Reviving the Dinner Party

What I learned from throwing my first dinner parties

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There is a lot more that goes into a dinner invitation in my home than comes out in a casual, “you should come over for dinner!” Many see dinner at a friend’s house as no big deal, but the political history behind historical and even modern dinner parties cuts to the core of what it means to be social animals, to leave ourselves vulnerable to critique and open to friendship. Or at least it does for me, a Millennial plagued with at least a few stereotypical conditions: a healthy dollop of social anxiety, a preference for technological communication, and concerns about what makes me really an adult.

I spent most of my 20s meeting people on “neutral” ground – cafés, bars, restaurants, school – places that provided the ambiance and food options for me rather than making me do all the work. While I rarely saw those locations as fancy, and we didn’t always love dining hall food in college, those locations didn’t intimately reflect on me the way a dinner in my home does. The restaurant was a middle ground, a space where we could appreciate it or dislike it without claiming it as our own, as part of ourselves. More importantly, I had only had my own bodies to reckon with for potential judgment; people judging other people’s bodies is no new thing, but many people have the luxury of putting on a clean outfit, brushing their hair, and pretending like everything is fine, whether it is or it isn’t. I had a lot of rough days during my 20s, but when I met someone for coffee, I got to choose how much they saw of my stress, while my home was often an untidy wreck behind closed doors.

I know that most people have had a dinner “party” of some kind, even if it just meant a few folks who didn’t live in the home coming over and eating some pizza while watching a movie. My family, however, didn’t really do that; we’d go to restaurants with family, sometimes, and I’d seen larger groups gather at my grandparents’ house, but at my parents’ house, it was always just us. I think, in some ways, these quieter family dinners increased my curiosity about dinner parties, but also created a lot of anxiety about what was “right” in a modern dinner party.

With a busy life and a lot of time spent in higher education, there were many years when I was technically an adult but didn’t really host people in my home often. There are other venues for gathering, like meeting at the gym, carpooling, or joining a club, all of which I’ve done in pursuit of deepening friendships. Given that I enjoy being able to think carefully before communicating, internet and phone make it more tempting to spend some of my friendship and family time asynchronously, playing online word games instead of getting together for board game nights when everyone is too busy.

I personally knew that my family wasn’t thrilled with having other folks in our house, so I didn’t grow up around lots of dinner parties. I think I learned to see my family’s home as something private, something that we didn’t share with almost anyone. At the same time, our family didn’t have many close family friends. By my late 20s, I was excited to spend time with friends while still feeling anxious about bringing others into my home. For one thing, I had small apartments and shared them with multiple roommates, making parties feel like an imposition even if we were simply going to enjoy a meal together. I also didn’t feel like my furnished-apartment furniture, lack of decoration, or measly entertainments could make for an exciting or fun evening. It was so much easier to just dress myself up and go out to dinner, where I could rent ambiance for an hour or two and not worry that other people were seeing my home. I think I was hung up on images from films like The Great Gatsby, where parties seemed like grand and effortless affairs. Certainly, I didn’t hold myself to Gatsby’s level of entertaining, but I didn’t want things to feel forced, awkward, or ugly either.

However, I enjoyed the feeling that dinner at other people’s houses gave me; every person – aunts and uncles, friends, acquaintances – who has allowed me to visit their home and dine with them has made me feel so connected and supported as they let me in. It was a fundamentally different and positive feeling from meeting at a corporate or public space. I didn’t judge the size of their home, the quality of the furnishings, or the ability of the chef – as often as not, we ate spaghetti and watched extreme sports videos all evening. I knew I shouldn’t fear being judged if I myself got such joy when people opened up their homes to me.

So I wanted to host dinner parties partly to respond to the good feelings I received when other people hosted me in their homes. However, the real tipping point came as I realized more and more that my late 20s and living in a small city in the Midwest were making it harder to feel close to new friends. Most of my best friends to this day are people I lived with in terrible apartments or rambling old houses, where dinner together was an everyday occurrence that bonded us. I could see that I wasn’t getting very far, emotionally, just sitting next to people in restaurants or joining them at yoga class. Everyone was very pleasant, but something about hosting people in my home felt more like friendship to me, no matter how stressed out it made me feel. Combine the desire for friendship with a desire to pay it forward, and then add the fact that I love to cook new things . . . It just seemed like something I needed to try, even though it wasn’t something my family typically did.

As I started to unpack my own worries about hosting people in my home and my own draw toward trying the dinner party out anyway, I got into some of the history of dinner parties.

The Dinner Party, Defined and Re-Defined

When I say dinner party, the image conjured is certainly different for different people. If other people happen to eat with your family, does that count as a dinner party? What about potluck dinners where everyone brings their own dish to share? What about family gatherings, where multiple cooks might be in the kitchen and people may stay for long enough that it can be a multi-meal affair? There is no one dinner party concept, as it turns out, but some of my images were set based on media and stereotypes of parties.

