Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Top 10 annoying things at dinner parties

I recently presented a piece on entertaining for BBC 2's Food and Drink programme. Statistics, the BBC said, proved that entertaining is becoming more popular and that people who entertain are happier.
But today I got an email, new research, saying that the dining table itself is disappearing from homes: one third of British people only eat there a few times a year. Only 5% eat every meal at the dining table.
I have to admit, being from a small, one mum, one kid, family, my daughter and I tended to eat more like Cher and her daughters in 'Mermaids' rather than all around a table, Waltons style. And now she's left home for uni, I'll often eat alone at the computer. My keyboard is covered in crumbs, and I have a salt shaker and a bottle of chilli sauce positioned handily next to the mouse.
But the way forward for 'society', that thing that Margaret Thatcher said didn't exist,  is maintaining some kind of communal eating: people do still enjoy inviting others to eat. Having a dinner table is not essential, you can eat around a coffee table or on the floor, the most important thing is to share.
But there is a downside and I mention my top ten bugbears here:

1) Seating position:
I recently went to a dinner where I was sat in the middle of a long table seating 30. This, as this witty graphic shows, is considered the optimum position at a dinner party. You get to be part of the conversation and not have to shout down the table. The downside is you could end up with people either side who don't want to talk to you and who speak to the person on the other side for the duration of the dinner.
My problem is I'm deaf in one ear, so I always sit on the end. This means you tend to be limited to talking to one person next to you or, if the table is narrow enough, opposite.
The aforementioned dinner party was so noisy that I could hardly hear what my opposite number was saying. The guy on my left was mostly talking to the guy on the other side and the lady on my right was a lovely girl from Weighwatchers magazine. I must admit, I did think, why have they sat me next to her, izzit cos I'm fat? She must get that all the time.
I had to tell her straight off: "I'm afraid you are on my wrong side so it'll be hard to talk to you". I wasn't willing to wrench my neck around for the duration of the meal, which I have done at various social occasions. It is painful, looks weird, and makes me irritable.
2) Small talk.
Small talk is no trivial matter: it takes skill and discipline. It is never very personal.  You must keep conversation very general 'how was your journey' and the subject matter can end quite quickly. Stay upbeat.
This is how not to do it: at the Hidden Kitchen supper club in Paris, I asked the opposite couple, American tourists: "So what do you do?"
"We run a camp for dying children."
How do you small-talk that? Fortunately I can go straight in, being actually rather terrible at small talk.
I'm into Big talk, Deep talk. I'd be crap at being a member of the royal family, I don't know how they can stand it.
Small talk can be that 80s career-orientated conversation starter: "What do you do?" It's such a cliche and smacks overly of networking. What they are really saying is: "Are you helpful to my career and shall I waste any more time on you?"
If small talk is the baby slopes, possibly at the just arrived, standing up and having a drink then ideally one progresses, by the time you've sat down, onto the next stage: medium talk. Hopefully you should have found some topics of common ground. If things are going well, people start bringing out the anecdotes, carefully shined and guaranteed to make people laugh.
During the anecdote you can sit back and analyse the state of play within relationships around the table: is the partner constantly adding to the story? supporting the teller? Or are they sniping, saying, that didn't happen like that. Another difficulty is the child-sabotaged anecdote: "Mummy you are lying, the man didn't say that".
Although I'm bad at small talk, I hate silence. I can talk for Britain. I feel the responsibility to liven up the room, even if it means I have to resort to being rude, which I frequently do, just to gee people up.
3)Not getting invited back
Why do you think I started a supper club? It was because no one ever invited me. I have a dinner party gene: I need to entertain, to be a feeder. I've come to realise that in life, there are dinner party givers and dinner party takers. The takers just can't hack it. It's not personal. Move on. Don't expect an invite back.
4) Being single.
The world of dinner parties is complicated and even hurtful if you are single, divorced or widowed. When hosting, you don't have that extra co-host to make it easier. For single people, it's much harder work. As a guest, the single person are less likely to be invited in the first place.
As a single mum, forget it, NO ONE will ever invite you. You are poison. You are bottom of the food chain unless you are freakishly young and hot and maybe not even then. You will either steal the hostesses husband (dream on) or sit there being poor and unsmug. Who needs that at their dinner? Single dads on the other hand are still exotic enough to be invited out.
Socially, the world is geared towards couples but at the same time, there are less and less couples. No wonder many people surrender and say it's cheaper to go out.
5) When they've changed their mind about making an effort.
 You've worn your best dress and brought a good bottle of wine. But they've already eaten. Yes this happened to my sister. She arrived and the couple said we've eaten but we'll warm something up for you. You can eat it there on that table. Then the husband looked at the bottle and said, "I never drink anything under 11 quid." He was a Northern businessman, who had recently earnt a lot of money. My sister snapped back, "You noov" (nouveau riche).
6) The man opts out.
Men, especially if many of the guests are the wifes mates, often can't be bothered to contribute socially. Or, classic male behaviour: they broadcast their views, then, once satisfied, fall asleep on the sofa.
7) Lateness:
The invite said 8 for 8.30 but it's more like 9 before you get the first canape even. This is often the case with 'sophisticated' young people who are doing it on a weeknight after work and basically did the shopping at Marks & Sparks on the way home.
This is especially awful if you are a mother and are used to eating with your children at about 6pm. (I had a snack before I went. I still like eating at 6pm, nursery time.) Also bad for hypoglycemics and people with diabetes who can become violently ravenous and irritable if not fed promptly. Fights can start. 
8) Pretentious food: which the host has decided to do that dish they saw on Masterchef, attempt quenelles, smears or vertical stacking for the first time, or go for one of the more unusual flavour combos they found in their Christmas copy of Flavoursaurus. Cue polite expressions if it hasn't gone exactly to plan.
9) Underseasoned or terrible food:
Pass the salt. Really. Please please please salt your food adequately while cooking. Please.
On the terrible front: I went to a really nice couple's house in Bristol for dinner. The guy had constantly been praising his wife's cooking: "She's the best. A smashing cook.Wait until you try". Myself and French partner of the time sat down and were treated to cook-chill food, Iceland-style lasagnes, all horribly sugary and processed.
"Great stuff, eh?", crooned the husband. We sat, murmuring politely, trying to hide it under our forks. Oh well, at least he loves his wife. Funnily enough never saw them after that though.
10) Crappy wine:
You pay out for a nice bottle which they slip into the drinks cabinet and feed you their awful plonk. Meanies. I once invited an American girl on a visit to London to dinner at my parents. I was howling with embarrassment when she brought the rest of a bottle of rose, like a quarter left, and handed it to them. Call me bourgeois but I felt terrible. Especially when my parents, with impeccable manners, did not even bat an eyelid and got out their best bottles to share.

