An ancient saying tells us to “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This can be read as an overly harsh indictment of the food and beverages served at certain restaurants.
Just to be on the safe side, I prefer to be merry while dining out at other people’s homes as a participant in the venerable social convention of the dinner party. My fear today is that the dinner party itself may die, not tomorrow but soon, the result of being starved of one vital ingredient.
In the public mind, the demise of the dinner party will rank low in the hierarchy of problems now besetting the nation. Arguably, it’s an elitist concern shared only by a better-fed minority. After all, guys coming home from the mill may seldom hear their wives say: “Hey, sweetheart, don’t forget to polish the candelabra. We got people coming over tonight and I am cooking up boeuf bourguignon with kale salad garnished with walnuts.”
So why do I, man of the people, present this as food for thought? Because if the dinner party goes into oblivion, we will dig our spoons deeper into a simmering national stew seasoned with bitter herbs.
Before I ladle out the whys and wherefores of the dinner party peril, it is necessary to say a good word about the joy of cooking when the food is served by friends who have boldly invited you over despite their better judgment.
First, the food is free and you don’t have to leave a tip. Second, if the cook has not imbibed too much wine in the preparation, the food is likely to be good or at least not actually fatal. Third, you are likely to meet new people and make new friends. As a bonus, you may get through the evening without insulting your old friends.
The time-honored rituals of the dinner party are always to be savored. My favorite is the seating of the guests according to the boy-girl plan. What fun it is to see the best minds in the room struggling to figure out how to seat women and men next to each other. One day someone will invent an app and spoil everything.
Another feature to enjoy is the overly enthusiastic praise heaped upon the hostess. “Marjorie, this salad is cooked to perfection.” Food, wine, good conversation - what is not to like about dinner parties?
Ah yes, the conversation, always the mainstay of any good dinner party. These days conversation, that vital ingredient, is in danger of petering out between the first and second courses.
That’s because there’s an elephant in the room, if you get my drift, and you just don’t know where people stand and if they will be offended. Political correctness has bred social correctness. We are all left divided, isolated, talking only to our own kind and not at all merry.
Previous dining generations had it easy, believing that no one should discuss politics and religion. Goodness knows what people spoke about over the consomme. Invention of the automobile? The scandal of the new-fangled dances? People are likely to have died of boredom face down in their soup.
Politics and religion are the very things we should be talking about. What else is there to talk about, really? Well, sports is the traditional standby and you can always break the ice by saying: “Hey, how about that defense?” How much better for everyone if we could also say: “Hey, how about that Almighty?” or “How about that White House?” without fear of giving offense.
For this to succeed we need the survival of dinner parties, the civilized, neutral forum best suited to practice the lost art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. And if your candelabra are currently in the attic, just hold a barbecue, which is really a dinner party only with paper plates.
Bringing people together over a hot meal doesn’t have to be posh to succeed. The breaking of bread, the magic of hospitality, these are woven into our cultural and faith traditions in the service of fellowship - Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, even the Last Supper, which Episcopalians like me believe was catered.
We should all be inviting guests to dinner who are not like us in the hope of finding that they are like us. The country is horribly divided but maybe we can come together one kale salad with walnuts at a time. Lift a glass of red wine to the light and the world beyond can appear more wonderful.
Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist.