IMG_1011The French are masters of the dinner party. One of the best ways to share meaningful moments with family and friends is around a meal. Preparing dishes they will enjoy is part of it, but nourishment comes not just from the food but also from the conversation.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe “By Invitation Only” group of bloggers is discussing our ideal dinner party. Mine would be a mash-up of “Babette’s Feast” and the warm gatherings depicted in “Eat, Pray, Love.

It’s curious that when I was looking for titles of movies to give, I came across a wealth of bad examples. The dinner party seems to have gotten a reputation as a moment for Type-A, class-conscious stress. For example, in the 1998 French movie “Le Dîner de Cons,” fancy-pants Parisians have a dinner in which they must bring along an idiot for the others to ridicule, with the dumbest one winning. Or the recent Salma Hayek movie, “Beatriz at Dinner,” in which a Mexican-born masseuse is invited to stay for dinner with her rich, nasty client.

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The breakfast bar set up with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres.

And then there’s “La Grande Bouffe,” a 1973 comedy in which a group of friends rents out a country house with the intention of committing suicide from overeating and which is a lot more hilarious than it sounds.

At holiday time, I think mostly about bigger soirées, like the one we had last week, a cocktail party with a supercharged buffet. Like any/all the Andy Williams Christmas specials, with more to eat (and no singing, alas). Or the New Year’s Eve bash that Meg Ryan goes to in “When Harry Met Sally.” 

Big gathering or small, I have learned things about successful dinner parties, especially from the French.

What matters:

The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.

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I spy two plastic tumblers for kids. 

Everybody should be seated around the same table; consider assigning seats. Small children can be exiled to a separate table if there are several of them, but whenever possible they should sit with the adults and participate in the conversation.

Comfortable seats for everyone. Nobody over age 30 should ever be forced to sit on a backless bench, no matter how good you think benches look.

Soft lighting, soft music.

What doesn’t matter (all these things are nice but not by any means necessary):

Matching plates, glasses, or matching anything.

Pretty place settings.

Fancy centerpieces.

Beautifully presented dishes.

Silverware set correctly.

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No idea why I have so many dessert photos.

Our dining table seats eight with a leaf, although we can squeeze up to 10. Even with eight, the conversation tends to split into two. That’s OK, but it can be wonderful to have just six at the table and have everybody in the same discussion.

Some years ago, the Carnivore and I cooked a French dinner for my family when we were staying with one of my siblings in the U.S. The entire family came, including aunts and a dear friend of mine. With extra leaves and a card table we got everybody around the same table—21 people if I counted correctly. Usually at family gatherings, there’s a big buffet in the kitchen and everybody grazes at will, finding a spot at the table or in the living room, drawn to the inevitable sports game on TV, with plate perched upon one’s knees.

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Chocolate cups filled with vanilla mascarpone and strawberries. Looks fancy but easy to do ahead.

For our French dinner, the TV was off and the living room was empty. It was a tight squeeze but we were together. The Carnivore and I “plated” the dishes and distributed them. We got a few serving dishes on the table for passing, but there wasn’t much room. We also served seconds. The benefit of an open kitchen is that the cooks are still present.

Wine flowed. I said it was a French dinner.

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Magnums are good for a crowd.

The main entertainment was the story-telling by my siblings, who are not only masters of the art but excellent at playing off each other, and playing off our father. Many tears were shed—of laughter.

As everybody finished eating, we collected the plates…but, next came the cheese course. So they stayed put instead of wandering away to check the game (to me, seeing them but once a year was special, whereas they get together quite often, so of course then the style is more relaxed). And after the cheese came dessert. I don’t think they had ever been at the table for such a long time.

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Cocktail station getting prepped for a different party.

That taught me an important lesson—if you want to break the magic, move. It can be nice to stand up after a long stretch of sitting, but the point of courses is that there is a reason to come back to the table after your break. If you are doing a buffet, the fast eaters will be on dessert while the slow eaters are still on the starter. A dinner party is enjoyed slowly, with plenty of pauses.

One of our friends here suffers from rheumatism and usually is the first to go home. But at one dinner party the conversation was particularly lively. Eventually nature called, which led someone to check the time. It was 4 a.m.! The amazing powers of a comfortable chair and scintillating chatter. IMG_4540One last French tip: in season (like now), have a big bowl of mandarines or clementines. Easy to peel, small, refreshing after a big meal, they are more something to do with one’s hands, to prolong the moment, rather than extra food. I’d say they have taken the place of the after-dinner cigarette, since none of our friends smoke. At most dinners we attend–or give–a big bowl of them comes out after the dessert and coffee.

Do check out the other participants in By Invitation Only!

Daily Plate of Crazy

Materfamilias Writes

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34 thoughts on “Let Me Entertain You

    1. Funny enough, I heard an interview with Jacques Pépin recently, related to his new book, and he spoke about these cups. Blow up as many balloons as you need cups. Not too big! Melt some chocolate (microwave is fine–don’t overdo it). One by one, roll the balloons in the chocolate, so they’re covered about halfway up. Place a teaspoon of melted chocolate on a sheet of parchment paper and set a chocolate-covered balloon on it; do for each. White chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate–all work. Refrigerate. When the chocolate is hard, gently pierce the balloons to deflate and carefully tug them away from the chocolate. Refrigerate again.
      For the mascarpone, mix about 2 cups of mascarpone with 4 egg yolks (raw) and 2-4 packets of vanilla sugar (or about a teaspoon of vanilla and then a few tablespoons of white sugar, to taste). Mix and put into the chocolate cups just before the guests arrive, so the cups don’t get soggy. Keep cold until serving. Top with diced strawberries or any fruit that’s in season. I suppose you can sugar the strawberries, but to me that’s gilding the lily.
      You could fill the cups with ice cream as well. Or just fruit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I’ve always thought microwaving the chocolate is the way to go. The timing can be a bit tricky so be sure to check as it will not look melted until you stir.

