Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tracey Talks: Bringing Back The Dinner Party

by Tracey Jackson

I used to give a lot of dinner parties. A lot.
I used to go to a lot of dinner parties. Though not so much anymore.

This week I took 40-plus years of journals out of storage and put them in my office. While going through them I found a book called Menus & Guests. A red Smythson leather book, filled with the details from every party I gave from 1977 through 1987.

Brunches, lunches, bridal showers, baby showers and endless dinner parties.
The September 18th, 1979 menu from my red Smythson leather book.
Now perhaps maybe I went to more dinner parties because I gave more. There is a chance people don't find us appealing to have around anymore. But I think people just don't toss dinner parties like they used to.

Social life seems to be focused more around benefits or big occasions. But the six to eight friends around the table sharing an evening at home is not as common as it once was.

When I was growing up my mother always gave dinner parties and she taught me how to give them. So once I was on my own, I was up and throwing parties.

Pre-Facebook and email it was how you actually got to know people. You would meet someone and then get their info and invite them to dinner.
The December 11, 1979 menu from my journal. I had a French boyfriend at the time, which explains the French, but still.
I miss this form of social interaction. So I made a commitment to having small groups in for dinner on Saturday nights.

We haven't been doing it that long, so if you haven't been invited I haven't gotten to your name yet.

The main secret to giving a good dinner party is – don't overthink it. For awhile if I was going to have people over I felt I had to have it catered and make a big deal of it. I'm back to doing it myself. I have my housekeeper come in to help me with the dishes and the prep so I don't spend the whole evening shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the guests. I want to have a good time, too.
I'm also in this '70s frame of mind. Me and everyone else. But I'm into '70's furniture, '70's clothes and '70's food. I went back to my old cookbooks and started making things I used to make back in the '70s. The good old days when everybody ate meat, butter and gluten.

So, think about it. Are there some old friends you haven't seen in a while? Are there some new ones you want to get to know better? Invite them over, mix 'em up and maybe even slip them some gluten. They will have fun and so will you.
A couple more early '80s menus ...

Don't overdo the hors d'oeuvres. Cheese and crackers are very filling. Don't serve them before dinner. I do a big bowl of almonds and one tried-and-true passed hors d'oeuvre.

Serve champagne or any sparkling wine. There are some wonderful Cavas from Spain and Argentina. Proseccos from Italy. It doesn't have to be the pricey stuff, but it makes it more festive to offer someone a glass of bubbly.

Lilacs are a great choice. They are also my mother's favorite.
Nothing like a peony — or a bunch.
Not a bad idea to keep some flowers on your night stand, too. You never know when a guest might wander into your bedroom.
Flowers – again, you don't need to do big bouquets from the florist. If you have a garden, pick them. If you are in a city, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, the farmers market. A house just looks prettier with some fresh flowers scattered about, especially one where a party is taking place.

Make the dinner good, but don't make it too complicated. Don't overreach and end up with a disaster. People would rather have something simple and tasty, than having to suffer through your first attempt at making sushi. I have been doing beef stew, meat loaf, coq au vins. Two of which I can do the night before.

Do ask if people if they have food restrictions. You don't want to end up in the ER because your friend is deathly allergic to shellfish. And many people have dietary guidelines they follow.

Make the dessert fun. I do a lot of fruit tarts. Last week I made an orange cake and filled it with berries. I do find people will eat dessert if you serve it, but they may not order it for themselves. But it's nice to do fruit with the sweet so they have the option.

Have water on the table. Nothing worse than a guest asking, "May I please have a glass of water." It turns them into a character out of Oliver Twist. I put full pitchers on each end of the table and make sure they are always full.

Always have non-alcoholic drinks on hand. I've been working in recovery two years now and many people don't drink and you need to accommodate them.

Have music in the way background. Nothing worse than yelling over music. Yes, share you're new playlist, but softly. Unless you are really young then all bets are off and do what you want.

If you do want to serve cheese, which I always do, do it the French way and serve it after dinner with the salad or as a course on its own. People love it and allows a bit more time to linger at the table.

ENJOY YOURSELF! You're not out to impress, you're out to connect. People don't even mind chipping in and taking dishes to the kitchen.

Let's just bring back the dinner party – they're fun.

Bill Blass' Meatloaf – True Hit.
Bill Blass' Meatloaf via the NY Times.
The following recipe is the one I remember my mother always making for her guests when I was a little girl. At 87 she still gives dinners. But this one I always got a big kick out of. I thought it was so glam. I'm gong to make it at my next dinner. She served it with asparagus and wild rice. It's totally '70s.


Thoughts for Buffet, 1958.
4 fryers quartered (today I'd use breasts and legs)
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1/4 tsp pepper
1 cup water
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 medium onions sliced
1 12 ounce bottle chili sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 16-ounce can Bing cherries, drained
1 cup Sherry

Place chicken in shallow roast pan skin side up. Season and dribble with butter. Broil under medium flame until brown. Combine remaining ingredients except Sherry and cherries.

Mix thoroughly. Pour over chicken. Wrap pan in aluminum foil. Bake an hour in a 325 degree oven. Add Sherry and cherries and remove foil for the last 15 minutes of roasting time. To serve, pour sauce over all.

Serves 8

You will notice the two things both dishes have in common is Heinz Chili Sauce.

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