In Behalf of the Dinner Party

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We had a dinner party Saturday night.  Both of us were shocked when we realized how long it had been since we’d had a real sit-down china-and-crystal affair, what with working on the house and family weddings and all…I was as obsessively excited about it as Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway…I planned the menu with excruciating care and spent all day in the kitchen.  Philip kept commenting on the smile I wore, but I was so very happy, thriving in the joy God gives me in entertaining, that I couldn’t help it.  Even when I was tired and the kitchen was all clean and the food was all in a sufficient state of readiness, I was almost giddy with the thought of my friends arriving, the ring of the doorbell, the soft glow of candlelight in the hall as they came in and the aromas from the kitchen wafting out to meet them.

All day as I worked I anticipated their pleasure, and I enjoyed my own in the making of it.  I considered how frivolous many would think it for a hostess to spend three hours making chocolat mousse a l’orange and gougeres, to linger over snippets of flowers for the centerpiece and scrub the brass lanterns that hang in the den till they shone.  There are many that would say—have even said to me, in essence—, ‘Don’t think so much about your house or your food—the only thing that’s important is that you have people into your home because Christians are supposed to show hospitality, no matter what state things are in.  Entertaining is about ministry—think about the souls of your guests.’

While I’ll not deny that there is a time and place for hospitality of the utmost simplicity, for opening your home regardless of whether you feel ‘ready’ or not, I am inclined to issue a plea on behalf of the fine art of entertaining that is swiftly receding before a tide of hamburgers on paper plates and cold pizza out of the box.

I am thinking about the souls of my guests, and my own soul too.  It gives me joy to entertain formally from time to time.  And I like to imagine that the people at my table are refreshed as well by the attention to detail that comes with a more old-fashioned manner of dining in so casual and common an age as that in which we live.  All I know is that it satisfies a deeply-felt need within me to stand back and survey a well-appointed table and to think of the vibrant conversation that must soon flow among the delicate sounds of silver upon china and the musical tinkle of a crystal stem.  Believing that God Himself is the author of beauty, and that our own individual means of creating it is both a gift from Him and a glory to Him, I cannot think that devoting a whole day to preparing and serving a meal is a waste of time.

My French friend, Delphine, taught me so much about entertaining.  I’ll never forget the dinner party she and my sister and I had at my parents’ house before any of us were married, later lovingly dubbed ‘Delphine’s Feast’ after the sacrificially beautiful repast in one of Isaak Dinesen’s stories.  Weeks before the party we sat down with her recipes and discussed the menu over cups of tea, an event in and of itself.  Then there was a rather vivacious trip to the farmer’s market the day before in which my sister was very nearly run over with a shopping cart by an unnamed member of our party, and Delphine scrutinized every carrot and potato with a critical eye.

The day of the party we all donned white aprons early in the afternoon and set to work.  Grams and ounces were carefully converted to cups and tablespoons with the little metric scale Delphine had brought.  She introduced me to the sweet pungency of Gruyere as we grated it for the choux.  Liz chopped vegetables with abandon, and Delphine supervised as pieces of veal were carefully dropped into the simmering white sauce of the blanquette de veau.  Serious deliberation was given to the table setting; plates were laid and removed and laid again for the supreme comfort of the guests.  And in the living room, a romantic table for two was set for my parents.

The boys, upon arriving, were politely banned from the kitchen while Delphine watched for the choux to puff, but when dinner was served no one could deny that it was worth the wait.  A bottle of wine that Delphine’s mother had sent from Paris for the occasion was solemnly passed, and steaming savory bowls followed.  During the cheese course I remember stirring anxiously at my end of the table, eager to start the coffee and bring out the dessert, fearing that we had sat too long with no new diversion for our guests.  Catching Delphine’s eye I made a movement to rise, but with the slightest, hardly perceptible shake of the head she deterred me.  I settled back in my chair with surprise and watched her, composed, relaxed, making everyone at the table feel that they had every bit of her attention.  She had given her friends the gift of a meal and she was enjoying it.  She had no intention of rushing away the tranquil mood and meaningful conversation that her labors had produced.  And I realized with an inward grin that everyone at the table was enjoying it as much as she was.  Her peaceful demeanor had affected them all.  I relaxed and savored it as a perfectly happy moment, cherishing away the lesson of a hostess’ influence upon her guests.

