I’m an unlikely fan of the dinner party.
Unlikely in that some of my earliest memories are of my slightly frazzled and definitely tired mother pulling together a three course meal for work colleagues of my father on what seemed to be a weekly basis.
He was an academic in 1970's Adelaide, a man with ambition, and she was required to entertain regularly. I don’t think she enjoyed it. She isn’t a huge fan of cooking or pretentious people (as academics can sometimes be). But when she did it, she did it well.
She had her staples of course. French onion soup for a starter or a pasta her mother would prepare (still relatively exotic at the time), some kind of roast with potatoes, a jelly or trifle for dessert and a cheese platter. And after dinner mints of course, any left overs of which would be eaten by my sister and I in the wee hours next morning.
While I have fond memories of those dinner parties, the hustle before people arrived, the better kind of food in the house, a vase of flowers in the hallway, the promise of mints for breakfast, it was clear to me she was bored by the whole palaver. Half an hour before people arrived she sat back with a glass of wine and prayed to the Lord the guests would cancel at the last minute.
Perhaps because I grew up in a house where dinner parties were de rigueur, because I love to cook and because (and this I think this is crucial) I don’t feel compelled to entertain to please my husband or to conform to some kind of social norm, I do love a dinner party. I would have people over for a substantial dinner or lunch on average three to five times a month.
That puts me, frankly, in a very small minority of Australians.
TV cooking shows featuring excellent home cooks churning out plates of deftly arranged fodder – and the ratings success of these shows – may lead us to believe that everyone is honing their home entertaining skills out there in ‘the real world’. But it’s not the case. In all the research I’ve done on food and cooking in the last decade, I’ve found scant evidence of a widespread dinner party scene.
“It’s not about money or energy it’s about children. I don’t know how you can have a formal dinner party with children running around. How, when you have two young children, do you cook a three course meal?” This is how one 30-something mum put it to me.
There is an answer to that. Lower your expectations - and let’s bring back the dinner party. Let’s set aside mum slaving in the kitchen after work to make it happen. Forget if the house is messy. Just make sure the table is clean and clear. Ask your friends to bring a course instead of (or in addition to) a bottle of wine. If you feel weird about that, then my advice to you is, keep it simple. Here’s a menu no one will complain about.