Thursday, April 26, 2018
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Dinner party is dead? Say it ain't so

The dinner party is dead.

Its obituary was one of the most-emailed stories recently on the New York Times website. It was a long one, too, more than 1,800 words celebrating a rich and colorful life. They say every passing can be a shock, even those that follow a lengthy decline.

There it was, though, with Louise Grunwald, celebrated New York hostess, commenting on its passing with the words "It's over."

A death of a thousand cuts — nut allergies, people's inability to RSVP (who knows what I'll be doing a week from Saturday!), iPads and sweatpants were cited as wounds. Sure, those things contributed, but I think the fatal blow was something I see in my work life every day: People are much more sophisticated diners than they are cooks.

As a culture, we're obsessed with chefs and restaurants. We spend hours watching the Food Network … while eating takeout. So often our knowledge (the ingredients, players and trends) outstrips our abilities in the kitchen. There are hundreds of dishes we crave, that we're willing to drive great distances for, pay outrageous prices for, talk about incessantly — but we just don't know how to make them at home. And we'd be mortified to have our friends see our pathetic skirmishes with pad Thai or tikka masala. In fact, we wouldn't even attempt them.

A recent Bureau of Labor survey found that people spend about half an hour preparing food each day versus nearly an hour and a half eating and drinking. With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, any home cook will tell you that math doesn't make sense: That Thursday, many of us spent eight hours cooking a meal that was eaten in 20 minutes.

Cooking time has been squeezed by more women working outside the home, the availability of prepared and convenience foods and — this is the big one — the rise of dining out. Ruth Reichl wrote in Garlic and Sapphires, "Going out to eat used to be like going to the opera; today, it's more like going to the movies."

Recent surveys put the average American adult in restaurants 4.8 times per week. And some of those times simulate a dinner party: A gathering of friends in which all parties eat and drink, laugh and share news. But there's something lost in this shift from your dining room table to your favorite restaurant.

Daughter of an avid hostess, I'm a lifelong dinner-party thrower, going back way before I had any kind of culinary training. I value what is created when eight (10? 12?) friends or acquaintances gather around a meal that I have prepared especially for them. Sure, I now have to accommodate the vegans and the gluten-freers; in a way, these challenges have heightened my enjoyment of crafting menus that all can enjoy, without verging on the weird or abstemious. A pretty table, flowers in a footed vase, good china if I'm feeling extra motivated — all these things set a stage for something special.

There's an intimacy at home that leads to better conversation, frequently longer conversation and often a single tablewide conversation. Show me a restaurant where noise levels and table configurations don't preclude that, or where a server doesn't start getting antsy after you've been lingering over crumbs for an hour. A dinner party at home provides the luxury of time and flexibility. It allows for absurd bellows of laughter, impromptu dancing and rampant couch lounging.

It's not just the loosy-goosiness of it all that distinguishes the home dinner party from dinner out. Elizabeth Pinel, associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, studies a construct called I-sharing. The idea is that one of the ways people overcome existential loneliness is to share the same subjective experience. At a restaurant, you ordered the pork, your friend has the snapper. At home, everyone at the table is enjoying the same dishes, foods the host has prepared with them in mind. It is breaking bread together in the truest sense.

Yes, after the last guest has departed and the porch light has been turned off, there are dishes to wash and counters to wipe. But a dinner party gives you a opportunity for community and connection. And, as host, it sometimes gives you something else: an invitation to someone else's dinner party.

Here's hoping reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 892-2293 or on Twitter at @lreiley.

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