When the very best of dinner party intentions go wrong...

Hannie Rayson is an Australian playwright and screenwriter. Many of her works, including Hotel Sorrento and Inheritance, have been performed around Australia and internationally. Rayson shares with Debrief Daily today, an extract of her newest endeavour, ‘Hello, Beautiful!’. A memoir in parts, the book captures a life behind the scenes—a life of tenderness, hilarity, reflection and, inevitably, drama.

Among certain women friends of mine, there’s a consensus developing that we may have wasted years of our lives hosting dinner parties. Over the summer, I get emails from several girlfriends, outlining their New Year’s resolutions. Less cooking, more writing. Less socialising, more thinking.

My husband is appalled. This household will not comply with such meanness of spirit. We will continue to invite our friends for dinner. Even if he has to cook it himself.

His view is that people are suffering from performance anxiety at the prospect of entertaining their friends at home: the modern fetishisation of food has contributed to less conviviality rather than more. If only we were content to throw a few chops on the barbie and serve them up with a green salad, we’d all see more of each other.

I know this to be true. I just can’t do it.

Hannie Rayson's novel, 'Hello Beautiful!'


It’s Monday morning. I am in my office, working on my book. Michael rings to say that Mr J—a famous theatre producer—is in town. He is free to have dinner with us tonight. So why don’t we invite our friend Bob as well?

‘Just buy some steaks from the butcher on the corner and I’ll barbecue them when I get home.’ Easy.


Steak and salad. Monday night. Perfect.

Then my eye is distracted by Chin Chin, a new cookbook my friend Nellie has just lent me. It’s a recipe book compiled by the chef of one of the coolest restaurants in town. I begin to wonder. Why would you barbecue an indigestible lump of meat when you could serve tofu and shitake san choy bao followed by coriander and panko- coated fish with burnt chilli mayonnaise?

Why, indeed?

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Sadly, the market is not open on a Monday. I ride to my fish shop.

(My former father-in-law told me that he thought it was a peculiarly Melbourne phenomenon to say my fish shop or my butcher. Perth people, apparently, just go to the fish shop. Are Melbourne people announcing their superior capacity for discernment? Personally, I don’t think having a fish shop is so bad. I don’t even object to a person having a relationship with the owner—my fishmonger. Where I draw the line is having a little man.)

My fish shop is closed. Gone fishing.

Mercifully, I have carried the Chin Chin book in my bike basket for just such an emergency. The gourmet butcher next door is open. Perhaps I could do a twice-cooked lamb neck with smoky eggplant salad and mint relish?

Now, one rule of dinner party protocol I have imbibed over the years is never inflict your diet on your guests. A less charitable reading of this rule might be: make every dinner party an excuse to eat like a little piglet.

As it happens, my husband and I have embarked upon a very sophisticated, scientifically tested and nutritionally balanced eating plan, devised by him. It is called controlled starvation. The guiding principle is simple: you will not lose weight unless you’re starving. This doesn’t strike me immediately as according with modern dietary dicta, but—


[Hello. This is the husband intervening here, while the Writer is popping out to the wine shop. In fact, my guiding principle is that we don’t need the special little pre-dinner meal Hannie calls ‘five o’clocks’—usually an assortment of dips and other treats served on massively overpriced crackers from the gourmet deli (baked by blind monks in some monastery in the Italian alps). Nor is it strictly necessary to start every meal with ‘firsts’, or what Hannie calls ‘Just something lovely that I’m trying out’.
But hush, I hear the clink of wine bottles on the front porch.]

Anyhoo, as I was saying, tonight we have guests!

Why opt for a salad when you could have Chin Chin chicken dumplings with chinkiang black vinegar?

Of course, none of the Asian supermarkets stock all the ingredi- ents I need. I ride around, burning calories and doing the necessary meditative preparation for writing my magnum opus, which is due shortly. I will get cracking on it this afternoon. Or maybe when the guests leave after midnight.

Perhaps Michael is right. We won’t have nibbles. Who needs nibbles? We’ll start with the chicken dumplings. The recipe says cook for eight minutes. I practise steaming one of the dumplings at five o’clock. I decide they might need a little longer.

