I suppose we all have our favourite number for a party, rather depending on how many we can comfortably seat. I have never yet managed to own a dining-room big enough and square enough for a round table, but I will someday. Indonesians love round tables with a Lazy-Susan turntable in the middle – you see them in some upmarket Chinese restaurants – because, like the Chinese, we have many dishes on the table together and people need to be able to help themselves frequently. Tables like this generally seat ten or twelve, and you can talk to the person opposite you almost as easily as your neighbor, which is very civilised.
Much as I love food, I cannot imagine a dinner without conversation. In my first year at university, I started to read English Literature and felt immediately at home in the novels of Jane Austen, not because I had much experience of the life of a country landowner, but because in her characters’ conversation I recognised the tones of polite Javanese society: measured, conventional, but edged with and sharpened by the enjoyment of language.
I have heard or read somewhere that the best dinner parties are inspired by malice, and though I have never maliciously invited known enemies to sit down together, I do like to see a bit of competition and some differences of opinion. Ten or twelve people around a table that has no obvious “head” are ideal for this. I possess a square Victorian schoolroom table (it must have come from a schoolroom because it is stained with ink, and I daresay with childrens’ tears, which leave no mark), and this seats two on a side, so for the time being I find eight a very convivial number.
I always love reading what Sri Owen has to say and this passage from her hard-to-find book Exotic Feasts, Sri Owen’s Book of Seasonal Menus (London, Kyle Cathie Limited, 1991), is one of my favorites. I remember finding it during an unplanned stop at an unexpectedly fine bookshop on Third Street in Los Angeles on a hot day a long time ago following a pleasant, but somewhat unsettling, lunch with a man who told me the legendary story about a senior executive at my company throwing an office chair at him with such force that the chair became embedded in the meeting room wall.
The chair-victim had by that time moved on to another company and said he was fine, it was just an incident in his past, and he had let bygones be bygones. Still he reminded me of a famous economics professor at my undergraduate college who had been the second accused and imprisoned American spy (the other one was U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers) released by the Russians in Berlin in exchange for Rudolph Abel on Glienicke Bridge, the "Bridge of Spies." It was always said about this man, who was also quite pleasant, that he was unaffected by his rough captivity. Still, he often looked to be on the verge of flinching under harsh threats and interrogation lights.
I am of several minds about dinner parties. Sometimes I enjoy them and I really do like inviting people to our home and entertaining them at our own soirées (even though it can be nerve-wracking and expensive). Other times, dinner parties are profoundly uncomfortable, weirdball experiences and I don’t blame Caroline (much) for some past painful, “let’s go” kicks under the table.
My mother was a fine dinner party hostess and I am grateful that I own volumes containing her carefully typed menus, recipes, guest lists and timings.
Still, it’s an odd world these days. Manners have slipped something fierce. Nobody invites you back and thank you notes are rare. I remember saying something the other day about "feral."
I. Franz Ritter von Stuck, The Dinner Party, 1913.
II. Symposium (dinner party) scene from a painted frieze from a small mausoleum (colombarium) near Porta Maggione, ca. 25-1 BC. The scenes in the painting depict the Aeneas and Romulus legends, suggesting that the mausoleum was intended to celebrate Roman identity and connect that identity with the family interred within.
III. Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98.
IV. William Betts, The Dinner Party, 2011.
V. John Singer Sargent, A Dinner Party, 1884.
The Byrds: All The Things (Link)