A dinner party is serious business, as serious that is as anything else I do, which is to say quite so. When once I have committed to the affair I go full hog; the details are important. Everything I do in preparation for the evening must be done to my highest personal standards. For example, when shopping for the provisions I make a distinct point of getting all the constituent elements including the spices even if I already have the same spices in the cupboard. To my thinking I may as well get everything from the ground up because I entertain so seldom that it wouldn’t hurt to refresh any stock I already have. And if there is a repetition of goods in jars, that is not a bad thing as they will eventually need to be replenished anyway. Meanwhile for the dinner party I’ll have the benefit of the new stuff. As for fruits, vegetables and bread, they of course must be absolutely fresh. My culinary repertoire is very limited by any estimate and therefore I must do my utmost to put my best foot forward. Compromise is a needless and false economy in these matters (which now that I think of it is pretty much true about everything I do).
The talent of a good dinner party is only partly – though admittedly importantly – the food. What matters as much if not indeed more is the reception one gives one’s guests. If nothing else that means getting them talking about themselves. True, a bit of sharing of one’s own recent exploits is imperative as well, but the preference is always to give the guests plenty of free rein. As calculating as it may sound, knowing how to make a good cocktail also helps. My latest rage is the once popular Side Car (Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice):
The exact origin of the Sidecar is unclear, but it is thought to have been invented around the end of World War I in either London or Paris. The drink was directly named for the motorcycle attachment, the drink appears in literature as early as 1907.
The Ritz Hotel in Paris claims origin of the drink. The first recipes for the Sidecar appear in 1922, in Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails and How to Mix Them. It is one of six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).
It is equally important to get the guests to the dinner table without too much delay (which means not too much preprandial booze especially if there is to be wine and Porto subsequently). I also recommend keeping the hors d’oeuvres to a minimum (on the theory that the best sauce for any meal is an appetite).
I prefer to keep the guests out of the kitchen although many feel compelled to do what they can to “help” (things like removing dishes from the table). Normally this is superfluous for the small dinner parties I arrange (foursome); the service work can easily be handled by one person while the other host lingers with the guests.
Although I have always cherished the weight of sterling silver I have discovered that it is really unnecessary. Much better to have flatware that can be put into the dishwasher. No one will thank you for the expensive stuff when all is said and done. Quality porcelain on the other hand is not unappreciated. The same goes for the stemware (Tiffany if you have the choice) and placemats (Bartlett prints being my favourite).
The astute host will be aware of the state of one’s guests as the evening progresses. Even if the host has timed the drinks and the provision of food correctly a guest may nonetheless succumb to the soporific effect of nourishment. This is easily handled by inviting the retiring party to recline on a nearby bed or – if that is considered too forward and perhaps embarrassing – then to ensure the prompt conclusion of the event.
While I have heard it said that if you are well enough to write a thank-you note the next day you didn’t enjoy the party, this adage is not of universal application and certainly won’t apply in all instances to the host (who should largely remain sober and in control of the proceedings).