I’m not sure quite when it happened, but sometime around the mid-1990’s, having a dinner party became something of a competitive sport. Tallies were kept of who was asked, and who asked back, of who served the best wines and the most fashionable dishes. For some strong souls, this was a boon to their competitive spirits, but for the rest of us ordinary mortals, it transformed “entertaining” from a pleasure into something that was only just off the trauma of a root canal.
Yes, even I was one of those people sweating in the kitchen, panicking as I tried to produce food worthy of the best restaurants – course after course of the new and different – worried that my cooking wasn’t up to it and that my budget wouldn’t stand it. Some of the cooking programmes of that time period didn’t help either, positively feeding the frenzy for the exotic. They would show Michelin-starred chefs producing dishes with an army of invisible minions, yet assuring us that we could – indeed should – be able to reproduce them single-handedly in our own kitchens. The worst thing is, so many of us believed them.
Recently, however, there has been a sea change. More and more cooking programmes feature people who insist they are “cooks” and not chefs, people who encourage us to try the new and different and step out of our comfort zones, but not so far that we end up quivering wrecks in the corners of our kitchens. It’s wonderful, and it is changing how we cook once again.
Of course, another reason for the change in how we entertain and what we cook is the economic crisis that arose last year, and that persists in hanging round like an unwanted dinner guest. Thank goodness, showing off is now decidedly last year, and more and more people are entertaining the old fashioned way – with delicious, honest food and decent, mid-priced wines. It’s no longer about status; it’s about comfort and conviviality.
This is something that needs to be encouraged. While there is no reason not to prepare Boeuf en Croute with Foie Gras if you feel economically and ethically able to do so, there is equally no reason to feel you must if, quite frankly, chilli is more your forte. Standards are slipping and it is making for a delightful change.
We need to encourage each other to entertain buoyantly and bountifully, but to do so in a way that we are comfortable with and that suits our pocketbooks. It’s perfectly acceptable to invite friends to share a potluck dinner in your home, or to suggest a dinner party that offers different courses prepared and brought by various guests. If you do want to prepare and offer everything yourself (and there is equally nothing wrong with that), you should feel no pressure whatsoever to offer anything beyond what you can comfortably prepare and reasonably afford. Not only that, but it should be abundantly clear in these days of economic caution that while it is imperative to RSVP, reciprocating should be purely and completely voluntary.
The other thing these frugal times have taught us is how much we value the things that are really important - things like family, friends and time spent together. The last thing anyone wants to be doing when they have friends visiting is having a meltdown in the kitchen. Entertaining is meant to be fun, both for those being entertained and those entertaining. If it stops being fun, you are not doing it right!
So let’s make one of our first resolutions for this New Year – indeed new decade – be to embrace this new, more relaxed style of entertaining, one where there is nothing to prove, and no one to keep up with. Let’s resolve to enjoy ourselves, whether we be the entertainer or the entertained, and celebrate the joy of being a cook in the kitchen - not a chef or a performance artist - but a good, home cook who enjoys celebrating life with friends.