The dinner party: the phrase still has a whiff of Fanny Cradock about it, all vol-au-vents and napkin mitres and “Pass the cruet, please.” They’ve gone through many incarnations since then: the 1980s, with the obligatory Delia squidgy chocolate log; New Labour powwows, awash with Chardonnay and River Café rusticity; the dangerously ambitious Heston Blumenthal years (waiting until midnight for your egg-and-bacon ice cream while Dido played in the background) and, now, the artfully simple “kitchen suppers” apparently favoured by the residents of No 10.
Call them what you want but the premise is the same – as Plutarch put it, “We invite each other not to eat and drink but to eat and drink together.”
We all have to eat and if budgets permit, then it’s much nicer to share, especially as one of the fundamental rules of hospitality is its reciprocity. To accept an invitation is also to accept the obligation to return it – and why not? As the wonderfully named 1879 manual Manners and Tone of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided states, “There is no better or surer passport to good society than having a reputation for giving ‘good dinners’ .”
To be “on the circuit” was once the ultimate sign of respectability, as Lady Bracknell observed in The Importance of Being Earnest: “Markby, Markby and Markby? A firm of the very highest position in their profession. Indeed I am told that one of the Mr Markbys is occasionally to be seen at dinner parties.” And him a mere solicitor. Fancy that!
Come Dine With Me may have put paid to this aura of sophistication but feeding people is still the supreme symbol of hospitality. In many cultures, it’s a serious slight not to offer even the most casual visitor something to eat – when the engineer came to fix my wi-fi in the course of writing this article, I found myself plying him with tea and biscuits, even though he’d turned up with the wrong part.
Something rather more substantial is necessary to avoid a volley of excuses about babysitters and early starts but the difference between a “good dinner” and a mediocre one is the company.
This is the host’s real art; cooking a three-course meal is nothing compared to putting together a perfect guest list. The French lawyer and writer Lucien Tendret believed that this was the “the supreme science” of the host: to make the wit of the witty sparkle yet brighter and help those who lacked wit to shine.
The guests, in turn, have their own duties: to be amusing and polite to fellow diners, to eat the food put in front of them and not to overstep the bounds of hospitality by helping themselves to anything else or usurping the authority of the host in any way.
They are the cast assembled by the host and he or she is the director – choosing the characters and setting the scene. Who hasn’t done a quick tour of the house to assess the impression they’re creating, replacing the nose-hair clippers in the bathroom with a scented candle, reshuffling the magazines on the coffee table to show off that month-old copy of the New York Review of Books?
Dirty napkins crumpled and forgotten on the floor, the last guest safely in a taxi and the sink full of dishes, it’s time to drink the dregs dry and reflect on the success of the evening’s performance.
What on earth were those two talking about at the end of the table? Did anyone notice the fish was overdone? And did you really argue for half an hour about what Nigel Farage might wear in bed?
Fortunately, the critics will all be too drunk or too full to care. And remember: next time, it’s their turn.
Felicity Cloake’s “Perfect Host: 162 Easy Recipes for Feeding People and Having Fun” is out now (Fig Tree, £20)