Sean Moncrieff: Irish dinner party guide? Open the Buckfast then order a takeaway
Just relax – there is too much that is out of your control
Invariably, the food is ruined and at least one person has a terrible night.
All those cook-a-banquet-for-10-people-in-10-minutes TV shows have essentially the same story arc. TVChef stands in a kitchen the size of a tennis court and reassures you that tonight’s meal is astonishingly easy to create. They imply, but never fully explain, that the recipe they are about to reveal has remained secret, perhaps for hundreds of years, perhaps due to the work of shadowy forces who don’t want you to know how easy this cooking lark really is.
TVChef then whizzes through the preparation and cooking, just fast enough to make it seem easy and to obscure some of the trickier details. There are regular pauses though, when they will snort some rosemary or caress a root vegetable or leer at the shape of an aubergine. It is rather heartening that people who work daily with such ingredients can still be brought to pre-orgasmic delight by them. Or perhaps it’s tiresome and a bit embarrassing for work colleagues. Or perhaps they just fake it really well.
All over this country, posh chocolates are being ferried from home to home until someone attempts to eat one and finds they are seven years out of date
In any event, the emotional climax of each piece is when TVChef reassures us that we didn’t go to all this trouble just to score cheap social points over others, but to enjoy this bounty with friends. Immediately, the screen is filled with people who we are to infer are friends with TVChef and who happened to be driving past the television studio at the time.
It’s all a wonderful fantasy. But it is fantastical. In my limited experience, at Irish dinner parties the food is almost incidental.
At the Irish dinner party, elaborate preparation, especially of a time-dependent dish is a gross folly because all your guests will be late.
Instruct everyone to arrive at 8pm (they will ask) and your first guest will appear at 8.37, apologise for their tardiness and then seem disappointed that no one else is there. I suspect that Irish people secretly dream of that Norm-from-Cheers moment where the waiting crowd will shout their name when they arrive, marking the proper start of the fun, and of course, their crucial standing in the group. The food has already been usurped.
A subset of this behaviour is the let’s-have-a-pint-in-the pub-first paradigm. This too leads to everyone being late, though at least it has the advantage of everyone arriving late to the house at the same time. However, it can be a dramatic magnifier of domestic tensions if one half of the host couple opts to remain at home to prepare food. The stay-at-home partner will be angrily texting "where are you???", while the partner in the pub is desperately trying to herd grown up giggling toddlers who think it’s hilarious to dodge round them and get one more drink. Invariably, the food is ruined and at least one person has a terrible night.
In either situation, what guests arrive with can vary wildly. There is no great compunction to bring wine. Some bring cans. Some bring spirits. I was at an event once where a guest brought Buckfast. And some bring posh chocolates. Posh chocolates never get eaten. If someone arrives at your house with posh chocolates, they were brought to that person’s house at another dinner party. All over this country, posh chocolates are being ferried from home to home in an endless loop until they are thrown away or someone attempts to eat one and finds they are seven years out of date.
The thing that Jamie Oliver and his ilk never tell you is that the dinner party is in fact a Zen lesson in acceptance; that there is so much you can never control. As the TV shows suggest, it is about welcoming friends into your home. But it is not whatever culinary pyrotechnics you might have hoped for. Just open a few bottles of Buckfast and relax. Then order a takeaway.