        If you don’t care for egg yolks you can whip in 1 cup of liquid cream instead. I often use this filling for fruit tarts in the summer.

        I agree with you about what I’ve learned from the French about eating around the table. It seems that Americans have become so informal that its nearly impossible to get everyone together at the table.

        One big difference is that the French don’t eat family style-even at BBQs. As you mentioned, everything is plated and served often in several courses. I now find it strange to see all the courses on one plate (even the salad) in the US. Everyone still teases me about my American ways if I have several side dishes passed at the table at a Summer BBQ.

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        1. That’s interesting. What I see is 99% served family style. My in-laws plate at Christmas, but at dinner parties, it’s served family-style. What I almost never see is a buffet. Yes, during the apéritif, but never for the dinner, unless it’s a gigantic affair, usually outdoors, like a cookout.

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      2. It’s so interesting that where you live you see a great deal of family style service for dinner parties. I tried to think of one time that this was the case in the past 20 years where I live on the Cote d’Azur. Even my most casual young friends plate for dinner parties. They even plate Pizza! At BBQs they’ll put the grilled meats on the table but that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it.

        You’re so right about the buffet not being done ever for a lunch or dinner-some receptions or cocktails but that’s still finger food and not really a meal. Perhaps its regional.

        Last Easter I had several friends and their small children for Easter and I had a nice table set but buffet service. Did not go well-everyone seemed confused- so back to plating.

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        1. That’s interesting how local customs vary. The thing I don’t like about plating is that if, say, ris de veau in a cream sauce is on the menu, I would prefer to pass, but when SIL plates, I end up with a huge serving. No, I don’t eat it anyway. I tried and it wasn’t pretty.

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  1. I love the idea of a mash-up of some of these terrific movies and their food scenes. (Babette’s Feast is an exquisite film.)

    Oh, that first pecan marvel! (Anything with pecans makes me melt.)

    Truly a “delicious” gathering, Catherine. I’m so thrilled you’re joining this fun fantasy exercise. And happy holidays!

    xo
    D. A.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for bringing back some great memories! I learned to entertain from my parents. They were recent immigrants to the U.S. in the early 60’s. Since houses were small, they had what we termed “basement parties”; dinner parties gathered around a makeshift table in finished or unfinished basements decorated with crepe paper and other “decorations”. After a long leisurely meal filled with conversation and lots of laughter, the dancing would commence. My sister and I would be awakened by the leaving-taking around 1 AM, which would frequently take another 30 minutes of conversation and laughter around the front door. My dinner parties didn’t include dancing but we had many a lengthy conversation around the table. Good food, good people, everything else was just background.

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  3. Here’s to dinner psrties🥂…the phone just rang, we have been invited to an impromptu dinner party this evening. The weather has changed and we are snowed in. So it’s a walk up the road carrying a bottle of wine and wearing as many warm clothes as possible. I don’t have a winter coat.
    Ali

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  4. Very timely! I’m hosting a housewarming soon, although I think it will be more casual and about 20 people . . . so I’m in a bit of a panic trying to figure out where all of these people will fit and easy “finger foods” (the guests are mostly Brits, so finger food is fine). Mini chocolate bowls sound like a great idea though! Thanks for the idea!

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  5. Enjoyed the article and interesting that French people eat oranges/manderines etc after dinner. Italians would usually not accept an orange of any kind at an evening meal, only at the end of lunch, as they say bad for the gut/digestion after dinner.

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  6. Like your list of things that are not necessary. Especially the fancy centre piece, which gets moved before we sit down and blocks the view of people across the table if it doesn’t. Much prefer comfort and conversation to style. And the TV off.
    Now, I’m off to check out your previous posts for ideas! Thanks.

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    1. My mom used to spend days working on centerpieces, and then she would be in tears because when guests arrived she wasn’t ready. I think they are nice, and if you enjoy making them, then go ahead. But they shouldn’t be something that causes stress or that fear that it won’t measure up makes someone decide not to entertain.

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  7. My favourite centre-piece involves flowers in season placed in a collection of 19th century Bristol Blue glasses. Anenomes look spectacular. I just group them together down the table (I have 24 of them as part of a glorious set of glass that has been in the family since it was blown) if it is a big gathering or simply 3 in the centre if it is smaller. Very pretty and doesn’t block cross-table conversation. We often have to entertain larger numbers because we are seldom together and tend to have a large gathering once rather than several small affairs leaving us no time alone when we are in the same country at one time. I find that moving people between courses does the trick in terms of making sure everyone gets an opportunity to chat with everyone. And l’apéro helps that process too …. I learned the art of circulating and drawing people in and out of conversations from my mother who is still the most skilled cocktail party hostess I have ever seen. As ever this is a great article and your own tips and hints are superb.

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