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28 January 2023

The irresistible romance and rituals of dinner parties

I could piece together a record of my life through the tables I’ve convened friends around.

By Hannah Rose Woods

I had friends to stay at the weekend. They are two of my favourite people in the world, and they are very good at being my house guests. They arrive, unfailingly, with either flowers, wine, or both; notice with approval anything that is new or different about my flat since their last visit; and they know that they are cherished participants in one of the great loves of my life: having people over for dinner.

I could piece together a kind of record of my life through the tables I’ve convened friends around. When I remember the places I’ve lived as an adult (three flats and seven house shares, with at least 41 different housemates, at a conservative estimate, plus assorted partners) it’s the tables I use to orient myself.

As a grad student in Cambridge I lived in sprawling student house shares on the border between collegiate city centre and suburbia. The first of these was a huge Victorian terrace house with a basement kitchen that ran the whole length of the building. It was the kind of perfectly functional but dilapidated institutional shithole – all peeling paint, fluorescent lighting and limescale – that liberates you into throwing big, carefree house parties. The predominant memory of my early twenties is of cramming people around the table for dinners that lasted until the birds started singing.

My favourite thing was looking back, while stirring a vat of risotto on the ancient fire-hazard hob or fetching another round of cocktails, at a roomful of people raucously getting along with each other, bathed in the soft glow of a strip light we’d draped a tea towel over for ambience, with Twitch, the ancient neighbourhood cat, snoring softly under the table.

[See also: Why has it taken me so long to form friendships with other women of colour?]

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When I moved into my current flat the first thing I bought for it was a big, distinguished, second-hand dining table – the kind with claw feet and extension leaves a century darker underneath. I bought it, in fact, before I moved in, before I’d measured, because it was the first thing I saw in the first shop I tried, and it seemed obvious I was meant for it. If I ever think about moving again, my first thought is: but will the table fit?

I’m a sucker for the romance of a good dinner. I want them, always, to be a little bit over the top, a little bit extravagant. It’s the small things that matter to me almost as much as, if not more than, the food itself: candles, heavy old cutlery, a jug of water on the table. I’ve collected my perfect cast of tableware over the years out of charity shop finds and gifts from people who know me best: mismatched plates, vintage glasses for obscure and specific uses, a set of scallop-edged dessert bowls that were a wedding present for my grandparents in 1957. It doesn’t matter if I’m drinking cheap cava out of the pastel-stemmed coupés or serving wine from the corner shop in a decanter – it’s the ritual of it all that I find irresistible.

It is perhaps the closest I get to an act of communion, making a meal to share with people I love. There’s a real enchantment in the idea of the table – its closed intimacy of diners forming a bulwark against time and the world outside, a place where there is room only for generosity, for abundance. But I also love the pure voluptuousness of it – not just the food and drink but the whole sensory feast, the flicker of candlelight, the clink of glass, the table chatter. I adore even the gorgeous mess of a table after a good dinner: the spent plates and wine stains; the guests contented, sitting for a moment amid the evidence of pleasure, ready, perhaps, for a little more, for a little longer.

Over the weekend every moment we were not cooking, eating or sitting in a pub by the fireside we were out walking. The cold seemed unmissable. I’ve surprised myself with how I’ve embraced winter this year, but even so I wasn’t quite prepared for how much delight I took in the fleetingly freezing weather. What is it about walking in frost that can have put me in such a spectacularly good mood?

For a few days my familiar morning landscapes were transformed. We crunched around for hours in frozen mist, clutching coffees, marvelling at hedgerows thick with rime and bullrushes cobwebbed with feathery frosting. When we drove back to the station on Sunday, the sun low and bright in gold-pink sky, I was almost dazed with excitement at the whole icy vista of the countryside.

It was, objectively, beautiful. But I think it’s a relief, too, that the weather is still capable of doing what it’s supposed to do.

[See also: I live with two children who are not my own and they are doing me the world of good]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con