Home truths: what does your at home entertaining style say about you?
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In the second edition of our new column Prudence discovers the joys of a proper tablecloth, and India ditches cheese and wine nights for nights that get wildly out of hand.
Prudence: is embarking on a new era of dinner parties
In a somewhat unsettling development this summer, rather than a new summer wardrobe of beach party outfits, I found myself hankering after a tablecloth.
Having spent years being proudly scruffy, preferring ‘casual’ (last minute, ad hoc, booze-based) entertaining I had never really got the point of any kind of table covering before. Isn’t it just an extra thing to wash?
Our wooden table was originally chosen for two reasons: the fact that it had collapsible leaves – ideal for pushing against the wall and using as a bar at parties in our former, tiny flat; and the fact that it looked good naked.
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Sadly, the poor thing didn’t get to spend much time unadorned, buried as it was under piles of post, newspapers, books, keys and change. The carelessly created cup rings on its surface were also starting to get me down.
Now that I have the space, I’ve started having people over for dinner rather than meeting them in the pub or having a drinks party for every occasion. Food has entered my social life.
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I’ve decided that even ordinary meals need a new sense of occasion – no more tucking the table against the wall and eating standing up in the kitchen and no more using the dining table as a receptacle for our daily clutter. It makes after work suppers much nicer and it means that if I want to have friends over for a last minute pizza party there’s less frantic tidying to do.
The best way to achieve all this seemed to be with a tablecloth, it’s harder to dump stuff on a surface that looks good.
The one I plumped for is a stunner, heavy linen in purest white – a rookie error as it turns out. My visions of plain but pleasing are at odds with my pack ‘em in and pile it high dinner party style.
After a recent Friday night spag bol feast the poor cloth looked like it had been used as bandages at a massacre; my Sunday roast guests seemed determined to baptise the table with red wine; and Ottolenghi salads may look beautiful on a serving plate, but the greasy aftermath after nine people have had their slippery way with them is less than fresh. And that’s not even to mention the regular weekday meals and long weekend breakfasts a deux with their drips, splats and crumbs.
My bottle of Vanish has never seen so much action.
Luckily, there’s still a mismatched feel to most of my hosting, I haven’t eschewed my scruffy aesthetic entirely. Until I’m serving up formal banquets on a full set of crockery with a matching canteen of cutlery, I think I can live with the ghosts of dinners past.
India: she’s ditching the staid dinner parties for convivial living
My entertaining-at-home evolution has been positively Benjamin Button-like in its degeneration from rigid sophistication to laissez-faire licentiousness.
I was raised in a military family, where dinner parties are a way of life. It gave me a thorough grounding in talking to adults and mean table laying abilities.
As a teenager, parties were out of the question with my parents. They’d read the newspapers and heard the tales of Facebook invites gone array and hundreds of delinquents descending to wreck havoc. Having people over for dinner was my only way of not being stranded in social Siberia, although my mother still insisted on frisking everyone for alcopops at the door.
My stint as a chalet girl taught me several things. No matter how hungover you are it is still possible to cook breakfast for 18, bake a cake, ski for hours then come back and pull together a three course meal, stay out all night and do it all again. Drinking red wine from a mug will make your guests think you’re having a nice cup of tea (may I recommend this tip to all harried dinner party cooks everywhere, although go easy – you don’t want to be sloshed before serving the starter). I can also carve a swan out of the apple, although unfortunately that’s not a skill one can list on a resume.
University was an interlude of predrinks / pregaming / prelashing (pick the least offensive moniker, if you can), the least said about that the better.
Moving to London should have been a whirlwind of super clubs and dive bars but instead I reverted to type and started to throw an elaborate cycle of dinner parties and cheese and wine nights. Still organised via Facebook events, although the upgraded privacy settings meant we never had any party crashers making off with the Wensleydale and five pound plonk.
Perhaps it was the novelty of having one’s own dining table, or because we were all broke and living in flats that belonged to someone else’s dad, precluding the kind of parties where red wine might end up on the rug. Looking back it was nice but also kind of sad; I was hiding behind sophistication signalling, pretending to be far more put together than I actually felt.
It took moving in to my current house to teach me the true point of entertaining. My frosty English reserve, with its adherence to prep lists and proper linen napkins, has been melted by the convivial attitude of my Spanish, Italian and Columbian housemates. Growing up somewhere that isn’t perpetually damp and grey apparently imbues you with an infectious carnival spirit.
Going out to your local bar until closing then yelling everyone back to yours, or starting off with a pizza and wine night that turns into salsa dancing until 3am. Spending summer in a haze of BBQ smoke and cold beers and new friends. We unfailingly get wildly out of hand and it’s always a stupid amount of fun.
Nowadays my party preparation list usually includes buying a load of plastic cups and hoping the neighbours won’t mind too much. But with winter coming I might try to uphold my end of the cultural exchange and start cracking out the cheese crackers.