What is your dinner party pet hate? Where do you like to sit? Do you like 'cheffy' food or comfort food? What time do you like to eat? Please let me know in the comments.....


  1. Where do you like to sit? Near the hosts' dog - so there's someone to break the ice with if the person you're next to gets boring. Dog's sometimes make more sense than people anyway.
    Do you like 'cheffy' food or comfort food? -Anything as long as someone else cooks it!
    What time do you like to eat? Lunch - less likely to fall asleep by dessert. Also then you have the rest of the day free.

    The end of your point 7 makes me think it would be interesting investigating the correlation between diet and violence.

    Realised I only ate at my dining table about twice last year - otherwise dining either at the desk while answering emails, whilst driving or in bed at 4am - crazy life!

    What do I hate at dinner parties? Surprise allergies - one last Saturday just mentioned he had a nut allergy as we were plating up the dessert (complete with nuts). Another guest at the same party had 13 allergies - every time you thought you had it right there was something else. The next day at another event the dairy free guest had become vegan and just happened to mention this as we were taking in the main course. Probably as well you weren't there!

    The crappy wine thing - maybe they just don't know! A friend has a good trick with the wine thing. Her friends bring cheap awful plastic wine to her parties so she keeps this in the kitchen and serves them this and then serves herself a much better quality which gets hidden in the cupboard. Then everyone's happy!

    Probably worst hate about dinner parties - that one person who drinks too much and it turns them violent. It's happened. You see a whole new side of people. Relationships can be changed forever.

