may be full. Ask ahead if they need you to bring a spare ice box for the wine and/or beer you will bring.
Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t congregate in the kitchen if the host is busy preparing food. Unless you’re there to help.
It’s ever more common for guests to chip in by bringing starters and desserts. You’re not expected to cook them from scratch but put a little thought in—don’t turn up with dips without some nice bread, or a cake without the cream.
My better half has a thing for obscure foreign language folk music, and she thinks that our friends appreciate the aural education. They do not. Classic soul (think Otis or Nina) is a safe crowd-pleaser. As are The Beatles or The Black Keys.
Put away the phone.
Don’t forget to at least text or email a thank-you.
History’s Most Memorable Feasts
Emperor Nero, Naked Chef: This first-century feast is described by Tacitus in Book V of The Annals, with guests treated to Roman delicacies such as a whole boiled calf, sow’s udders and dormice sprinkled with poppyseed. For afters? A mass orgy!
A Most Royal Feast: Robert Dudley, the Early of Leicester, was thought to be the lover of Elizabeth I. In 1560, he threw a banquet in her honour that included what was then exotic treats like pineapple and turkey, along with 48 ducks and 10 sheep. Fifteen years later, he threw another gluttonous party for his queen that lasted 17 days.
First (US) Thanksgiving: In 1621, the newly arrived English pilgrims shared a three-day celebration with the local Wampanoag people who had helped them farm and learn to fish. Fifty-four years later the peaceful coexistence ended when war broke out resulting in the loss of thousands of indigenous lives.
Last Supper: Probably the most famous feast of all time saw Jesus (supposedly) break bread (“this is my body”) and share wine (“this is my blood”) with his disciples while predicting his betrayal and death.
Diners Most Wanted
Readers of the UK’s Daily Express named actors Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, along with David Attenborough, astronaut Tim Peak, and comedian Peter Kay among their most desired dinner guests.
Richard Branson, a regular contender on many a ‘dream dinner guest’ list says he’d most like to feast with, among others, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Melinda Gates and Muhammad Ali.
Last year, Vogue editors singled out Emma Thompson, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Helen Mirren as among the ladies they’d most like to share a bottle of wine or two with around the dinner table.