The new dinner party rules: don’t be on time, don’t fight, do double-dip the hummus
Formal dinners are over, but casual cooking for friends throws up a new set of dilemmas. Here is a foolproof guide
Bring booze. Bring more booze than you need. Do not arrive with a four-pack of Carling and decide, on an whim, to rinse through the host’s carefully curated craft beer collection
A decade ago, that monitor of good manners, the Telegraph, was already mourning the demise of the classic dinner party. Last year, Nigella Lawson, who off camera you might imagine inhabits a world of place cards and polished silver, set the concept in 1970s aspic jelly when she told the BBC: “I’m not a formal dinner party person.”
Yet eating at home with friends or family, or even a volatile mix of the two, is still hugely popular. Albeit now in a far looser format, from a buffet for people scattered about the house to a casual get-together where no one is laying out different wine glasses or (the horror!) seating interesting strangers in a way that is meant to generate sparkling conversation.
Nonetheless, laidback as this “I’m just doing a bit of food” era is, it still needs to be navigated with sensitivity. Not least over Easter, when many will be feeding others or being fed ourselves. So, here are the dos and don’ts of the modern dinner party for guests and hosts.
Much as we admire those free spirits who refuse to be tied down by bourgeois convention, if someone offers to feed you, accept or decline promptly. Under no circumstances should you start quizzing the host about who else is invited.
When someone tells you to arrive at 7.30pm, the last thing they want you to do is arrive at 7.30pm. They will be in the shower. Or at Tesco Metro on an emergency capers run. Give it 15 minutes.
Cooking for people is stressful. You have to suck that stress up and bury it. Deep. Otherwise, as host your rancorous mood will set the tone. Tip: if you don’t know your creme brulee from your croquembouche, this is not the time to attempt either. Do not be too ambitious. Ultimately, no one cares. They will remember how drunk they got and what a laugh they had. The food is almost immaterial, a mere framework for social interaction.
Flowers? Wine that needs decanting? A dessert that needs defrosting? Do not lumber your host with extra work.
Bring booze. Bring more booze than you need. Do not arrive with a four-pack of Carling and decide, on an whim, to rinse through the host’s carefully curated craft beer collection. It is the oldest, stingiest trick in the book. As is trying to palm the host off with that Hungarian prosecco someone left at your house three years ago (you shouldn’t have, really), while hogging a £20 pet-nat red that you think no one else will understand. An easygoing sharing of the booze stash goes with the territory, but people must contribute fairly. Note: only a [SHRILL BEEP]would retrieve their leftovers as they leave. That alcohol is the host’s to keep, a booze bonus that is embedded in British law.
The host’s fridge is precariously stacked to the last millimetre. Touch it and it (or the host) will go off like Buckaroo!. No, you can’t wedge your beers in. Think ahead: buy some ice and bring your chilled booze in a cool bag.
From “jocular” attempts to get other guests to adjudicate on the argument you were having on the way over to the simmering tension between couples counting the days until divorce, please leave any baggage at the door. Smile. Pretend. Avoid each other’s eye. It may be therapeutic.
You know people who hover in the kitchen, nattering away, oblivious to the fact you have moved them 17 times to get to the oven or fridge? Don’t invite them next year. Likewise people who offer to lend a hand and then just … drift … off. “Can I help?” Yes, get out of the kitchen.
Cooking tips …
… must only be offered if requested. As the old saying goes, too many cooks incur the host’s wrath.
How far a host should go in accommodating your free-from dietary requirements is a debate as fraught as whether or not gluten intolerance really exists. Intimacy matters here, as does the severity and complexity of those dietary requirements. Numbers add up, too.
Invite a close vegan mate as one of a party of six and, naturally, you will build a menu accordingly, or happily cook separately for them. However, if you are invited as someone’s last-minute plus-one and you have multiple intersecting food intolerances (ie not life and death, and possibly difficult for the host to accommodate), you may have to grin and bear their bodge job and politely pick at your plate.
Flag those intolerances early and you might argue that, whether cooking for six or 16, it is no more or less difficult to cook an extra portion for one person with specific dietary needs. But, in reality, the larger the number of guests, the busier the kitchen, the greater the moving parts, the more of an imposition it becomes. It is at the host’s discretion.
When we get into the realms of genuine food allergies and medically diagnosed conditions (eg coeliacs), offering to bring your own food, far from being seen as faddy, is both considerate – particularly if you don’t know the host well – and, quite possibly, a sensible precaution.
