September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
For generations it was the mainspring, the proof, and the reward of a civilized social life. Now, a fond student of the ritual looks back on the golden age of the dinner party and tells you just how you should have behaved.
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.
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.
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.
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 was hardly a phenomenon confined to twentieth-century Buffalo. Homer’s heroes always seem to be giving good dinner parties, and the Olympian gods put on even better ones. The Romans were no slouches at it, and even the Last Supper could be called a dinner party, if a not totally successful one. In nineteenth-century Europe, with the rise of an affluent bourgeoisie and the domestication of women, the custom bloomed extravagantly. The recently rich enjoyed it as a way of displaying their possessions, servants, and recipes. In America, if the Puritans always had difficulty with it, the Southern gentry had none. In any case the dinner party somehow found its way up the Erie Canal to Buffalo, where it was embraced with some fervor by my grandparents, by my parents, and ultimately, like it or not, by me. Or at least, if I didn’t embrace it, I absorbed it so thoroughly that even now my father’s various admonitions on the subject pervade my thinking at any social gathering we give or go to. Indeed, I find myself almost compelled to pass on his advice, for whatever it’s worth, to whoever will listen. Some nuggets follow herewith:
When your guests arrive, don’t try to greet them at the door. Let the maid do that. Then, after you’ve given the man time to adjust his tie and the woman to comb her hair, try to come in upon them with great enthusiasm, as if you had just been doing something terribly important, but their arrival is much more so.
When serving cocktails, remind yourself to use plenty of ice, even if people say they don’t want it. Ice does two essential things: It keeps the party under control and saves on liquor.
Conversation is at the heart of a good party. If a conversation is going well, it will draw others to it, like moths to a flame. People will lean over or sidle up. When they do, be sure to include them immediately. Say, “We were discussing this,” or “We were talking of that.” Ask their opinion on the subject, even if you’re not interested in it. In this way, if everyone is concentrating, the entire room can catch fire.
If you’re having difficulty conversing with a woman, try complimenting her. Even if she’s homely, search for something attractive to mention: her hair, her feet, her shoulders. You’d be surprised how many women have lovely shoulders. Don’t compliment her clothes. Other women will do that. Your job is to focus on something more essential. Try the shoulders.
Men are harder to start, like old cars on cold days. You can normally jump-start them with a question on sports, but sports conversations normally lack development and tend to confuse the women. Movies are good to talk about with men. Most men like movies. And, of course, travel. Ask a man if he’s traveled recently, and he’ll tell you. Make sure, though, you have an out, since he’ll go on too long.
When you go in to dinner, always guide your companion by touching the back of her elbow. She usually knows where she’s going better than you, but guide her anyway. Before you sit, push in her chair. If there’s a thick rug, this can be tricky, but get her to help, by sort of humping her chair up and down. Don’t scamper around the table, pushing in too many chairs, though. You’ll look like a fool.
Never make remarks about the food. If it’s bad, and you say it is, you’re being rude. If it’s bad, and you say it’s good, you’re encouraging bad cooking. If it’s good, and you say that, you’re being redundant. Just assume it’s good, and eat it with quiet relish. Try to finish at the same time as the people sitting around you. Otherwise you’ll be watching them eat, or they’ll be watching you. Either way it’s unpleasant. Eating is not basically an attractive habit. Who wants to watch people putting things in their mouths? That’s why we have table manners, to disguise the process.
Apparently, in the Navy, officers are advised not to talk about three things in their wardroom: politics, sex, and religion. Supposedly these topics lead to trouble when the ship’s at sea. Now obviously we don’t want brawls at a dinner party, but these inhibitions seem unduly stringent. Politics is an awkward topic because it invites argument, and people tend to make their points simply by assertion. Particularly if they’ve been drinking. It’s very difficult to rebut them since the statistics aren’t readily available, and it’s disconcerting if you leave the table to get them. So perhaps the Navy is right about politics. Sex, on the other hand, is fun to talk about, as long as you maintain some discretion. It’s a subject everyone knows something about. If people don’t, they should. It’s also a subject in which no one has any special expertise. If people do, they shouldn’t. Religion, finally, hardly ever comes up. Most people who go to dinner parties aren’t terribly religious. If they are, they probably shouldn’t be there.
Don’t talk to the servants, except to say thank you when they pass the asparagus. It’s very difficult for them to hold those great silver platters on one arm while tipping them so you can get at the butter. It’s good to acknowledge that quietly. Otherwise it’s better to pretend that the servants aren’t there. We live in a democracy, and the idea of being waited on by somebody else goes against the very grain of our heritage. It’s embarrassing on both sides. After the dinner is over, however, it’s always good to slip into the kitchen and compliment everyone in sight.
Now that I have put them down, some of these admonitions seem like rather poor advice for a dinner party these days. A man can get slugged for complimenting a woman’s shoulders, for example. And at least in New York you should probably speak to the servers whenever you can. Most of them are actors or artists and have more intelligent things to say than many of the guests. Still, these old rules from my father continue to roll around in my head. Try as I might, it is no more possible for me to strike out into totally new modes of social behavior than it is for an Atlantic salmon to spawn in the Nile. Meanwhile, no matter how I behave, I suspect dinner parties will continue to go on all over the world—some of them, darn it all, without me.