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Our guests arrive and we repair to the lounge room with glasses of wine. The conversation is lively. Bob and Mr J are marvellously entertaining. That said, it was a mistake not to have nibbles. Even a bowl of olives. Who doesn’t serve nibbles? There is a social void that nibbles fill.

I nip out and put the dumplings in the steamer. I’ve bought one of those Asian bamboo steamers specially for tonight. It fits perfectly in the bottom of my favourite saucepan.

When I return to the lounge room, I embark upon the story about getting a urinary tract infection in Spain. Exactly why I decide to recount this episode in my life is unclear. I swear I’ve only had one glass of wine. Maybe my husband’s eating plan is affecting my capac- ity to absorb alcohol.


It’s quite complicated, this story, but I feel it’s going well. My husband is chipping in with witty asides. I hear the stove timer ring. I’ve set it to eight minutes, but I know there’s room to move.

I am explaining that in the hospital in Seville you have to go before a panel of doctors, none of whom can speak English. All six men seem totally bewildered by my attempts to demonstrate the sensation of burning.

I excuse myself to check on how our entrée is coming along— and laughingly open the door into the dining area. The whole back half of our house is engulfed in black acrid smoke.

I race to the stove, grab the saucepan, open the back door and hurl the whole thing into the garden.

The bamboo steamer is burnt black. It rolls out of the saucepan and onto the gravel. The dumplings, which should look like soft white pouches, look instead like triangles of grilled cheese on toast.

The smoke alarm leaps into action, emitting an ear-splitting shriek.

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The men dash out from the lounge room. We throw all the doors and windows open. The high-pitched screeching eventually relents.

The English theatre producer is totally gracious. ‘It was worth sacrificing the entrée for that story.’


Bob, a regular at our house, says, ‘You are the only person I know who uses the fire alarm to measure cooking times.’

We sit down at the table, the night air blowing in. It is decidedly chilly, but what can you do?

I give myself a stern note. Do not apologise and lament. Move on.

The lamb neck—which is a vaguely off-putting concept at the best of times—is okay, but would have benefited from more faithful attention to the recipe.

The evening rollicks along. Mr J is regaling us with stories of famous actors. I am topping up Bobby’s glass, encouraging Mr J to tell more, when, out of the corner of my eye, I see a mouse run across the kitchen floor.

I kick Michael under the table. I run my fingers across the table in quick mouse-steps. All the while I am smiling and listening to Mr J. I start to wriggle my nose. Now I am doing mouse-acting.

Michael is mouthing: What?

Out it comes again. The mouse. This time, he doesn’t scurry. He sort of ambles. As if he owns the kitchen. As if he lives here. I want to throw something.

I leap up. Under no circumstances must the famous producer see the mouse. I have to get him to swap places with Michael. Yes. That’s it. Mr J must be reseated with his back to the kitchen.

I decide to clatter about at the sink, to try to drive off the rodent.

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Michael follows me in. ‘What in god’s name?’

‘You have to change places,’ I hiss.


‘When he goes to the loo...’

‘Don’t be fucking ridiculous. He comes back and I’m sitting in his seat?’

I think the mouse might be making its entrance from a gap between dishwasher and cupboard. I give the cupboard door a kick. I need to create moral panic—send a wave of human terror rolling through the mouse corridor.

I grab a wettex and shove it in the hole. That’s fixed it.?I return to my place at the table.? Later in the evening, Mr J is talking and I see his eyes widen in utter incredulity. But he barely misses a beat. Like a true theatre person, he carries on.

Author Hannie Rayson. Image via Facebook.

I, however, know with a terrible certainty that the mouse is back. And that Mr J has seen it.

The next day, Michael interviews the famous theatre producer on his radio program. After the show, he walks Mr J to the lift. Michael decides to make a clean breast of it.

‘I know you saw the mouse.’

‘It was very entertaining,’ said Mr J. ‘I saw it long before you and Hannie even knew it was there. At one point, it ran across the kitchen floor and into the toilet. Hannie went in shortly afterwards and I expected to hear a frightful scream.’

Mr J sent me a thank-you note:

‘Thank you for a perfect evening. Hope the three of you are all well and enjoying a cheese platter together.’

If you enjoyed this then don't miss Hannie’s upcoming Sydney Writers Festival appearance. You can also purchase Hannie's novel at