The 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.
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.
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.
The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.
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.
Beautifully presented dishes.
Silverware set correctly.
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.
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.
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.
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. One 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!