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The Dinner Party

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Essay | 10 minute read
Foul puds, awkward silences and alarming guests... Sri Lanka-born novelist Roma Tearne examines the good old British dinner party, and its role in our national life

My adolescent mind baulked each time the moment approached. No amount of food could mask the fortnightly agony of adults behaving badly at one of my mother’s ‘migrant’ dinner parties. I was eleven when they started and eighteen before I could escape them. This was London in the 1960s. Meant to be a small oasis of warmth and light in an otherwise bleak world, my mother’s dinner parties, I now realise, were designed to counteract the desperation, unhappiness and alienation both my parents felt.

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The day would start early with my father being instructed to prepare one of his tropical salads. As we had neither mangoes, fresh coconut nor limes in those days, he would open a tin of pineapple complaining all the while of this ‘substance’ with the consistency of a soggy dishcloth. Why he felt he should use it was a mystery.  My mother, meanwhile, was making a vat of rice in our small kitchen and would emerge now and then through the clouds of steam looking cross. The guests always arrived too early, which annoyed us. And they also irritated us because we had absolutely nothing in common with them.

Though they were not blood relatives I was forced by Asian protocol to call the adults ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’, which filled me with added resentment. The guests were people who had been passengers on the overloaded ship that brought us to Britain. The theory was that the journey of twenty-one days cooped up together, travelling through monsoons, had created a bond between us. But our companions could not have been more different from us.

Office workers, mechanics, cooks, they spoke in broken English and could barely read or write. In between these dinners my parents would mutter to each other about these things. ‘Back home’, you see, my mother had been a journalist, my father a poet, while here, in this alien land, all they had left was their sense of personal identity. Still, my mother told me firmly, beggars could not be choosers. At least we were all from the same country. From this I learnt two things; how to make the best of a less than good situation and, if necessary, it was okay to be a bit hypocritical.

The food, apart from the dishcloth salad that is, was extraordinarily good; the conversation less so, although there was a peculiar all-embracing comfort in the exuberance of our noisy guests. True, everyone interrupted each other, belching loudly and talking with their mouths full. True, also, that the children I had made do with during the voyage now seemed unacceptable, picking at their food with their fingers instead of using the cutlery provided and, afterwards, rifling through my precious books. I was appalled. But although my mother pursed her lips in silent agreement, she said nothing to me.

These strange dinners have stayed with me throughout my life, glowing more brightly in the years that followed, a benchmark in a curious way for all subsequent dinner parties. When I left home and had to fend for myself the lessons learned during them were instrumental in how I coped. Loneliness was cured with offers of food as I began giving hybrid versions of my mother’s dinners, cooking for friends on a two-ring Belling hotplate. And the menu?  Spam curry, of course, and fried rice with cardamoms! My hall of residence filled with the scent of unfamiliar spices as fellow students drifted into the kitchen. As long as these gatecrashers brought plenty of booze I was happy. But if anyone helped themselves to more than their share of food I simply slipped a few chopped chillies into their rice and watched them sweat.

I was beginning to find my dinner party feet, you might say.

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David Warburton, a professor of psychology at the University of Reading, once conducted research into the behaviour of people giving dinner parties in Britain. He sent questionnaires to more than 1,000 people asking about their attitudes toward entertaining at home. He also studied the habits of 16 couples, ages 25 to 45, during ‘dinner-party environments’. The results were surprising. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said that giving a dinner party generated more anxiety than attending an interview or going on a first date. One in eight admitted that, when giving a dinner party, they experienced extreme symptoms including rapid heart rate, nausea, sensitivity to noise and a mental distraction so great that they could not continue cooking. From this Warburton concluded that some people suffer from a new disorder similar to the recognised conditions of social phobia and social anxiety. He called it Kitchen Performance Anxiety.

Yet eating round a table has always been an ethnocentric form of a type of bonding common in every human society; that of sharing food. Plutarch is reputed to have said, ‘we invite each other, not to eat and drink, but to eat and drink together.’ And ‘dinner parties’, wrote an anonymous aristocrat in a book of English manners dated 1876, ‘rank first among all entertainment. An invitation to dinner conveys a greater mark of esteem than being asked to any other gathering.’

However, such ‘entertainment’ comes with a strict system of unspoken rules. Reciprocation, for example, is an essential. Accepting a dinner invitation usually means promising to ask your host to a meal sometime later. Hosts and guests play very different roles. The host is at home, giving; the guest arrives to receive. An imbalance is set up and deliberately maintained. And there will of course be that return invitation.

The all-important dinner table provides a sort of stage upon which the dishes can make entrances and exits. The audience is pinned down to specific places. United, yet separate, everyone takes part in the play. We are all on view. Nobody can escape because it is forbidden to leave the table before everyone has finished eating and agrees to rise.

