The Dinner Party


The dinner party is the ultimate celebration of what it means to be civilized,” my father used to say. “There is nothing better in this world than to settle down around a lovely table and eat good food and say interesting things with one’s friends. ”



When I was growing up, or thought I was, in Buffalo before World War II, Saturday-night dinner parties were an essential element in my parents’ lives. They spent a lot of time talking about them, going to them, and giving them. Time and again my sister and brother and I would come home from sledding in Delaware Park to find an extra maid clucking in the kitchen, polishing the silver, teetering on a stepladder to get at the good china, while the cook distractedly set out soup and sandwiches for us on the kitchen table before she returned to basting the great, sizzling roast of beef in the oven or shelling the fresh green peas.

“Dinner parties require immense amounts of labor,” my father would say. “While the servants are toiling in the kitchen, your mother and I are working just as hard elsewhere, making sure that our guests are comfortable and happy. All of us happen to feel it’s worth the effort. ”

We children couldn’t go into the living room the night of a party, but we could see from the doorway that someone had already neatened up the copies of Life in the magazine rack, and tucked the sheet music back in the piano bench, and laid out the Chesterfields in the cut-glass cigarette boxes. There would be a screen in front of the dining-room door, but we could still catch a glimpse of the lace tablecloth and the curly candlesticks and the blue and silver salt dishes, with the little spoons, that spilled so easily and fresh flowers and the twelve crystal water goblets that came from Cooperstown. It all looked as sacred and mysterious as the altar at Trinity Church, where we’d go the next day if our parents weren’t too tired.

“Now I do expect you children to come downstairs and shake hands. Remember to look people in the eye and call them by name, and speak up clearly when they talk to you. Half of our friends don’t listen, and the other half don’t hear. You don’t have to bow or curtsy, though I think people would be very pleased if you did. Then get out promptly, so we can continue with our cocktails and our conversation.”

For most of the evening the strange, exotic sounds of the dinner party would waft upstairs, punctuating our radio programs and finally even penetrating our dreams: the ring of the doorbell, the greetings in the front hall, the rhythmic rattle of the cocktail shaker, the buzzer in the kitchen indicating they were “almost” ready to eat, the oohs and aahs and muffled slidings of chairs when they did, the clink of glasses when there were toasts, the whoops of laughter when there were jokes, the continual activity in the kitchen underneath it all. Afterward there might be singing around the piano or even dancing, if the Victrola had been fixed and my mother had remembered to buy a new needle. Then, finally, the good-byes in the hall, more at the door before its last closing thud, and the strained sound of cars starting outside the storm windows in the cold winter air.

This was the dinner party, and this was what my parents went out to on all those nights when they weren’t “entertaining” at home. Almost always they’d “dress”—a long evening gown for my mother, black tie for my father, though on some occasions he’d wear his tails.

“The jacket must always come below the waistcoat. Otherwise you’ll look like a waiter and might be mistaken for one. But for most dinners wear your dinner jacket. And remember to call it that, rather than a tuxedo or tux. And say trousers, rather than pants.”

I suppose that the dinner party was one way my parents had of cheering themselves up during the gray days of the Depression. They also were simply perpetuating a custom that they had inherited from their parents, now amplified and lubricated by lengthy cocktail hours. Certainly they didn’t have huge amounts of money—or if they did, they didn’t have huge amounts for me. It was simply what they liked to do when they wanted to be with their friends. Cooks and maids were fairly inexpensive then, until the war came along and they discovered they could make more money pounding rivets than passing the vegetables. After the war the custom cropped up again, though on a lesser scale. Even today, when I go home to visit, my mother does what she can to “get a maid.”

The dinner party somehow found its way up the Erie Canal to Buffalo, where it was embraced by my parents.

“How can I enjoy my family if I’m slaving away in the kitchen? How can I relax if there’s a stack of dirty dishes waiting in the sink? I believe in being civilized, thank you very much.”