My mental image was more of a single host or hostess preparing a planned dinner, where enough people would come together to fill a table and would eat together before relaxing and chatting, perhaps playing a game or listening to music afterward. What I learned is that, while socializing in people’s homes is still alive and well, this form of “dinner party” seems to be in decline, at least according to New York Times writer Guy Trebay. Trebay sees stylized civility and elegance as fading, as more and more diverse groups of people no longer hold the same rigorous social mores that characterize a certain form of dinner party nostalgia. (Think: champagne glasses and a ton of forks to choose from) Trebay sees that a ton of forces “endanger” the tradition: “Increasingly, such gatherings seem outmoded, squeezed out by overcrowded schedules, the phony urgency of affinity sites, restaurants, cultism and overall tectonic shifts in how New Yorkers congregate.”

Trebay and a variety of writers in The Atlantic weighed in on what it meant for such a staple of social life among the wealthy and well-connected to go out of fashion. Jen Doll explored Emily Post’s etiquette and how to behave at a dinner party; unlike a family potluck, where rules might be family specific, there were very specific forms of decorum that separated regular folks from the truly refined. In a modern era where millionaires and billionaires are born or made every day into a wide variety of cultural contexts, it’s hard to expect that everyone attended some form of “finishing school” to get them up to speed on these rules.

In 1900, the “kinds” of people attending your dinner parties might actually all have had a similar, somewhat homogenous upbringing. I tend to believe that at all times in histories, there have been familial quirks, but in our modern era, there are so many global influences on our communal dining habits that it seems insane to think that everyone in any given dinner party would share knowledge of the same social rules. That might not be true in old-money circles, but those circles are getting more and more isolated if they don’t include some of the new movers and shakers in “high” society.

Regina Charboneau has pointed out in her Atlantic article “Diversity at the Dinner Party,” that concessions that might never have been made at fancy, sit-down dinners, like recognition of allergies and preferences, are being easily accommodated at modern dinner parties through buffets, make-your-own arrays for sandwiches or tacos, and other innovations. Good food and good company, she says, “brings out the best in everyone.” This is a different role, it seems, than a dinner party from the 1900s where the way a hostess chose to serve food might then reflect poorly back on her in the minds of her guests. Somehow, I realized, I’ve managed to combine the needs of my Millennial friends, who are everything from vegan to gluten-free, with a strange and mostly made-up sense of what makes a hostess “effortless” and “refined.” There were some serious stereotypes I needed to let go of, and to do so, I’d have to accept that not everyone was going to know what to expect when they visited my home.

More relaxed forms of dinner parties might have been the real dominant form of hosting people for meals in the past few decades, and even before, but the idea of getting to make dinner into an event, with attendees and perhaps a theme and food that might be nicer than everyday, still resonates with me (even though no famous people will be visiting my house any time soon, and everyone is likely to receive only one fork).

The “Millennial” Host

I am part of the oft-vilified “millennial” generation; I don’t know that an entire generation can be characterized fully, but there are some traits that I have and that I have witnessed in others of my age. These might have also been traits of our parents at our age, but I haven’t heard them as often. Namely, we’re self-conscious about “catching up” economically, we’re anxious from having made a lot of big decisions in our 20s, and we’re delaying, for a variety of reasons, traditional stability markers.

These factors might make me loathe to have folks over for dinner, but I think the anxiety can also come from another direction. Crossing social boundaries has always been part of the American experience, but as a greater percentage of people from middle and low income backgrounds go to college and join a diverse set of college graduates, the dinner party I could throw is becoming populated with many more diverse voices and experiences than before. I want to invite a wide variety of people to a party, but what if they clash on conversational topics? In an era when people are incredibly divided on social and political issues, it seems more intense than ever to bring a lot of different opinions under my roof.

I myself constantly analyze every choice: do I dress up for my guests? Do I have food waiting when everyone arrives and let them serve their plates, or do I get everyone to sit down and bring the food out? I don’t have a blueprint other than my nuclear family’s food habits, but I also don’t feel like there is a social hierarchy anymore to which I can look for guidance on how to “do” dinner parties. It’s a good thing, in the sense that no one really should be able to tell me how to have dinner with my friends, but it does leave a nascent hostess constantly wondering about a potential misstep . . . Going with your gut can be hard when you haven’t eaten dinner yet.