I thought of her Saturday night, leaning my elbows on the table after dinner and smiling at the lively faces around me.  Talk flowed vibrantly from books to music and back to books again, and I delayed the dessert as long as I dared, unwilling to break the bright ring of exchange, wishing to linger over the pleasant ceremony of advancing to the next course.  After dessert we lingered still, and nearing midnight, when people actually began to take their leave, it was all I could do not to jump up and exclaim, “Oh, don’t go—not yet!”

4 Responses to “In Behalf of the Dinner Party”

  1. Sallie says:

    Your evening sounds lovely! We, too, love to use our china and crystal and go the extra mile in preparing a lovely evening for our guests. One of the challenges I face is finding other people who enjoy a “special” evening as well! While there is certainly a time and place for casual entertaining, I long to do more beautiful evenings. It seems that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with it though. I’ve also read that if you do things “too nicely” people will not reciprocate if they feel they can’t “live up to” what you did. So it is a challenge to find the right balance.

    I am thankful my parents raised me using china and silver on a regular basis. They wanted me to be comfortable in any kind of setting I would find myself. My life has taken me to a lot of formal occasions and I’m thankful for this training they gave me. Sadly, I don’t see that happening in many homes any longer. The lingering over a meal and enjoying a meal as an event in and of itself with nothing more than wonderful food and lively/stimulating conversation has been a dying part of our culture. Hopefully more of us will seek ways to ressurect it!

    Blessings,
    Sallie

  2. Wendy says:

    Oh Lanier – what a lovely time I’ve just spent imagining your beautiful dinner
    party last weekend….

    I, too, enjoy taking the time to plan and prepare for an evening with friends and
    family. Unfortunately, it seems that this season of my life has made it difficult to
    spend the time doing it exactly as I would like. It has been a real struggle between being able to do it like I would want to and not doing it at all.

    My children love the excitement of a party and will quickly tell me that the
    little things don’t matter. Their most wonderful memories include adults and
    friends of all ages, milling about the house and yard as the fireflies come out.
    With this in mind, I have tried to find a balance by inviting friends to come but doing only the most important things – hoping the dimming daylight and candle glow will hide the flaws and add a little cheer to the hearts of my friends and family.

    I look forward to the slower days of fall and winter when the wedding season
    wanes. Maybe then I will have the time to snip a few, late blooming dahlias
    for a well-appointed table, beckon guests to come sit by the fire and offer them another cup of coffee before they head home into a chilly night.

    Thank you for the reminder of the lovely things we miss when life gets too hurried.

    Much love to you.
    Wendy

  3. Laura says:

    As a happy recipient of that beautiful evening’s hospitality, I simply had to second the notion that laboring over each detail of a dinner party is time well-spent, res ulting in a treat for giver and guest alike. Lanier, we left that night and talked on the way home (before I fell asleep) about how quickly the hours flew, how we cherished all the enthusiastic talk about books and music and books again… all this against the backdrop of wonderful food and atmosphere. What a treat. I wonder if you ever feel this way: I like my little home so very much when it’s scrubbed (somewhat) and ready, candles lit and something simmering on the stove, just moments before company calls. I remember thinking that about my mother’s house just before one of her dinner parties, even when I was so little I knew my fate was to be whisked off to bed. There’s such a sweet expectancy in the air. I’m enjoying your website — I’m brand new to the Internet. I was so reluctant, but your writings make for a lovely introduction.

  4. Claudia says:

    I well remember the night of Delphi’s feast. I was so worried that I did not have the right pans or kitchen equipment for a true French meal! I was very surprised with the simplicityof Delphi’s “needs” — the willing hands and happy chatter that was such a special part of the preparations. I love the afteglow of a party or special dinner–the smell of candles , the fragrance of the flowers, the lingering aroma of coffee…memories of conversations and faces that we love.