There’s something about the term “dinner party” that can evoke an uneasiness in people. Of course, there’s the sudden panic at having to cook for at least six and tidy up your house, but there’s also a suggestion of conversation as a performance. There’s always a worry that your friend’s new boyfriend is going to be boring or bigoted; and there’s the possibility that someone around the table will have an “off night”, upsetting the whole delicate balance by confusing jolly tipsy chat with aggressive confrontation.
But besides all that, almost as soon as I considered myself an adult (in my early twenties, when I got a badly paid job and moved in with my then-boyfriend), I became an avid dinner-party host. I suppose I was keen to try out my new adultness – and dinner parties allowed me to do that. I’d splurge £12 on a very small bit of cheese; I’d spend hours reading Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat and Tamasin Day-Lewis’s Kitchen Bible in preparation. And if that makes the dinner parties I hosted back then sound lofty, well, they weren’t. The food was OK – I was the best cook among my friends but the bar was pretty low. A lot of the time, these dinner parties were really just an excuse to get completely wasted – but in the comfort of my own home. After everyone had drunk lots and lots of the second-cheapest red wine from the local supermarket, we didn’t have to go and queue outside a nightclub or stand up in a too-hot bar. We could just lounge around, reclining on the sofa or lying on the floor, shouting out our theories about the film Juno or The Arctic Monkeys or internet pornography. We could spend hours like this, fuelled by the really expensive cheese and the really cheap wine.
Those dinner parties weren’t sophisticated, but they were so much fun. If this is being an adult, I thought, then bring it on. But after a few years of the dinner parties, things changed. I left my old flat and mislaid a casserole dish. People developed allergies and one went pescatarian. A dear friend moved 5,000 miles away. Glasses smashed on tiled floors, romantic relationships broke down, friendships became fractious.
There were lean days in my late twenties, when I lived alone and a bunch of break-ups had split our group, dividing loyalties, leaving everyone adrift
Adulthood isn’t a steady ascent but a mishmash of achievement and disappointment, of pain and hope, of feeling like you are utterly beloved and feeling like you have no one in the world to talk to. Yes, broadly-speaking, I’m a better cook now than I was ten years ago and I am more able to afford £12 cheese, but the quality of the dinner parties I host… well, that has wavered. There were lean days in my late twenties, when I lived alone and a bunch of break-ups had split our group, dividing loyalties, leaving everyone adrift. There are times, now, when I realise that thirtysomethings simply don’t – can’t – prioritise friendships like they used to, and babies and careers and six hours of uninterrupted sleep have become a higher priority than evenings spent drunk and gleefully cackling.
But even so, I still believe in dinner parties. I am newly married and there is something almost lonely about that in the first few weeks. We had a brilliant wedding, a really joyous day, but after that, there was the sense that all our loved ones and friends had disappeared – back to the countries they live in, back to the lives that are separate. So last week, when I read an advice column by Heather Havrilesky, it resonated. She was writing to a woman who was worried that all her friends “are getting married and leaving me behind”. Havrilesky pointed out that even married people are lonely, that life isn’t a board game you can win or lose. And there was one line in particular that stood out: “Stand up for your friendships, even as you recognize that everything changes all the time.”
I texted my husband: “We should have people over for dinner tomorrow.” And so we invited some friends, even though two of them are vegans, which makes things difficult. (In my ten years of dinner parties I have learnt: you don’t need starters; you do need lots of wine; casseroles that can be prepared in advance are more convenient and sociable than pastas or steaks; shop-bought ice-cream or chocolate can be the pudding; always aim to overdo it in terms of portion sizes.) And our friends came and we ate and drank and felt more loved and in love, and more connected and more energised and more hungover and happier.
People speak about the art of the dinner party or the rules of the dinner party, but for me the dinner party is simply about cooking for friends – new and old – and the people they love. I don’t really get on board with the notion of the fantasy dinner party because Steve Jobs might be taciturn or Marilyn Monroe might be a picky eater. Albert Einstein might bring up Brexit. For me, dinner parties are really about carving out a few hours to stand up for a friendship. To do something nice for a person I like, to feed them well and listen to them intently.