Sharing the load
If everyone is pitching in and you’re asked to bring a starter or dessert, no one (who you want to hang out with, anyway) will mind how much you spend. This is not a financial quid pro quo. Nor are you under obligation to cook from scratch. This is not The Great British Bake Off. It should be a relaxing meal among people you love, not a high-wire test of your choux pastry.
But you need to engage your brain. Do not turn up late with a starter that takes an hour to cook, causing an oven logjam. Bringing paté? Then bring the bits, too: bread for toast, chutneys and pickles. Do not lazily grab two cheesecakes on the way over “because everyone likes cheesecake” (translation: you like cheesecake), nor, in a strutting display of gastro one-upmanship, turn up with a highly divisive vat of Fergus Henderson’s pea and pig’s ear soup.
In this case, it really is the thought that counts. That, and bringing enough to comfortably feed everyone. This is a party, right?
Do not bring dishes in, for instance, prized Staub cookware. Like cigarette lighters, such things are often mislaid in the boozy melee. It may be weeks before you see your beloved again.
To kids, eating merely interrupts their attempts to destroy your house. Give them (cheap, frozen) pizza and chips. Anything else is a waste. They don’t like it? Their parents will have fed them that morning. No one will starve. On no account give them what the adults are eating. There is nothing more demoralising for a host than, amid a tortuous negotiation of wheedling promises and pathetic threats, watching a seven-year-old refuse to eat as its parents let their meal go cold. “But how will they learn to appreciate good food?” asks Concerned Foodie Parent. Simple: do it on your own time.
Guests expect to be fed within two hours of arrival, max. If you work inordinately slowly in the kitchen, factor that in. You have a room full of hangry people next door and they all have knives.
… but not too fast
There are people (OK, men; men of a certain age) who treat the unveiling of a buffet like the race for the last helicopter out of Saigon. Or, at the table, start lobbying for seconds while the host is eating. Cool your jets.
When it comes to music, the prefix “dinner party” is a longstanding putdown for unobtrusive jazz and soul. Sounds terrible, right? But, conversely, this is not the time to subject your guests/captives to your love of Norwegian black metal or cassette-only US noise acts. The challenge is finding that centrist sweet spot (Nina Simone, Nils Frahm, Richard Hawley, Visible Cloaks) where the music is diverting, but not so interesting that Uncle Jeff will moan throughout. Forgoing music is not an option. No one wants to listen to other people chewing. Rag’n’Bone Man would be preferable to that racket.
Forget fish knives and 48-piece dinner services. Few of us these days have the money or space to maintain the dinner party basics, such as endless dining chairs or matching cutlery. The modern dinner party is all about mucking in, to the extent that, if numbers nudge above six, everyone accepts that someone will end up sitting on a camping chair. It would be churlish to complain. The lack of ceremony is a release, in fact. Get the kitchen roll on the table. The age of the napkin (ring) is over.
When dining communally, remember: generally, people are not infectious. If someone passes you a piece of bread rather than the plate, if someone manhandles the cheese, remain calm. Do your mates freak out if you go in for a second dip of hummus with a half-eaten carrot stick? Solution: get new mates.
It is 2018, moderate at-table phone use is expected. Two things, though. Repeatedly corralling the room into photos for social media is tedious and intrusive. As is Instagramming the host’s food.
Zen and the Art of Dishwasher Maintenance
As anyone who has had the family round for dinner can tell you, inner peace and contentment is accepting that your mum, your nana or an auntie (don’t write in: when last did you see a bloke under 40 lift a finger?) will start a) tidying things into bin bags while the party is in full swing, b) washing up, despite being reminded you’ve got a dishwasher, or c) putting crockery back in the wrong cupboards. As host, you can get irritated. You can testily point out they are making extra work for you. Or you can serenely accept this chaotic mess, happy in the knowledge that you have ascended to a higher spiritual plain – where someone hiding your cheese grater behind the frying pans is of no matter.
Ordinarily, if an invite is for 2pm on a Sunday, the host expects their house back by 8pm. A midweek meal won’t necessarily end in a 3am karaoke blowout. On Saturday night, all bets are off, but if your host is bathing the kids, tidying the kitchen or asleep on the sofa, take the hint. Forget “one for the road” and get on it. It’s been great, but this debate about [delete to taste] Corbyn/Mourinho/Morrissey will keep. Now, sling your hook.
Thank your host as you leave and next morning by text. They deserve it. Gloss over any kitchen disasters until the host is ready for the inquest. Do not intrude on private grief.
In nature, there are hosts and there are people who, for various reasons, would never dream of cooking for you. Do not dwell on it, much less demand a reciprocal date. Feeding people should be an honest act of generosity. Otherwise, it leaves a bad taste.
– Guardian Service