Decline of the Dinner Party

My 50th birthday party in my St-Germain-des-Prés apartment, Paris, 2008

Dinner party.

How glamorous. When I was growing up in Wales, my mother’s announcement that she had decided to hold a dinner party gave me a thrill like no other, and even today those two words hold a special place in my gastric heart.

Always on a Saturday night, the preparation would begin early and involve goodies I had never seen. In that era, there was staple fare, guaranteed to be a hit: prawn cocktail, followed by steak, and finished off with Black Forest Gateau. And let’s not forget the Mateus Rosé that accompanied it.

That bottle was equally glamorous.

Mum and Dad had been to The Grotto, a restaurant in Cardiff’s Roath Park, a lot nicer than its name suggests. They returned home once with two shells, one each for my brother and Nigel and me, and excitedly told us how they had been served something called Coquilles St Jacques on them. I remember thinking my parents had the most exciting life on the planet.

But the shells faded into insignificance with the excitement of the Mateus Rosé bottle which, in the restaurant, had been used for candles, and over years the waxy lava had created sculptures that adorned every table. We spent months trying to create the same at home until we gave up and tried to make lamps out of the bottles instead.

My parents didn’t eat out often, but one night they returned, and Dad regaled that Mum had danced on the table and invited everyone back for an Italian dinner party the following week.

Was there no end to my parents’ wildness?

I used to host a lot of dinner parties, particularly when I lived in London during the Eighties. I remember my guests by their titles – The Lawsons (Nigella and her first husband, John Diamond), The Boyds (William and Susan), The Hislops (Ian and Victoria), The Ishiguros (Ish and Lorna) – and with the exception of the Ishiguros, all are still in my life today. Nothing bad happened; lives just change and people drift apart: some go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and others write soap columns for national newspapers. C’est la vie.

The Irish novelist Desmond Hogan used to host a lot of dinner parties for Ish, Lorna and me. He would make at least five puddings, all of which would be produced at odd times of the evening and from the recesses of his tiny apartment in South London. Des and I were witnesses at Ish and Lorna’s wedding, and we chopped blossom branches from a tree en route to the register office because we couldn’t afford flowers. We also managed to cadge a free ride on the bus to get there, after Des told the driver we were on our way to get married and were running late.

Des always drank a lot at his own and my dinner parties, and ended the evenings reciting poetry, mainly Yeats, which he did brilliantly. After one night, when he had drunk several bottles of wine and finished it off with a shot and collapsed on my sofa, I woke in the morning to find him gone. Two days later, I received a postcard (Des always sent postcards following every dinner): “The Tequila was a mistake.”

Whatever happened to the dinner party? Did we all become too busy? Did we start earning more and discover that we could eat out more cheaply and with considerably less hassle than we could entertaining at home?

I recall one dinner party in which I was so stressed, I spent just 20 minutes in the room with my guests. Victoria Hislop (who is the best cook of anyone, anywhere, I have ever eaten, by the way) told me that she had come to see me and would have been happy with pizza. Was that the day I decided that seeing people was of more value than spending five hours making Delia Smith’s Black Bean Soup (trust me; you really don’t want to go there. It’s five hours you’ll never get back)?

The clearing up was always more stressful than the cooking. So many serving dishes, three lots of crockery, different wine glasses for different courses – I really used to go for it. But then you had to clear the table, get everything washed and dried (I didn’t have a dishwasher until I was 37), and put it away.

I then started to entertain differently: huge pots of chilli, beef Bourguignon, chicken curry, and let everyone serve themselves and take it to the table. Then I dispensed with the table – why not just have the food on their laps? And why china plates that needed washing? There were plenty of solid plastic plates that would do the job just as well.

And at this point, I started to entertain more. I cooked for 60 people for my 50th birthday (twice – once in Cardiff, once in Paris (pictured) – very casual, loads of food, help yourselves and sit wherever you can find a space. The one thing I balk at though, is plastic cups. I will never serve my guests wine in anything other than decent glasses. Riedel. Well, Riedel for me and my friends who understand wine; Amazon bargain basement for everyone else.

I thought with Covid we might see a return to the traditional dinner party, albeit with only the people in whose bubble you were allowed to be, but there’s been none of it. Even when the weather turned cold and outdoor dining was the only option, people preferred to don gloves and scarves and watch their hands sticking like Super Glue to a cold champagne glass rather than eat at home.

My mum, who died in 2019, continued to host dinners until very late in life (she was a great cook and passed on the skill to both my brother and me), until she was no longer able; not being able to cook, reliant on box meals from the carers, was one of her greatest sorrows as she grew old and infirm.

So, as I mourn the passing of the dinner party, I’m thinking fondly back to the day when everyone came back to our house for Italian food. It was lasagne; that much I remember. And Mateus Rosé, of course.

Now, where did I put those candles? I feel a project coming on.