Judy Chicago’s famous 1980s ‘Dinner Party’ installation is presented as a triangular shaped table, the traditional symbol of the female, because the party is mainly women’s business. Men rarely cook the food. The man is asked to carve the roast if there is one. He sits at the head of the table; his wife sits near the kitchen. He is traditionally expected to pour the wine and rule over the meal (which is chosen with his preference in mind), to control the conversation even if he does not say much. So the success or failure of the party still depends mostly on the hostess. Being expected to ensure all guests are at ease while appearing to take a step back is the peculiar predicament of the woman. But the social prestige gained is so important that many are prepared to pay the price of the associated anxiety that lies behind a well-organised and smoothly run dinner party. Still, it is not without risk, as I would find out soon enough.

My first Oxford dinner is as good an example as any. I was at that time reading about dinner parties in literature when I was invited, by a retired academic couple, to a small, exclusive Oxford dinner. Virginia Woolf was still in my head when I accepted. I anticipated a sort of To the Lighthouse dinner with Mrs Ramsay presiding over the boeuf en daube, all ‘exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice’, and ‘the confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats’ in the soft candlelight. I could hardly wait.

Oxford: Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Remembering times past I was careful not to be early, and so my then boyfriend and I set off up the road to the well-lit house in a residential part of North Oxford. I remember we arrived and our host took our coats. He talked heartily about the weather and we spent a good few minutes agreeing with him that there would be a frost that night. We stood around in the sitting room which had the air of moth-eaten confidence, lined with books on obscure subjects and dull paintings. Evidence of both academic intellect and zero visual awareness. The man I was with, an academic himself, jangled the loose change in his pocket, signifying boredom. The door bell rang; a couple in their fifties arrived. I had a bad feeling. The man looked as though there was a nasty smell working its way up his nose. I prayed I would not have to sit next to him. His wife’s smile was like recently picked rhubarb; forced. Nevertheless we all said ‘cheers’ and held up our mean little glasses of exquisite wine. The host entertained us with the history of every single picture in the room. There were still about three hours to go.

The dining room, when we were led in, contained a polished, round, mahogany table and six antique chairs. All was delicate china, cut glass and lovely, bone-handled cutlery. My first thought was that my mother would have loved to be here. My second was to wonder why a plastic NHS toilet seat, the kind used by someone who has had a hip operation, was lying on the floor.

‘Oh that’s got to go back to the hospital,’ the hostess said, following my eyes. I felt a little wrong-footed for noticing it and could only admire the kind of upper-class eccentricity that allowed such an object to remain so boldly visible. Our hostess waved us to our places and more wine was poured. Unfortunately I was sitting between the man with the superior nose and his wife. There was nowhere to hide and my partner had been placed several kilometres away. There was to be no help, I saw.

And then we were off, and the hostess began to serve the first of three courses of bowel-churning food, which began with a white substance that impersonated insect larvae fat. I wondered how I could hide the fact that I did not want any of it. The table was groaning, and so was my stomach. The other guests began eating heartily, making sloshing sounds of appreciation. Perhaps they were hungry? I helped myself to more of the delicious wine and hoped no one would notice. Compliments on the food followed. A lot of things were discussed, subjects carefully chosen not to cause disagreement. To start with, anyway. We slowed down when the pudding arrived, indicating that it was a good moment for a couple of monologues from the males. We all nodded and made noises of agreement. The man with the superior nose had been talking about Medievalists of Colour, but then some sixth sense made him notice me. A hush fell across the room and the harsh overhead light glinted on a knife. His voice when he spoke was unnecessarily deep. At first I didn’t understand, so he repeated his question.

‘Does your boyfriend help you write your novels?’ he asked.

Unable to find a suitable answer, and wishing to display that I would follow the rules, I took the only option left. I loaded up my dessert spoon with a mouthful of the foul-tasting pud and swallowed it. I must have made a fearful face but it worked. I hadn’t been rude or rocked any punts. Everyone looked away politely as though someone had suddenly decided to take their clothes off.  In the pause that followed we yawned politely while refusing offers of tea or coffee. Someone cunningly asked if that really was the time? Really? At that we stood up without too much haste and the coats were produced. We agreed it had been a lovely evening and we should do it all again. Then, with a smattering of air kisses my boyfriend and I walked out into the frosty night air, certain that the others would be talking about us just as we were talking about them. And I marvelled at how all of us had pieced together the tiny clues scattered over that polished dining table. And how the other guests had known by instinct that I hailed from a different universe and was not one of them.

I would not, I said determinedly, as we hurried away, be keeping my side of this very British bargain by organising a return match.

Roma Tearne’s latest novel is The White City, published by Gallic Books