  2. Wow. Maybe there's a reason you don't get invited out much. So cranky.

    1. I think this is all incredibly well-reasoned and not cranky at all! People need to understand that manners go for a lot, and this author is spot on.

  3. ...Oh and another annoying thing - people who don't eat anything. One person a couple of weeks ago had 1/4 of the starter, 1/4 of the main course and 2 spoons of dessert. But said it was all lovely. You just think 'Why? What is the point?'. Also people that pick out bits - like onions or raisins etc... how old are you?

    And another allergy related one. There was a vegan guest at one event where we were doing 5 mini desserts so we had done a vegan version of each specially for him. Straight after the main course he decided he'd make the most of an early night and go to bed and leave dessert. I was told off by the waitress for swearing too loudly - he might have heard on his way out.

  4. Oh dear, never ask for my opinion. I am too willing to give it. Right, here is the Reader's Digest version of my dinner party pleas and pet peeves:

    1. The floating dinner hour, you are invited for seven and at nine the host BEGINS cooking! By then everyone is starving or drunk or both.

    2. Not having a napkin; linen, paper or otherwise. I'd be happy with a sheet of kitchen roll. I just don't want to use my sleeve.

    3. I don't mind where I sit but don't sit me on a short chair that places me chin high to the table.

    4. Please give me a plate. I don't want to eat off a roof slate, a cutting board or a banana leaf. I know it's trendy but it's also pretentious wank!

    5. Please turn that awful music down. Nothing is worse than screaming conversation across the dinner table.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to vent. It felt SO good!

  5. What a truly horrible post, which makes you out of be a truly unpleasant person. Shame, anyway, I've unsubscribed.

  6. I've had the excuse, "That's was delicious. We'll never be able to invite you back as I'd be terrified to cook for such an amazing chef." Well, stick your compliments up your arse and pay to eat in my restaurant next time.

    I have been known to cry with gratitude when a lovely person has had me round to dinner, pampered me, not let me lift a finger to help and fed me food without apology for its lack of cheffiness.

  7. Dinner parties can be so stressful! Thanks so much for posting this.

    For the past two years all of my friends have become hippies, and what this means is that everyone brings a dish to share, its always 50% vegan, and the host never does the washing up - but gets given a spliff and a massage - bliss. I'm terrified of going back to the 'real' world.

  8. Not really a dinner party, but when I was last in India, my auntie invited me and my parents over for lunch. We arrived at around 1pm to find that she had already eaten, but we could re-heat some food if we wanted. All a bit odd. My parents attributed it to her getting on a bit.

  9. Brilliant brilliant post. I'm definitely more of a giver and I don't mind because it's when I'm at my happiest with good mates/family round the table, feeding them up. But Christ, it's so annoying when on the occasion you are invited to someone's for dinner, you arrive and they haven't even begun cooking! I went to a friend's once, a two hour drive, and they threw a packet of Doritos on the table with a tub of hummous. I am far from a snob (I love Doritos) but if someone can be fucked to come to my house for dinner, especially if they have come from a few miles away, the least I can do is pull my finger out and make an effort. I am certainly not berating kitchen disasters, they can be amusing for everyone and are not done on purpose. Not a fan of masterchef-esque smears and quinelles at home, leave the experts to it when you dine out, and I never trust anyone with a sous-vide thingy at home.

    Oh my god I can't believe those two negative posts! Ignorant twats.

  10. Apologies for slowness in approving comments, I'm in Texas right now!
    I'm glad to see that my points ring a bell with you!

  11. Some time Dinner parties can be so stressful! I will also follow these rule when I will organize dinner party.

  12. Great post - got me thinking. I enjoy being invited and giving dinner parties. Agree that getting stuck between two people who talk in the opposite direction is horrible; probably the worst thing for me. I have a round dining table for that reason. Bad food - I can forgive when the welcome is warm. Some nice friends also invited us round and the husband bigged up his wife's cooking - she served us pesto pasta. The pesto was from a jar and the pasta was cooked in a tiny saucepan at a simmer! It didn't matter though - I remember the conversation from that evening even though it was over 10 years ago.

  13. Sally: Gotta say, I do love bog standard pesto pasta!


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