The Art of the Dinner Party

By Gabrielle Hamilton

For me, it was always a bit of an adult thrill to come downstairs on a Sunday morning, the household still sleeping, and find the table — the long formal one in the dining room — strewn with the last debris of the late-finishing dinner party given by my parents the night before. To walk the table’s perimeter, weaving around the pushed-back chairs, and to collect the foils and corks, the stained wineglasses and the scattered cloth napkins, to get the pancake spatula and pry up the candle wax that had overflowed, felt not unlike sneaking into their bedroom and finding the sheets curiously twisted, the pillows dented and, as long as I was there, furtively helping myself to the loose change left on the bureau. A little like trespassing.

I used to “read” the dinner-table detritus left behind — the felt-tip pen, the ivory silk kerchief, the little pile of strawberry hulls — as if they were fossil impressions not of sea horses or prehistoric invertebrates but of the conversations that were had there just hours earlier, records of a grown-up discussion I was dying to be allowed to join. Examining the remains, I imagined that the Champagne cages someone twisted into the shape of beautiful rudimentary butterflies were formed during a spontaneous recitation of a few lines of poetry. The torn, still-fragrant tangerine peels must have been stacked into neat piles when the conversation turned to the subject of parenting an ungovernable teenager; the cigarette butt crushed into in a walnut husk obviously, in my mind, stubbed out during the heated topic of money. I cleared and cleaned and then polished that table, and I cataloged — loosely, just in my brain — all the tangible things people held and worried in their hands during the lengthy meanderings and the reaching pauses of those adult-dinner-party conversations. The brandy snifters had to have landed, I was certain, around the second punch line of my dad’s best joke, as he dryly delivered the one about the hockey players and hookers.

To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew; chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since.

I gave my first in ninth grade, several years after my parents split, at the home of a temporary surrogate guardian. I shopped and prepped and cooked and folded napkins and picked out serving utensils and made candle scapes down the center of the table. But even before the salad course was cleared, my teenage cohort was wasted on red wine, shouting for vodka shots. In the Polaroid I still have, it’s glassy eyes and crimson noses all around — drunken 14-year-olds at a well-set table, in formalwear. I recall I talked to my right-side tablemate, for unending minutes, about his puppy.

Still, over the next five years I persisted in spending my school money on brisket and whole sea bass and bone-in fresh ham, and my weekends sketching table arrangements, clomping through fields collecting grasses and branches to be laid artfully down the centers of tables for dinner parties at which, unfailingly, three people I invited and accounted for said they would come and then didn’t. Or someone I did invite showed up, late, with three people I didn’t invite. They arrived without a bottle or a bouquet. Even in my last year of college, my dinner parties had a juvenile feel — everybody still wasted on the red wine and inevitably looking to do shots — but at least not until dessert, which, alas, they could not quite stay seated through. I remember this as the restless age, with everybody up and down from the table, and outside smoking, leaving an empty seat, an orphaned tablemate, which chokes a conversation as surely as water in a carburetor stalls an engine.

But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

And over the next 20 years, those couple of perfect friends grew to be many, and because I worked in catering, I was often given excesses to take home — oysters, flowers, steamed lobsters — around which I could organize a dinner. So even if the plumber’s candles came from the hardware store, and the place settings were marked with kitchen work towels, and the table was just a door set on sawhorses, the chairs a bunch of overturned milk crates with Sunday newspapers as cushions, it was still, no matter, a good long decade of people facing one another. The dripping of the candles that formed a frothy white-water wax centerpiece like the one my mother had held us all transfixed. We sat, ate, drank, talked and talked. Smoked, drank, told jokes, argued and talked more. And the wineglasses, the bottles, the foils and the corks, the bread heels were left on the table to be cleared the following day.

I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time.

But just when I could finally afford to buy my first 13-quart heavy enamel Le Creuset lidded pot, and invite people to dinner around a real table — not a Salvation Army jobbie — guests started coming to dinner with their phones, the glow of those screens as lethal to the conversation as empty seats had been. People passed them back and forth to show photos meant to illustrate things that they used to describe verbally. We stopped looking at one another across the table and started crowding in on one another staring together at a tiny hand-held screen someone was holding up in explanation of a trip to India, the fog from a morning run. Quickly our vocabularies shrank. Instead of summoning words, people tapped on images. People stopped finishing their sentences. And in startlingly short order, they could no longer describe with language the places they had been; the way they had felt in the dark night; the powerful weight of the tropical winds and the humidity of their recent vacations, the dirt road they got lost on, the woman who brought milk and bread and butter and yogurt to their pensione. There were fewer well-told stories at the dinner table, fewer compelling twists and pauses, fewer meandering conversations among the group, until there were almost no more wire Champagne cages gently twisted into the shapes of animals. We had our hands full with our phones.

And then suddenly, any talking was about the food itself. Not just the food on the table in front of us but the food at last night’s table, and the lunch the day before that, the food at the restaurant on vacation, the food in the magazine, the food on Instagram. I set the table and cooked the food and poured the wine as I had for decades, but now, as soon as the first course landed, someone snapped a photo of it. Had my children come downstairs to say good night, they would not have felt any ripple of excitement at the din of adult conversation they were allowed to glimpse. Nothing adult to trespass upon. The dinner party nearly died for me then.

But if I had given up on people not quite knowing what to do at a dinner party, I would have given up back in ninth grade. The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

Invite some outliers in there, some unexpecteds. Your several perfect friends, of course, who really know how it’s done but also that person you’ve always had such affection for at your coffee shop but with whom you never had any exchange that lasted longer than 20 minutes. The new couple who moved in across the street. The cousin of your old friend who is having empty-nest syndrome. The line cook at your restaurant who never asks for a day off. Your editor at the magazine whom you torture monthly with deadline trauma.

Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs. Get out the Fernet Branca, and pour everyone a shot, and tell your dad’s best one-liner, the one about Mrs. Katz. When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Gabrielle Hamilton is an Eat columnist for the magazine and the chef and owner of Prune.