To all appearances, the dinner party exists mainly within the pages of magazines. Yes, there are block parties, progressive parties, underground restaurants, dinner with six strangers, etc. But what about those incredibly elegant, utterly everyday affairs we vaguely recall our parents talking about?
Andrea Adelstein remembers. The Tenafly NJ native looks back to her childhood and sees the candlelit, laughter-filled evenings when her parents invited guests over for dinner. Through her company NY Lux Events, Adelstein attempts to recreate the relaxed glamour of intimate dinner parties for small groups and large throngs. Recently she was asked to consult on an event honoring Hillary Rodham Clinton; they do weddings, bat mitzvahs, life celebrations and all other special occasions where food is a must.
We asked Adelstein a few questions about why dinner parties have fallen out of favor, and perhaps any hope for a renaissance.
Toque: Why have you felt called to bring back the dinner party?
Adelstein: Over social media, I see more and more people sharing photos of their food, swapping recipes and blogging about their dining experiences. Everyone is excited about food. Yet people do this from a distance, over the Internet. I believe it is time to reconnect in a more intimate and personal way. Time to bring people back into our homes.
Toque: Why have dinner parties fallen out of favor?
Adelstein: There are real reasons for the decline of the dinner party. People are genuinely busier than ever before. Entertaining takes time and planning. And with the overall trend toward casualness that our society has welcomed these past decades, many people have not learned how to entertain – they don’t know how to properly set the table, or plan a menu they can execute in their kitchen. This lack of time, knowledge and confidence has undermined the dinner party.
Toque: Which decade or era do you feel is the heyday of the dinner party and why?
Adelstein: My favorite era is the Regency period. People stopped by and dropped their calling card. They were invited to dinner and dressed. Talents such as playing an instrument, singing, cards and conversation were considered the signs of class and civility. Balls were thrown with dancing and musicians. Dinners were elaborate affairs, which took many people and even more hours to cook. All prepared with fresh, local ingredients.
Toque: Are there any misconceptions about throwing a dinner party you can debunk?
Adelstein: First, you do not need to cook to throw a great dinner party. We have so many wonderful resources today – caterers, restaurants that deliver, supermarkets that offer entire meals at terrific prices. No longer are cooking skills a requirement for entertaining. You can order and present a multi course meal and never turn on the stove. Second, that dinner parties do not need to be stuffy affairs focused on correct silverware and matching food to wine. Today, dinner parties can mean any sort of gathering of people in your home where a meal is served. It can be a wine, cheese and charcuterie relaxed buffet, or it can be focused on artisanal beers and Texas barbecue. The point of the dinner party is to bring people into your home in an intimate way, open up to new conversation and new ideas and reconnect.
Toque: Why are dinner parties an important part of our social fabric?
Adelstein: When you have people into your personal space, it allows everyone to connect in a much more intimate way. Dinner parties at home tend to foster good manners and civility, understanding and compromise. And while everyone is on their best behavior, they are also much more open to listening and learning about other people and ideas. Social media proposes the opposite – keeping people close yet at a distance, Dinner parties can change the face of our social fabric by making people realize we have many differences but we are all quite the same at our core.
Toque: How have modern tastes/habits/schedules changed dinner party protocol?
Adelstein: The modern concept of time and overall softening of formality has completely changed dinner party protocol. We no longer “dress” for dinner. Plans and invitations are made much less in advance. Menus are shorter and more consolidated. People text or email their rsvp and never speak. These are all challenges to the dinner party.
Toque: Are there any dinner party “musts” we should adhere to?
Adelstein: Just one must: Relax! If you are tense, nervous or stressed, your guests will feel it and they will be too. It will be in the air. No one need know what you did not finish or what didn’t turn out correctly. Leave time for yourself before your guests arrive. Open the door with a smile, looking relaxed and polished. If something goes wrong, laugh and let it go. You can always order in pizza. And if you do it without drama, people will be as impressed as if you cooked a 6-course meal.
Toque: What was your favorite–and most spontaneous–dinner party ever?
Adelstein: Recently, we were returning back from a weekend away and at the last moment some friends called to say they were in town. We could have gone out to dinner. But, having not seen them in a while, we wanted to spend time, talk and relax with them. On our drive home we stopped at a farm stand and bought fresh vegetables and lots of fresh herbs. We sent someone out for chicken breast. We always have staples such as rice, crackers and a few interesting cheeses plus olives on hand. As soon as we entered our apartment, jobs were given and everyone went to work. The chicken was marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs. Vegetables cut and seasoned and put in the oven to roast. Someone did a quick clean up of the space and set the table. Rice was on the stove and a cheese plate was set for cocktails. Our guests offered and we asked them to bring wine. Within 40 minutes everything was cooking or prepped and guests arrived. It was a lovely evening, with no advance planning.
Toque: What are three (or four) things mere mortals can do to create a spectacular evening?
Adelstein: A spectacular evening touches all of your guest’s senses. Serve accessible food, but focus on its presentation. Remember, we eat first with our eyes, then with our mouths. Play wonderful music in the background, it fills in all the holes in the conversation. Light lots of candles, since everyone looks younger and more wonderful in the glow. Let the warm smells from the kitchen come into the dining room. A spectacular evening is one where people are happy and relaxed and having fun.
Toque: What are some ways to entertain with class … on a budget?
Adelstein: No need for truffles and foie gras. It’s easy to plan a menu with reasonably priced ingredients. Start with an artfully presented salad, then plate a hearty, rustic, warm pasta with crusty bread for the entrée. Finish with a quality store bought ice cream stuck with shards of good dark chocolate. Prepare fresh whipped cream. Supermarket flowers work beautifully. The trick is to buy three different types, all in the same color family. Then mass them in 3 separate vases at varying heights. Together the arrangement will look full and lush. Stop by your local thrift shop and buy some inexpensive colored glasses to use for water. No need to spend a fortune to have an elegant, delicious, beautiful event.
Toque: Do you predict dinner parties making a comeback? How will they rival the golden age they knew before?
Adelstein: I predict that the food industry will continue to grow and flourish. Interest in food products and cooking, photo sharing and blogging is on a major upswing. I believe that the professionals in the industry, on television and social media, will continue to reach out and encourage people to entertain in their homes and make strong connections with people. But, unfortunately, the way we live our lives, the constant demand for our attention, and the alternative options for entertainment, I can only hope the dinner party will come back in the style and importance it once had. Most importantly, I hope people will realize that entertaining is easy. And, with some planning, they can be a guest at their own event.
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