The Dinner Party
Growing up, my parents, George and Alverna, never threw dinner parties, unless you consider the family and close friends that made the pilgrimage to our home on Thanksgiving and Easter to feast on Turkey and roasts a dinner party—I don't. There is something of a hint of obligation in attending a holiday gathering. Attendance at the "Dinner Party" is neither obligatory nor infused with the kind of tradition that holiday gatherngs impose.
The Dinner Party—a good one— is, and should be, more about discovery and chance. At its best it should have a laissez-faire quality and a healthy dose of the unknown.
I wasn't completely sure what turn of events or dynamic would unfold at a small dinner party I organized this last weekend for a set of friends, some who knew others, some who only knew of the others. One can never be sure of the outcome of an evening when the guests don't all have some degree of intimate knowledge of each other. But, of course that's partly what a dinner party is good for—creating and watching some form of easy intimacy between acquaintances and strangers develop.
Despite no training from George and Alverna, I do have some experience with crafting dinner parties. My first real exposure to the art of gathering folks around a table for the ostensible purpose of gastronomical investigation and conversation came to me through my first wife, Valerie, a young French doll who had been brought up and trained to entertain by a somewhat conservative set of parents who invited friends and acquaintances to their home more out of the French tradition of obligation to social norms than any real delight in watching intimacy develop.
THE FIRST DINNER PARTIES
Almost as soon as we moved in together during my last year of my BA at Humboldt State, Valerie presented me with a list of potential table mates who she wanted to squeeze around our little dinette set off the kitchen in our small duplex in Arcata. She left a place on the list for me to fill in with a friend, while the other places were already assigned to people she had met only briefly during her early forays into town and on campus. I choose the ex-roommate who I figured wouldn't embarrass Valerie too much. I turned out to be somewhat wrong about that determination, but that's a story that isn't quite on point.
Over the years we would have more dinner parties, first at the even smaller Dinette in our first San Francisco apartment, then somewhat larger ones at our somewhat larger second San Francisco apartment, and then much larger, more complex gatherings of friends and quasi-strangers at the home we bought in Marin not long before our divorce.
I learned a great deal from those Dinner Parties.
One vital Dinner Party rule I learned was to always have a reason for a dinner party. The reason need not be monumental. It need not be the celebration of an anniversary or even a birthday. Rather, it should be something somewhat simple, but eventful.
This last weekend I drew friends together for the purpose of introducing them to, and showering a small bit of recognition and thanks upon, one of America's great wine writers: Alice Feiring. The idea was simple: put Alice at a table around which sat a group of people who would appreciate her contributions to gastronomical and vinious literature and also be likely to carry on with interesting conversation—and of course to try to create a simple intimacy among them.
From my view at the head of the table, the plan appeared to work.
Little Alice Feiring, when first viewed, appears something of a waif. Small in frame, delicate, lightly tinted, she appears almost more of a girl than a woman. But for the stunning flash of flowing red hair that falls chaotically around her face and on to her shoulders, she might be missed entirely in a crowd. That hair, however is the best hint one has that inside her resides a passion that will eventually make her stand above the crowd.
START WITH BOOZE
The first course on Friday was wine. My initial count put the number of bottles that sat on the table in the beginning as roughly 12. It turned out to really be 14 when I did my final count before leaving the restaurant. I originally forgot to count the 1992 Refosco in the decanter and the beautiful Smith-Madrone Riesling that fell first and was set aside in its ice bucket.
In my experience, one can't determine the tone of a dinner party by observing the actions of guests at the outset.This is why alcohol needs to be offered up and available at the first opportunity: It helps lubricate guests and move them more smoothly into their own. The guests on Friday, all experienced lubricators, seemed to easily accept this premise and began to dig in.
Alice sat to my right. This was the proper place for her as the guest of honor and a nod to the traditions of a dinner party that I quite like. To my left was a beautiful young thing who I can't seem to take my eye off of, putting me in the catbird seat. At the other end of the table sat the co-host, Sonoma's premier restaurateur. And in between were a mix of friends who, it turned out, had enough in common while not necessarily knowing each other, to allow the easy flow of conversation.
