Why Dinner Parties Need to Change

·8 min read

If you’ve been to any of the dozens of dinner parties I’ve thrown over the years, you may have reasonably questioned my sanity at some point. We usually started with at least a dozen little snacks scattered around my kitchen island: homemade pickles and three or four homemade dips along with homemade crostini and homemade crackers for dunking. The main dish would be deceptively simple, but the recipe came from a restaurant chef and took two days to prep. And yes, I baked the bread, and I maybe even whipped up a little homemade flavored butter to go with it. My idea of a low-key dessert was likely a tart I baked that morning (topped with pecans I candied and seasoned myself and drizzled with honey I infused with…you get the picture). It was fun and really delicious. But it was also kind of exhausting.

Now, 14 months since I last cooked for a group, it’s not the big cooking extravaganzas that I miss. What I miss is sitting face-to-face with my people.

As I relax into a state of vaccination, I want to have friends over again, but this time with less culinary chaos and more time with my family and friends. Thinking back to my old dinner parties, I’ve realized that the more complicated the menu, the less real connection we had—I just can’t be present in the moment and temper chocolate at the same time. And I was missing out on a lot of the fun when I was alone in the kitchen.

The more complicated the menu, the less real connection we had.

I need to make some changes in how I approach dinner parties going forward. Frankly, 2021 me is just not up for what 2019 me thought was doable; I am too tired from the past year to stay up late making raspberry macarons. And like a lot of people, I’m anxious about some details that never mattered before. Can we hug our friends, even if they just got off a plane or bus? Is it okay to sit next to someone? Is it safe to steal a french fry off their plate?

Seeing people after being told to stay away from each other for so long feels a little strange; there’s an awkwardness hanging in the air from a year that changed our lives so significantly. And after 14 months of isolation, we’ve sort of lost our grasp of social cues. Previously benign questions—How’ve you been? How’s work/your kids?—don’t have easy answers now. I don’t really know how I am doing. As for what I’ve been up to, have I told you about my new houseplant? I worry about whether we can make the transition from talking at each other over Zoom to talking with each other in real life, or if we’ve become too accustomed to sweatpants, dinner, and Netflix.

Those concerns might buzz through my head nonstop, but not as much as my yearning to be with my friends and family—and to reconnect with them in a way that feels personal. It’s time to bring back the dinner party. But taking this break from entertaining has made some things clear. Instead of making every gathering about an impressive, show-offy meal, I want to focus on the people and our experience together. I want to sit at the table and laugh at my friend Joe’s latest dating disaster, not miss the story because I’m sweating over the stove reducing a sauce.

It’s time to regroup and create a new kind of dinner party.

For advice on how to pull it off, I turned to Priya Parker, author of the book, The Art of Gathering, and host of the podcast, Together Apart. In her work, Parker focuses on how to make all the events in our lives more meaningful. She says that now is a great time for a gathering makeover; to rethink why we host, and how we want our dinner parties to feel.

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“We’ve just experienced the biggest reset in a century, on politics, race, and how we gather. The decks have been cleared,” Parker says. “Take a breath and think: Why do I want to do this? What is the intention? Who do I want to spend time with?”

In her online guide, The New Rules of Gathering, she notes that gathering is a practice meant to nurture and refresh. The dinner party is just the occasion, but what makes it meaningful is identifying what we need from the experience. Is it to share the small moments of joy we found in the past year? To cheer each other on for new babies and jobs, engagements, or just making it through? Once you identify that purpose, she says you should keep the guest list tightly aligned to it (maybe not including the random neighbor you ran into at the store).

Next, create a framework for the event. Parker suggests setting some rules in advance to establish common ground, like asking everyone to come with a favorite new book or TV show to suggest to the group. Or, establish taboos for the night, like discussion of politics, vaccines, variants, and virtual school.

I wondered if these rules would feel awkward or forced (I want to be the host, not a camp counselor!), but Parker says they provide just enough guidance to relieve stress for everyone involved.

“It’s incredibly important for the host to create the context for how the night can go,” she explains. “We’re in a moment where norms are up for grabs. The need for the host to be more explicit is more important than ever. Rules like these give people on-ramps; it orients them toward a common experience and helps them find a meaningful way to connect.”

Talking with Parker, I realized that I had inadvertently turned past dinner parties into theater for my culinary gymnastics instead of just being with my friends. As we ease back into entertaining, we can reorient our dinner parties, making them less about the ambitious cooking projects and more about why we gathered these particular people together in the first place. This is what the new dinner party is all about.

The first step is to make sure the logistics keep things low-stress and easy, so we can focus on the people. With summer here, I’ll host people outside, spacing out the chairs so guests aren’t on top of each other and can gently ease into sitting closer than six feet apart.

At the new dinner party, the menu should require little effort; I want to spend time with my friends, not my stove. One of the best ways to do that is to outsource what I can. I will forever be a firm believer in the snacking hour, but rather than fussing over making all those dips myself, I’ll buy a good quality ricotta, hummus, labneh, or yogurt and drizzle some peppery olive oil over it before adding some toasted coriander seeds, pine nuts, or pesto. Or I’ll pick up some of the harissa that one of my favorite restaurants has been selling lately and drizzle that on top.

Old friend, new dress.

Cacio e Pepe Chips

Old friend, new dress.
Photo by Alex Lau

I’ll dress up store-bought snacks to make them special with very little effort. Potato chips have been a solid part of my quarantine pod all along, but for this night I might fancy them up with a dusting of cheese and pepper. I’ll add some Manchego cheese, cut up so that we can easily spear single pieces, and, for fun, marinate it with rosemary, garlic, and citrus. That can of anchovies stashed in my pantry just needs a few shavings of chile and lemon. I might mix a little chile-lime salt to go along with cut-up radishes and cucumbers, or toss a jar of peanuts with spices and lime juice.

With those bites on deck, I’ll offer up wine, beer, some sparkling water, and a pitcher of a spritz or another low-alcohol or nonalcoholic cocktail; many of my friends changed their drinking habits during quarantine, and I want to make sure they have options without having to explain themselves.

I keep repeating this bit of Parker’s advice in my mind: Gatherings are about connectedness, not the logistics around it. I want to avoid having to keep jumping up to check on the main course; I’d rather focus on the conversation. I love to grill, but instead of hovering over the charcoal while everyone else catches up, I’ll make it easier on myself by grilling (or oven-roasting) the protein and vegetables before everyone arrives and let the food hang out in the marinade for a while as we have drinks and snacks. It will taste that much better after a bath in some tart citrus, even served at room temperature or just barely warm.

While it’s still light out, I’ll follow Parker’s suggestion to create a ritual to remember the night by. I’ll take a group photo since I haven’t photographed much other than sourdough bread and my cats for the past year. And then we’ll wrap up the night with a zero-effort dessert platter set up and ready to go: a few pieces of chocolate, a little dried fruit, some candied walnuts. If I really want macarons, I’ll buy them from the bakery down the street. Or, I might just pull out a box of ice cream bars. It’s the kind of dessert that reminds us of easier summer days, and it’s just the hit of nostalgia and fun I want my new dinner party life to be remembered for.

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Thyme

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Thyme
Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Thyme
Claire Saffitz

Bon Appétit

Originally Appeared on Epicurious