In this week's Thursday Style section, the New York Times presents a terrifying conundrum for the world in which we live: "The seated dinner, with its minuet of invitation and acceptance, its formalities and protocols, its culinary and dietary challenges, its inherent requirements of guest and host, alike is under threat, many say."
Could it be true? Is the dinner party, that elegant trademark of yore, in its final death throes? Are we no longer as a society civilized enough to dress for an evening meal and gather in small or larger groups and sit about a table of like-minded cultured types, sipping and nibbling politely, exchanging bon mots and incisive declarations on life, love, politics? Are we bound instead to a future of flailing about on couches, sloppily clad in sweats and yesterday's perspiration, Doritos crumbs tripping across our frayed concert T-shirts, the television blaring on in its inane way as we watch another Law and Order: SVU, lifting plastic takeout spoon to mouth and inserting gobs of whatever it is that's in the container in front of us, hypnotically, until it's gone? Without the dinner party, are we just a bunch of animals? Guy Trebay makes some powerful cases for the preservation of the old sittin'-round-a-table-with-your-clothes-on-and-other-people-over-for-dinner thing.*
Here are a few of the things a dinner party is, according to his piece:
"the epitome of civilized living."
"a far less geeky way of networking than a Meetup."
"the great social equalizer" ... "There is no leveler quite like a dinner table."
But, say some, “The world is so changed, hardly anyone does them anymore." (This from one of the "last left standing of New York’s acknowledged great hostesses," Louise Grunwald, who is somewhat ironically still having dinner parties, because everyone wants to go to them.) “You may want the dinner party to come back, harkening back to another era. But it will never happen,” she says. And, yes, we're all busy, we like restaurants, we live in small apartments, there is the Internet, and rarely do people go out for an evening with friends dressed in formal attire, unless it's for an occasion more important than a dinner party. Have we lost our skill as a culture to bring people together and make fun happen, old-school, with just humans and food and drink and conversation, in glamorous accommodations, with in-home waitstaff?
Others say no, the dinner party is fine. Or if not fine, exactly, just because the accessories are different doesn't mean we've stopped wearing clothes altogether. Things change all the time! Trebay quotes Judith Martin, i.e., Miss Manners: “The idea of cooking for others is not something that is going to die.” Even so, she adds, we're in a time in which we've stopped learning how to "exchange ideas" and instead just express our own opinions. People are worried about feeding other people things that they might not like, or to which they'd have allergies. No one responds to invitations, no one wants to commit, and cancellations come by text. No one knows what forks and knives or serving platters to use and the chances are if you do your homework and learn and then actually throw a fête, your bewildered guests will drink from your dog's bowl and throw leftovers into their handbags with their bare hands to take home (or so we presume; you just don't know!). Oof, it is disgusting this modern life. If you flirt at the dinner table, even innocently, writes Trebay, you might get sued.
Perhaps the age of the great hosts and hostesses—Patricia Buckley, Nan Kempner, Brooke Astor, Bill Blass—who had money and a keen sense of social arrangements is dead, perhaps the dinner party is dead, but more likely, I suspect, it's just become a different kind of dinner party. A dinner party, after all, need only be more than one person, some food, a table, some conversation, at a location. I dare say these sorts of endangered events are happening everywhere a person looks in urban environments and beyond, even if none of us are wearing sequins and top hats or differentiating our dessert and salad forks.
But can we discuss the fact that we all even want to look at each other and communicate while eating food? This seems an utterly animalistic ritual, if animals could talk. I suggest, instead, that apartments be equipped with a small dining closet in which humans can privately hide away to consume food-pills three times daily and avoid the common drudgeries of using the right place settings and the good china, eliminate the pressure of making scintillating-yet-not-too-scandalous conversations in which one must not only talk but also listen, and alleviate any worries about serving something that sends your guests into anaphylactic shock, about which they will then sue. Plus, no need to RSVP! Isn't that what progress is all about? Or we could just go out to restaurants, since it's not like we have dishwashers.
*Another key learning from this piece: Nancy Reagan prefers a "simple chicken potpie."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.