Saving the Dinner Party

by Shannon McCullough

Dinner PartyIsn’t it time we bring back the dinner party? There nothing more satisfying than serving delicious food in gracious surroundings where friends have gathered together to share a wonderful meal. Evenings when none of your guests want to say goodbye and want to linger late into the night. The sounds of laughter and joy are wonderful memories and dinners parties have provided all of us with many memorable moments.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I hosted my first a dinner party and it was only after a friend gifted me with a book. It was “Country Weekends” written by Lee Bailey. I read it front to back, as I would a good Grisham novel. After reading it, I somehow felt more sophisticated and discovered a passion for entertaining.

Lee Bailey wrote a series of home entertainment books which included dreamy photographs of food and table settings in timeless poetic settings. In the late seventies or early eighties (who can remember anything in that era) on a long weekend trip to New York I made my way to Lee Bailey’s legendary boutique of home goods at Henri Bendel. I distinctly remember two things about the boutique. First, nearly everything in the store was white and beige. Second, it was there that I met Chrissie Hynde from the band “Pretenders” and we had a lengthy conversation about dinnerware. I am not convinced if it had anything to do with my impression of Lee Bailey’s style, but to this day, I only serve on white plates and most always my homes have had beige walls.

I remember reading some time ago that Chrissie Hynde opened a restaurant in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. I was curious and Googled her restaurant and had to laugh … beige walls and white plates. What can I say, it works.

The late Nora Ephron, who was also well known for her parties, wrote on more than one occasion that the most successful dinner parties are held around large, round tables so everyone was close and could enjoy the conversations. I have to agree, but I have never purchased one. Now that I live in Guatemala with the wonderful artisans, I am sure to have one.

Creative inspiration for entertaining comes to us in many different ways. I have found it in people’s homes, food magazines, cookery shows, books or simply walking through an outdoor market. I have collected and read a good amount of cookbooks. What feels like a hundred years ago, I bought the entire series of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julie Child. Honestly, I don’t think I ever cooked one recipe out of those books. I think I must have been so exhausted after reading the long and very detailed recipes, that I was probably too tired to cook. Anyway, they looked great on my bookshelf. I did however enjoy the film “Julie and Julia.” It was written and directed by Nora Ephron and her love of food is transparent. Again… more inspiration.

Over the years I have also learned that a fabulous dinner party is not just about the food, but an exceptional mix of guests. I have been to dinner parties where I was certain the starter was laced with Ambien, we all have. If you get the wrong combination of people, no one will remember the night, let alone the marvelous food you spent two days preparing.

Here in Guatemala we can easily find inspiration to add atmosphere and warmth to our parties. We are surrounded by color and extraordinary artisans. The hand-made table runners, table cloths and napkins are perfect for any table setting. A quick stroll through the market in La Antigua and your arms are soon full of tropical flowers at such a low cost that you are positive the person who sold them to you has made a mistake.

As it is the rainy season (typically May-Nov), it is a perfect time to tuck in for lunches and dinner parties and a great excuse to invite old friends, new acquaintances and people you’ve owed a dinner since the last Semana Santa. Remember to keep it simple. Don’t attempt things that are beyond your capabilities as a cook.

There is nothing worse than calamity in the kitchen twenty minutes before your guests arrive and you are sweating like a passenger on a runaway camioneta. And always … make a list.

• Never serve anything with beets as a finger food
• There is nothing similar to Whole Foods Market in
Guatemala City
• Thirty minute meals are a bad idea
• Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
• An iPad is not the same as holding a cookbook.
• Manchego cheese on a Carr’s water-biscuit cracker goes
best with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
• You can never find a steak knife in a vegan’s kitchen
• Iceberg lettuce is only good with chunky blue cheese
dressing and crispy bacon
• Never cook in white jeans, better yet, don’t wear them
at all

Have fun at your dinner party and Bon Appetit!

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