To add to the pressure of choice, the dinner party has also gained another kind of social choreography; on the surface, it is more customizable, less rigid, and less likely to convey social status. At the same time, the “Pinterest-ification” of middle and upper-middle-class parties in general, and dinner parties in particular, has created a new set of standards. There are expectations of the kinds of customization one will put into food (gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, etc.), and decorations are arrayed in a way that suggests ease, despite hours with hot glue guns and ribbon going into the preparations. Certainly, the lifestyle blog vision of what entertaining guests looks like tends to come out on big occasions – weddings, baby showers, birthdays – but it also bleeds into everyday occasions. I usually assume that such hard work isn’t expected of me, a regular old person and not an “Instagram influencer,” but people don’t share pictures of their regular old parties as much. As our dinner parties gain options, we are also converging on a particular variety of “shabby chic” décor and detailing that makes a particular moment Instagrammable. The implication, of course, is that we aren’t quite sure how to value something that doesn’t make a good photograph, an encounter that may stay in our minds for a long time but cannot be written in 140 pithy characters.

Our reliance on social media is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it makes connecting and reconnecting with friends easier than ever, but it has paradoxically made us struggle with our face-to-face communication. I feel often like I’ve been unlearning vulnerability as we grow safer and safer behind the shield of social media.

Scruffy Hospitality and the Dinner Party, Reinvigorated

To this sea of self-doubt, I arrived last year, with a new year’s resolution to host four dinner parties throughout the year. I was realizing that friendship, so direct in kindergarten and so prolific in college, was hard to come by in my young professional life. It was quite easy to meet people, and quite easy to then recognize people again at a later date, but things tended to stall around there. I wanted some kind of shortcut to intimacy, something that would show others that I was serious about becoming friends even when I was still figuring out if that was true. I had figured out that social media wasn’t cutting it, and just “friending” someone wasn’t drawing anyone new into my circle. The dinner party became my means, but scruffy hospitality was the only way I got it done.

In the past few years, the term “scruffy hospitality” has emerged in religious communities in the United States, coined by blogger and Anglican priest, Jack King. It referred to a come-as-you-are mentality toward others, but also to an invite-as-you-are attitude about one’s own offerings to others – recognizing that whatever the best you have to give as a host was good enough, and a gift regardless of how simple it was. It meant that I shouldn’t second-guess whether my own home is better than what a restaurant can offer, because welcoming someone into my home is a fundamentally different and more vulnerable choice. I had, before this point, thought that I had to be “good enough” to host parties, and now I had plenty: space, a couch, a table with leaves, a kitchen where I was (slowly) learning to prepare meals that nourished and pleased people. I didn’t know, however, when I’d tip over the edge. When would I stop feeling like people wished they didn’t have to humor me with this dinner party thing?

Brené Brown, a research professor in social work, makes points about how vulnerability enhances our lives in her book Dare Greatly, including pointing out that “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” I think that her emphasis on vulnerability as a strength applies to hospitality in the home. I don’t get much out of protecting myself from visitors if deep down, I know I want to have a thriving community that feels comfortable visiting me at home. Yes, the first few visits to someone else’s house are odd, wondering where the water glasses or the bathroom might be. But after the initial questions, every home I visit becomes a little pinpoint of connection, a place I can go when I am happy and where I could go if I needed help. I know I want my home to be that place for my friends and family.

My parties began awkwardly, with my awkward husband and my awkward self. No one really wanted to Snapchat pictures of my home to their friends, and many of the oddball friends we invited wouldn’t know what Snapchat was anyway. The people in our lives who were most glued to social media also were often the people who didn’t end up “able to make it” to our dinner parties. The parties got better after a little while: people moved more freely through the house, especially as veterans of my dinner parties understood where the shoes went and where to chill drinks. I realized that I must have come a long way when, after a week-long attempt to kill the mouse we’d seen in our house, I went through with a planned party and didn’t melt through the floor when a guest saw the mouse skitter by. Did the guest freak out and leave? Not at all. He told us about his own struggle to get mice out of his house; it was a chance to be vulnerable and it ended up working just fine.

I think that most people, including me before I had the house and the couch and the cooking know-how, have the ability to set a table to share, even if it’s a coffee table or a card table. It might be the best time ever to revive the tradition; I certainly enjoyed it once I pushed through my early resistance and worries. Food, especially the stories of where food comes from and what it takes to make it, seems to cut across a lot of the divided groups in the United States and the world, and eating is an activity we can share without needing to solve our political differences first. I think that the Millennials I know have been quite creative in finding their way without the dinner party, but I also think more of them deserve the thrill it brings, the vulnerability and the closeness, with the simple necessities of food and people and a place to be. Hospitality isn’t lost on me; I just needed a chance to realize that there was something for us to share. •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.

Laura Leavitt is a writer and teacher living in Ohio. She has written a variety of pieces about travel, young adulthood, and food culture, including pieces at The Hairpin and Roads and Kingdoms. She blogs about living a disorganized life at Messy Mapmaker.

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