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The Art of the Dinner Party

The lovely Anne Zimmerman, author of the new book about M.F.K. Fisher, "An Extravagant Hunger," writes a lovely blog about food called "Poetic Appetite."  She recently wrote about giving a dinner party and it made me think about the generous and creative act of cooking for others, as well as giving a party.

Let me preface this with the fact that last night I finally had my book club discussion of "Everybody Was So Young," the luminous biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy.  Yes, I know I may be slightly obsessed with this book (how many times have I written about it here and here...oh well, thank you my patient readers) but last night when I heard ten other women as obsessed with it as I am, I felt boosted by their support and thought you might forgive me if I bring up the Murphys once again.  Our prevailing observation about the Murphys was that their generosity and support of their friends, who just happened to be some of the most famous, though struggling, artists of the time -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cold Porter, and Picasso -- was often expressed through their legendary dinner parties.  Of course they also gave them significant financial and emotional support.  But their generosity often played out in the social setting of their home which they extended to all of their friends.  They were the king and queen of hospitality, opening their home and table to their social circle.  For the Murphy's their friends and the artistic endeavors of their friends were all important.  Helping, connecting, and bringing people together was the art that these two practiced.  And this was done with no expectation of payback.  Their love of life and people and the arts was their raison d'etre.

Which brings me back to the art of the dinner party.  When a dinner party is successful isn't it about bringing together people and uniting them, at least for one night, into a cohesive whole?  Providing then with food, comfort, conversation, and conviviality?  Anne Zimmerman writes,

"When a dinner party is good, it's good.  And by good I mean clean plates, multiple wine glasses, empty bottles of wine, laughter, music, droopy eyes, missed bedtimes, and forgotten worries.
I'm talking about the kind of evenings where you want to linger, where no one wants to say goodbye..."

I always think that the best literary expression of this notion of giving a party and bringing people together as a creative act is found in "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf.  The book is about one day in the life of Clarissa Dallowy who is giving a party that evening.  As Clarissa leaves her house that morning to buy flowers for her party she thinks,

"Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street.  For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh: but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps...do the same...they love life.  In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses...brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."

That passage has always given me the chills.  As well as the last line of the book. When Clarissa finally has the party, and succeeds in bringing together all the disparate players into a united whole, one of the guests -- Peter Walsh --  thinks as he gazes at the hostess,

"What is this terror? what is this ecstacy? what is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?  It is Clarissa, he said.  For there she was."

When a dinner party is successful, the guests are the recipients of the hostesses' kindness, but the hostess is also rewarded by an act of creation.  Her creation is an artistic endeavor, a metaphor for bringing people together.  The table is set, flowers are arranged, candles are glowing, food is prepared, conversation is guided, and guests are cared for. Isn't this all about a love of life and an interest in others?  If we can bring our friends, old and new, together for an evening and let them sparkle in the comfort and warmth of our home and around our dining room table, isn't this a gift? I think Clarissa Dalloway would say yes, and so would Anne Zimmerman.

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