A toast to the dinner party

By Simon Usborne

From social climbing to a celebration of food and friends - dinner parties are evolving.

Elaborately planned dinner parties may be a thing of the past. Photo / Thinkstock
Elaborately planned dinner parties may be a thing of the past. Photo / Thinkstock

Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher and keen host, believed the dinner party was a vital forum for the stimulation of the self and society. Social dining was a "veritable medicine for the mind", while eating alone encouraged "intellectual self-gnawing". Reason, indeed, to fight the recessionary desire to cocoon and hunker down at home rather than clink glasses over canapes, chat about house prices and schooling for little Oliver (whose appearance in pyjamas at the dining room door may or may not be encouraged).

Fortunately, formal dinner parties are a thing of the past. The likes of Hyacinth Bucket's "candlelight suppers" - where invitations were sent and received like social grenades in the 1990s sitcom Keeping Up Appearances - are wobbling in popularity, like an anaemic salmon terrine.

Stephen Bayley, the writer and cultural critic, believes the dinner party "has not gone away but its menu has been simplified". Bayley, 60, says the Bucket supper has "succumbed to the dominant contemporary taste for informality".

"In the 80s, when I was more interested in social competition, I used to give dinner for 10 twice a week," he explains. "Today we're more likely to have one other couple on Sunday evening rather than an elaborate social petting zoo with napkins folded into swans."

For the endangered contemporary host, however, competition remains crucial - and off-putting for many. Television cooking shows such as Master Chef have turned the dining table into an arena for culinary point-scoring. At the same time, glossy cookbooks and TV chefs have sent aspirations soaring.

Sir Roy Strong, the curator and author of Feast: A History of Grand Eating, says the modern dinner party can be traced to the emergence of the aspiring middle classes in the early 19th century, when they became an "index of social status". But back then, says Strong, 76, the guest list was more important than the menu. "Even when I was brought up it was very vulgar to remark on the food at all," he says. "Now it's all about showing off."

When food becomes social capital, it doesn't come cheap. If the dinner party is to survive, yet still impress, we'll need to be more imaginative.

Alice Hart, a food stylist and the writer of Friends at My Table: A Year of Eating, Drinking and Making Merry, says "food should be about sharing, not competing". She adds: "I don't want a gussied-up five-course bonanza, I want people to relax and enjoy themselves." She suggests simple dishes that can be prepared partly in advance.

This new informality is perhaps more evident outside the house, where a revolution in restaurants is drawing some of us from our cocoons.

Young people are increasingly blowing their shrinking salaries on good, simple food at scruffy, cool bars, bodegas or pop-ups. They queue to get in as if at a gig, and spread the word on social networks.

These gatherings have a key advantage: single people like them. Bayley's 1980s suppers were built around the nuclear family: they were for couples. Today, a third of households in Britain are occupied by one person.

For this burgeoning demographic, there is a middle way that combines the conviviality of the dinner party with the convenience of the restaurant.

Kerstin Rodgers is a photographer-turned-food blogger, single mother and prolific hostess. In 2009, she launched one of Britain's first supper clubs. Inspired by a trend born in the US, she charges about £40 ($81) a head for dinners at the Underground Restaurant (her North London home). Guests are often young professionals who are desperate to meet people.

"It's difficult to have dinner parties when you're not part of the smug marrieds set at the school gates," says Rodgers, 42, whose online persona is MsMarmiteLover. She hasn't yet found a recipe for romance ("I'm the one in the kitchen wearing a smeared apron - blokes just don't fancy that") but, like the hipster restaurant, supper clubs like hers are quietly emerging as alternatives to the dinner party.

What would Kant say? "He would probably think it's a sign of the regression of human society," says Dr Alix Cohen, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of York.

If Kant were to inspire a revival of the traditional dinner party, there is advice in his writings. He dictated, among other things, that conversation should run in three stages: narration (sharing news); ratiocination (debate); and jest. Music and dogmatism, meanwhile, were banned.

One thing he encouraged, however - and he may be pleased to see this trend has endured despite the threat to the dinner party - was "mild intoxication".

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