We’ve all been to at least one good dinner party, right? Define the good, you say? Warm light, shoes off, laughter. Food delicious enough that the conversation stops for a minute. Comfort and joy. The unmistakable thrill of connection and invention.
With an open slate, who would you invite? Only people who know how to banter, who understand that two conflicting opinions can both be true. They should not take themselves too seriously. While the rules of this exercise forbid inviting relatives or simple friends, I can’t comply. Dinner parties are best when some people meet for the first time as others interact with habitual camaraderie.
Here’s my list.
- Dorothy Parker – I want to be there for the invention of a witticism, or perfect turn of phrase. “What fresh hell is this?” the favorite so far.
- Nora Ephron – I want to hear the real stories of her journalist days and Hollywood nights. Also, compare necks.
- Oscar Wilde – He needs another go-round, especially now that New York is on board. Had his only recourse been Iowa, not so sure.
- Donald Trump – Yes. I’m serious. I loved him in the first Apprentice. Although he now focuses more on The Donald Show than on the real thing, I appreciate a good entrepreneur like nobody’s business. Or everybody’s. Seriously, can you imagine Oscar trying to understand Donald? He and Dot sparring over politics. Politely, of course? (Warning: His website is loud. Surprised?)
- Me – You don’t think I would miss this, do you?
- Significant Other – Without him nearby, I’m prone to vibrate at far too high a pitch
- Old Friend – When I was married, we were friends with a glorious couple. Journalists, with a sense of humor and enormous personal warmth. They moved to Northern Europe, I got divorced, we lost touch. I’d bring them back, just for the dinner. They’d tell stories of their travels, and listen rapt to everyone else.
- Old Friend’s husband – He is just as lovely as she
- Father – Let’s just say that some famous couple or other, oh, Beyonce and Jayz and their baby, cancel at the last minute. Those things happen. Maybe they had to go sing for the President’s family. Who knows. In any case, I will pick up the phone and invite my father and his wife. Professors make good dinner party guests – when silence falls they can speak about something obscure, in that particular slow cadence, until inspiration strikes the others.
- Father’s wife – Hold no party without an artist. If we were lucky, she’d take some photos of the evening. Facebook never had it so good.
And where would we assemble, you might wonder? I’d order up a rare warm Northern California night. We’d pull the dining table out on the slate patio. Snip back the hanging branches of the backyard Chinese elm, and hang a chandelier outdoors. Layer on textures in neutrals, eat from dignified china and silver, add a touch of silly with bright glassware. Oxymoronic design loosens tongues. As does exceptional wine.
What to wear? In California, we’re always pretty casual. The best tricks I know to dress up the natively informal are:
- Rely on monochrome
- Show your best skin
- One piece of startlingly fancy jewelry
- Wear sparkly shoes and a flattering nail polish
- Keep those shoes on until you serve the food
And the food. Ah yes, the food. People should feel well-cared for. This is important. Everything prepared from scratch. Even the salsa, if you serve it. Even the blue cheese dressing.
You also want everyone to find something they’re happy to eat. So we’d need two main dishes, and a vegetarian side that can count as a main. Also, despite how fetching you look in a kitchen apron, best not to be stir-frying at the last minute. Advice I’ve ignored repeatedly – as evidenced by a pattern of burns on my right arm.
So let’s choose Potted Chicken from Jan’s recipe, and Pork Adobo in the slow cooker. Vegetables as per the season. Even fancy people like simple food. Mashed potatoes, some with dairy, some without. You have to consider dietary restrictions. Salad made from front yard garden lettuce.
Focused on comfort for the main course, we’d go a little fanciful for dessert. It’s hard to ruin chocolate, and burned sugar smells delicious. So make brulé tiles in the shapes of letters, and anchor them in Boston cream filled cupcakes. Serve with a large bowl of ripe strawberries dressed in balsamic vinegar. Superfine and raw sugar on the table in a crystal bowl.
Sugar hidden in processed foods may be evil but out in the open it’s all right by me.
Then at the end of the night, bring out mid-century artifacts. Dinner mints, chocolates, and brandy. Watch as people’s faces light up. Realize, happily, that you’re going to be up past your bedtime. The privilege of grownups.
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