May it Please the Palate- Dinner Party

The New York Times says the dinner party is "endangered." Victimized by busy schedules, and further wounded by food fussiness and forgotten manners. Once the hallmark of anyone's social calendar, the dinner party is falling by the wayside - replaced by people meeting in bars or restaurants--when they bother getting together at all.

Lamenting the social icons who were famous for their dinner parties, the Times did note they had attributes that many of us do not: "social prominence, deep pockets, commodious apartments, household staffs and no allergy to drink." Even for the hoi polloi* a modest dinner party is an all day affair. Finding recipes, shopping, and preparing the food is one thing; but don't forget cleaning the house. Don't forget the fresh flowers and the potpourri and scented soaps in the bathroom. Then there's the matter of entertaining the guests as they arrive with drinks and nibbles, as you are trying to get the table set and manage the finishing of the food.

The last dinner party I went to was a worthy affair for 10, which 9 actually attended due to an unforeseen emergency involving one of our public utilities. We made it easier on the hosts by (1) first meeting in a bar for drinks and appetizers, and (2) having a couple of guests volunteer dessert (one being a professional cake maker). Lasagna, salad, and red wine were the responsibilities of the hosts. They are also lauded for going above and beyond by making us copious Manhattans, and making sure that a last-minute vegetarian was taken care of. All in all, it was a great success, and the hosts were even able to join us at the bar while their lasagna mellowed in the oven.

Still, that event took months of email back and forth, made possible only because one of our group was as tenacious as a dog with a bone about making sure the event happened, as email traffic flagged --even setting up a "Doodle" poll to fix the final date.

As the Times stresses, a host of a traditional dinner party has far greater responsibilities than merely setting up the food and drink. Not only must the guest list be carefully chosen, but the arranging of the guests takes some art. Do you seat the patient listener next to the blowhard? How close do you arrange the singles, without your matchmaking being too obvious? And how do you handle the biggest conversational conundrum of all - should the host encourage table-wide dialogue, or freely allow side conversations even if some are left out?

The Times opines that social media has harmed the deeper exchange of ideas. Judith Martin, a.k.a. the syndicated "Miss Manners," laments that "Conversation is in trouble." "People have been brought up to express themselves rather than to exchange ideas." Also worrisome is the lingering fear of trouble from serving alcohol, whether it results in drunk driving or merely embarrassingly drunken behavior.

The Times suggests keeping it simple, with nuts or crudités and wine, and an easy one-pot dish such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Don't have unrealistic expectations, or you'll never get it done. Keep the emphasis on simple and informal, and when you get that last-second text message that someone has an emergency, it won't be a big deal.

My further advice, when you want more of a showcase on the food, is to just invite one other couple so it's much easier to inquire and accommodate food fussiness.

We'll close with the Times' "Basic Meatloaf" recipe, to encourage a simple dinner party:

Ingredients

1/2 cup finely chopped raw or sautéed vegetables (onions, leeks, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, etc.)

1 cup bread crumbs or other grain filler (par-cooked rice, rolled oats, mashed potatoes or soft bread)

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef

1 large egg

Dried and/or fresh herbs to taste

Spices or other seasoning to taste

Salt to taste

Preparation

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.Mix the vegetables with the breadcrumbs or other filler. Mix these ingredients thoroughly with the meat. Mix in the egg.

3.Add the seasonings, taking care not to under season the mixture. If you do not want to taste the mixture raw to check the seasonings, cook a spoonful of it in a nonstick pan for a few minutes until it loses its redness, allow it to cool slightly, then taste.

4.Shape mixture into a loaf and place in shallow baking dish or pack in a four-cup loaf pan. Bake 90 minutes. Serve hot or cooled.

YIELD 4 to 6 servings

Now if your guests are vegetarian or gluten-free, there's always the local bar.

* the term hoi polloi means "the common people" or "the masses" but is often misconstrued to refer to the upper class. (Not that the intellectual readers of my column would misconstrue anything.)

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Mon, Feb 18, 2013

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