Dinner parties. So 1970s. They reek of vol-au-vents, Margo Leadbetters and awkward silences. The very mention of the D-P words and I am consumed by visions of an Abigail's Party nightmare. No. Not for me the invitation to 7:30-for-8 soggy canapés and lukewarm cocktails.
My problem with the dreaded D-P is its subtext of one-upmanship. Of competitive cooking. Too often we spend the days before a D-P fretting about how our meal will compare to the one our guests last cooked for us. We want at least to reciprocate their hospitality with something on a par to their standards or at the very least not embarrass ourselves by serving up, heaven forbid, something flawed. As if our friends will abandon us because of a dud meal. I'm not dismissing the kindness that makes people want to return the favour of good hospitality. But why has it become a competition? Personally, and sweepingly, I blame the onslaught of MasterChef,Come Dine With Me and the like. Despite the huge increase in cooking shows, tellie over the last decade has been no friend to the D-P host - it has set unreasonably high standards, made the complex appear simple and turned cooking into a gameshow.
No. D-Ps are an unmitigated horror.
However, a feast. That is a different matter all together. A feast I can get behind: friends around a table piled high with sharing plates of fresh, seasonal loveliness prepared apparently without effort. Yes. Unlike the D-P, a feast is a convivial, messy, tuck-in-and-help-yourself evening of decadence and, with luck, revelry.
A feast has personality. And if it's you in the kitchen, that means your personality - simple, crowd-pleasing dishes that reflect what you like to cook. My issue with D-Ps is that, if you want to win at them, and let's face it that's what they are all too often about, the only criteria for personality are fiddliness, frippery and (bonus points) foam. They breed food that demands reverence because of the fancy ingredients or the time spent creating it. And reverence never helps conversation flow effortlessly. Plus, unless you are Heston Blumenthal this is unlikely to be the natural cooking personality of most home cooks. Attempting to recreate this fussiness results in menus that are ungrounded, beige and soulless and you, most likely, fraught from the stress of trying to emulate something you have no passion for.
Which is another thing that's wrong with D-Ps. Done 'correctly', the number of elements in a D-P requires the host-chef to be in the kitchen most of the evening or at the very least exhausted by the time the guests arrive. Souffles, beef wellingtons and Ile flottante won't cook themselves; they require constant attention until they are served, leaving you sweating in the kitchen fussing over whether it will turn out ok. But your guests haven't come for a show (if they have, you need better friends). You are not under pressure to perform cooking miracles. It's not a stage. It's your kitchen - a place of homeliness, joy and inclusion. Food for friends should reflect that.
So feasts, in my view, are the way forward.
There are 3 key elements to a good feast (apart from good and copious booze):
1) a relaxed chef - this means picking dishes which are simple and can be mainly prepped in advance. One pot roasts, stews, pie and the like are ideal. Something you can sling in the oven and forget about or, better still, reheat when guests arrive without diminishing quality.
2) sharing plates - nothing kills conversation or stresses out a host more than plating up a meal. It smacks of school dinner-lady bossiness and puts pressure on guests to 'eat what they are given'. Plus, sharing platters require guests to help each other to food and pass plates around. Do not underestimate the power of offering food, even cooked by someone else, for breaking the ice. I often serve big billowy pavlovas for dessert presented on a cake stand. Thrust a cake slice into the unsuspecting hands of a slightly drunk guest and tell them to serve up pavlova and watch the hilarity ensue.
3) food that sets the tone - food that is relaxed and easy to eat. You don't want people worrying about which fork they should use or whether it's 'rude' to peel a prawn with your fingers. But a big bowl of mussels accompanied by ladles for juice, hunks of bread for dunking and a pile of big napkins beside is code for 'get your fingers dirty and enjoy - no airs and graces at this table so relax'.
So, down with dinner parties. Down with competitive cooking and kitchen stress. Food is a way of showing people you love them and a feast, with all its messy, crowded, relaxed revelry, is the best way, in my opinion, to do that.