Monday 6 November 2017

The new dinner party rules

All nice and neat

The simple request, “You must come to dinner,” once a cheerful indication of intimacy, has become fraught with social dangers. How straightforward it was when all you needed to do was put on your best suit or frock, spend the first half of the evening speaking to the person on your right, the second half to the person on your left, jump into a cab by midnight, scribble a thank you note the next day, and we all got out of there alive.
Our newly casual way of living means we hardly know when we’ve strayed over some mysterious line in the sisal matting. In the latest edition of The Lady magazine, etiquette and modern manners expert, Thomas Blaikie, describes the new dinner party rules, which include leaving by 10.30pm on a weeknight and 11.15pm at weekends, never bringing wine that costs less than a tenner, and, if you’re the host, never making plated starters.
Personally, I’ve thrown so many dinner parties, my dishwasher should be receiving some sort of award for its contribution to community relations. Here are my notes from the dinner party front, to ensure both happy hosts and guests.

Ten dinner party commandments
1. Don’t be on time This is the act of a monster. The only people worse than those who arrive bang on time are those who arrive early, when you’re still in your pinny and haven’t had time to soften your more frazzled edges with your first cocktail. For the very best in civilised behaviour, arrive between 10 to 15 minutes after the appointed time.

2. Bring wine if you must but now it’s highly acceptable, not to say fashionable, to bring craft beer or cider instead. You look terribly cutting edge and no one has to drink it.  

3. Don’t take flowers Because rattling out dinner for eight isn’t soothing enough, let’s add having to find a suitable vase to this evil game of party peril? Send flowers afterwards, or take a potted plant – no cacti though, chances are there are enough pricks at the table as it is.

4. No one cares what you like If you are vegan, vegetarian or have a deadly food allergy, of course you should let your host know beforehand. If you’re just not eating dairy this week, flirting with gluten-free or drearily carb-phobic, do keep it to yourself, there’s a love. There’s honestly nothing more boring than the pick-and-mix culinary peccadillos of others.

5. Do talk politics and religion. It’s so prissy to skirt around the really interesting stuff in favour of what? House prices and minor illnesses? Do also pay close attention when speaking about your children to anyone who is not a blood relative in case of terminal eyeglazeoveritis.

6. Don’t help Of course, do offer, but you can be too casual. Unless invited, don’t start clearing tables or washing up. It’s your job as a guest to sit there and be absolutely fascinating, damn it.

7. Accept that last drink If I’m pouring the hard stuff, or that weird digestif I dragged back from my hols, it’s because I want you to stay. If I suggest tea or coffee, I am mentally calling you a cab. Please don’t expect me to actually make the tea or coffee.

8. What time to leave? Mr Blaikie speaks perfect sense when he says weeknight dinners should be over by 10.30pm. We aren’t 20 anymore and being in (you own) bed by midnight is one of the cornerstones of civilised life. But if anyone left my house at 11.15pm on a Saturday night, I would hang up my hostess apron forever. Do stay. Have another drink. Laugh. Gossip. Drag out the old vinyl and let’s dance around the kitchen. Don’t leave me this way. Not just yet.

9. Do say thank you Of course, a letter is delicious and people will remember your impeccable guestitude forever; a postcard is good and an email is fine. The most dreadful thing you can do is to resist sending an email or making a phone call as you absolutely, positively are going to write that letter. Just as soon as you track down the perfect stationery, buy an ink pen, find a stamp and master calligraphy. And suddenly you’re bumping into your hosts at another event and it’s 10 months later and they’re wondering why they never heard from you again and is it because you hated their cousin Bert or the syllabub, or, in fact, them. Send the bloody email.

10. If you’re the host, don’t show off. You need to make it look - or at least feel - effortless if you want your guests to be relaxed and have a good time. No one cares that you spent the whole weekend watching YouTube videos of how to make swans from choux pastry. Bowls of bought ice cream taste sweeter than any amount of culinary braggadocio.

It’s not thunder, it’s tutting.

What’s that low but persistent rumble in the distance? It’s not thunder, it’s tutting. Waitrose has announced that from April 3, they will no longer serve free coffee to their customers and the British middle classes haven’t been so affronted by anything since the Chelsea Flower Show lifted its ban on gnomes. (For one year only, 2013. Dark times. Let us never speak of this again.)

This development has been greeted with glee by some, delighted at the prospect of aisles no longer cluttered with purchase-free caffeine junkies. Their happiness will no doubt be short lived as plucky little chancers cram the tills, queuing to pay for a single grape or green bean (take THAT! capitalist oppressors) in order to collect their ‘free’ refreshment.

For others, Waitrose’s greatest crime against the smooth running of civilisation comes from their insistence you now complete your transaction before you can collect your free coffee. What fresh hell. For many of us, caffeine is the only legal substance that will get us through the Big Shop. You need it to spur you on as you steer through fresh produce, dairy and beyond, not when you’re trying to wrangle ten bags for life into the back of a Volvo.

But Waitrose, at the risk of sounding churlish, you’ve brought this grumpiness entirely on yourselves. I’ve watched enough legal dramas to know that you should never ask a question in open court to which you don’t already know the answer. Similarly, you should never give a treat which you later withdraw. Ungrateful humans will only remember the removal of privilege, not your generosity in having granted it in the first place.

The truth is Waitrose, and you should know this, you can forget about decent schools, many of us fork out a premium to live within the catchment area of your wholesome, artisanal, organic embrace. We’ve scrimped on the square footage and convinced ourselves we don’t mind about the lack of view/parking/en suite so we never have to be more than a mile from cooking chorizo and Fevertree tonic ever, ever again.  

That, dear Waitrose, your ‘essentials’ range includes amber bath foam, profiteroles, gooseberry fruit fool and champagne flutes makes us feel a little less alone in the world. We don’t even mind that the accident in the alliteration factory lead you to name perfectly innocent herbs ‘Simple Sage’, ‘Romantic Rosemary’ and ‘Tantalising Tarragon’. We thought we were friends. We had an understanding.

For those of us who feel bereft, betrayed, there is hope. Rumours spread quickly yesterday, at school gates and on dog walks, in offices and factories, in all places where slightly tired people gather, that Pret à Manger’s staff still have discretion to give you free coffee if they like you. Charm offensive over the beetroot and radish on rye in 3, 2, 1…

But there is another way. My father, a tolerant person in all other respects, is continually appalled at the dreadful modern affectation of being unable to walk more than 20 yards without clutching flat whites in our feebly under-caffeinated hands. Perhaps he has a point. How can we chastise toddlers who remain too long dependent on their dummies when we’re unable to complete the most simple of tasks without holding a cup in a death grip? We’re better than this.
Perhaps, after all – and as I have often suspected - Waitrose is here to save us from our baser selves.
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