This is another critical rule of dinner parties: The fate of the dinner party shouldn't be compromised by putting too many people around a table that know each other so well that they can speak in short hand or code to get their secret points across. Rather, the Dinner Party dynamic is best put in motion by gathering guests who have something in common that lets them easily carry on, but not so much that they can wink and nod in silence at something only they know from past encounters.
As the evening progressed it appeared that most guests had settled into a comfort zone, due in large part to the amazing service provided by the experienced servers who waited on us and pampered the ten of us. The Girl & the Fig, our venue in Sonoma and and important culinary institution, is able to do an amazing thing: while making guests feel as though they are among family, the realization that you are at a culinary mecca is never lost. It's quite a trick, due in large part to the owner's friendly disposition that must rub off on her staff and guests.
AT HOME OR AT THE RESTAURANT: A DINNER PARTY QUESTION
Whether to have a dinner party at a restaurant or your home is an important question to answer as one plans such an evening. The benefits of hosting a dinner party at a restaurant should be obvious: There's no work to be done and focus can be pointed entirely on guests and the table. Yet, one should not discount the pleasure of presenting homemade dishes to guests in the comfort of your own home. The key is to understand how to prepare in advance and pace a dinner at home when one determines whether a home setting is best for the dinner party.
THE TOAST< br />I've said at other times and in other Blog posts that all men who aspire to a good life and good friends ought to learn how to give a toast. This applies to the opposite sex as well. A well constructed toast is not too long, speaks from the heart, carries a certain weight and never denigrates but lifts up the object of the toast, be it a person or an occasion. The well-formed toast should also be practiced to at least a small degree prior to it being given. I don't care how good a speaker you are "off the cuff". If you don't think about what you want to say in advance, you are more than likely to go too long, which is the kiss of death for any toast.
In my case, I had one thing in mind where toasting Ms. Feiring is concerned: Communicate the inspiration she provides to me and, I suspect, to others through her passionate prose and superb and unique writing style. I can't be positive I accomplished my mission, but folk listened, Alice blushed and I was happy. Don't discount the value of "happy".
FOOD AND THE PARTY'S SUCCESS
The question arises whether the success of a dinner party is inextricably tied to the quality of the food that is served. It isn't. And anyone who thinks it is probably doesn't' value the satisfaction that comes from good, hardy conversation. That said, if the food is good, even spectacular as was the case on Friday, you reap additional lubrication that gets you where you ultimately want to get: a place where good, provocative conversation lands you in a newly intimate connection with table mates. The lesson here is that the ultimate destination can be achieved at a dinner party with spectacular food. But it need not be essential to getting you where you want to go.
Alice was surrounded by three winemakers, three PR pros, a winemaker's spouse that exuded a genuine character, a professional hostess and a marketing/hospitality professional that is devoted to her craft and makes me melt. I think Ms. Feiring was impressed with the table mates that surrounded her. Impressed insofar as she must have seen she was surrounded by people of real geniality and intelligence who had the capacity to care about their evening and their fellow travelers. This recognition is really all you can ask for in a guest of honor.
the evening came to an end when frivolity had begun to take over, due in large part to the 14 bottles of wine, but also due to the intimacy that had been created by a closed circle of folks who, after 3 hours of breaking bread, talking, listening and sharing food, knew each other as more than acquaintances: Mission accomplished.
THE END OF THE PARTY
If you are a host of a dinner party at a restaurant, you leave last. This should go without saying. But there's a benefit to this. You get to return to the empty table and survey the remnants of an evening gone well. My contention is that only the inner thigh of a woman and a well pitched baseball game is more attractive and satisfying than a table that holds the remnants of an evening of serious socializing, serious wine drinking and eating with gusto. I was satisfied.
I was also satisfied because I saw a remarkable woman, a guest of honor, leave the restaurant with a smile that I knew my guests and my efforts had a role in creating. Alice Feiring has a great deal of work left to do. She has many a case to make. She has education to do. And she has a good deal of personal revelation to instill in her writing. And I can't wait. And yet given all this hard work she has to do and given all this literary pleasure she must give to us, I'm pretty satisfied that after this dinner party she knows that I and my dinner mates appreciate her remarkable efforts to date.
And isn't it true that the best dinner parties not only leave all the participants with a more intimate connection to their cohorts, but also leave the guest of honor—and there really ought always to be one—with the impression that they are loved and appreciated?