Friday, September 9, 2011

The Art of the Dinner Party

The lovely Anne Zimmerman, author of the new book about M.F.K. Fisher, "An Extravagant Hunger," writes a lovely blog about food called "Poetic Appetite."  She recently wrote about giving a dinner party and it made me think about the generous and creative act of cooking for others, as well as giving a party.

Let me preface this with the fact that last night I finally had my book club discussion of "Everybody Was So Young," the luminous biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy.  Yes, I know I may be slightly obsessed with this book (how many times have I written about it here and here...oh well, thank you my patient readers) but last night when I heard ten other women as obsessed with it as I am, I felt boosted by their support and thought you might forgive me if I bring up the Murphys once again.  Our prevailing observation about the Murphys was that their generosity and support of their friends, who just happened to be some of the most famous, though struggling, artists of the time -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cold Porter, and Picasso -- was often expressed through their legendary dinner parties.  Of course they also gave them significant financial and emotional support.  But their generosity often played out in the social setting of their home which they extended to all of their friends.  They were the king and queen of hospitality, opening their home and table to their social circle.  For the Murphy's their friends and the artistic endeavors of their friends were all important.  Helping, connecting, and bringing people together was the art that these two practiced.  And this was done with no expectation of payback.  Their love of life and people and the arts was their raison d'etre.

Which brings me back to the art of the dinner party.  When a dinner party is successful isn't it about bringing together people and uniting them, at least for one night, into a cohesive whole?  Providing then with food, comfort, conversation, and conviviality?  Anne Zimmerman writes,

"When a dinner party is good, it's good.  And by good I mean clean plates, multiple wine glasses, empty bottles of wine, laughter, music, droopy eyes, missed bedtimes, and forgotten worries.
I'm talking about the kind of evenings where you want to linger, where no one wants to say goodbye..."

I always think that the best literary expression of this notion of giving a party and bringing people together as a creative act is found in "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf.  The book is about one day in the life of Clarissa Dallowy who is giving a party that evening.  As Clarissa leaves her house that morning to buy flowers for her party she thinks,

"Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street.  For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh: but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on the same...they love life.  In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses...brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."

That passage has always given me the chills.  As well as the last line of the book. When Clarissa finally has the party, and succeeds in bringing together all the disparate players into a united whole, one of the guests -- Peter Walsh --  thinks as he gazes at the hostess,

"What is this terror? what is this ecstacy? what is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?  It is Clarissa, he said.  For there she was."

When a dinner party is successful, the guests are the recipients of the hostesses' kindness, but the hostess is also rewarded by an act of creation.  Her creation is an artistic endeavor, a metaphor for bringing people together.  The table is set, flowers are arranged, candles are glowing, food is prepared, conversation is guided, and guests are cared for. Isn't this all about a love of life and an interest in others?  If we can bring our friends, old and new, together for an evening and let them sparkle in the comfort and warmth of our home and around our dining room table, isn't this a gift? I think Clarissa Dalloway would say yes, and so would Anne Zimmerman.


  1. An artist you are, creating experiences for all the senses.

  2. Oh I enjoyed your account of discussing Everybody Was So Young with your book group. I often leave my book group buzzing after a really good discussion. I'd like to re-read this book but I remember I found the tragic loss of both of the Murphy sons quite harrowing.

  3. A beautiful post well said. I am sure you are blessed with the talent to host wonderful parties. I would love to sit around your table someday. :) I can see from your daughters posts that you are all warm, talented and creative women. What is that saying about the apple not falling to far from the tree?

    I have been reading 'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf off and on for months. It is my train ride and cafe book. I read, underline and ponder and then I do it all over again. I just love it. Mrs. Dalloway is another great book. I thought the perfect gift would be a collection of her books...I should throw that hint my families way. :)

    Saying that, there is something special about picking them up in used books stores and wondering whose hands they passed thru before mine.

    Ok...I am getting off topic here. If I were to write about entertaining, it would be 'Fear of Entertaining'. Mr. H. says my Virgo perfectionism gets the worst of me and I drive my family crazy for the week preceding and day of the party.

    This is why I love reading about your soirees....keep hosting parties and writing about them, I feel like I am right there!

    Best wishes for a lovely weekend Sunday...

    Jeanne xxx

  4. Bringing people together is a lovely act. With food as the reason, it couldn't be lovelier! xo

  5. Dinner parties are a beautiful way to bring our friends together for an evening with food, wine and laughter. When our guest linger we know our evening has been a success. Congratulations to your daughter. I see the creativity remains in the family.

    The French Hutch

  6. Beautiful post. And you've inspired me to want to crack open yet another book. I read Mrs. Dalloway years ago but now I think I would connect to it in a whole different way. First though, it's A Moveable Feast. I don't want to leave Paris and the 1920s yet!

  7. Your post(s), have me wanting to have more, and different types of dinner parties. I used to have them often, and also used to cook for days ahead. Not as interested in the endless cooking part anymore. One of the many reasons I loved Heather's first webisode, is that it reminded me that you can set a beautiful table, bring in and "arrange" lots of lovely food, make something special for part of the dinner or dessert, and enjoy bringing people together. When we lived in NYC, our dinner parties always mixed up people from different groups, varying ages, different professions mixed in - it was fun and made for lively conversation. I do find that being back in LA, I've fallen into the rut of the same group of friends, and haven't reached out to inject new blood into the dinners. Going to begin!
    Really great post - so much to think about.

  8. Sunday....
    I just put on a plane three friends I have known since nursery school. We live all over the country, but had the most wonderful 5 days here in LA. So much of the time we were around the patio or kitchen table. The memories and feelings were so intense. Thanks for putting into words what these meals together really mean. Judie Carroll

  9. I just love entertaining at home. And I am embarrassed to say that I haven't done it once (extended family notwithstanding) since we moved into this house almost five years ago!! That MUST be remedied!!And I think "Everybody Was So Young" is the Downton Abbey of the literary world!!