Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket February 1, 2012

I WATCH THE REAL HOUSEWIVES ON TV AND CAN ONLY SHUDDER AT HOW LOW WE HAVE SUNK. (SUPERSTOCK)I recently went to a very nice Sarasota dinner party. I arrived to find the front door unlocked, as is the custom here. Inside, the spicy aroma of something Caribbean or perhaps Moroccan wafted through the air. The hostess was plainly visible in the kitchen, drizzling something on a colorful salad. The host poured me some pinot grigio. The other guests, gathered throughout the great room/kitchen/dining area, waved hello. Susie from the office arrived with a chocolate bundt cake for dessert. Everyone oohed and aahed, and the party was officially under way.

How nice, I thought. Even if there wasn’t any hard liquor. But a nagging suspicion gnawed in my bones. Something wasn’t quite right. I looked around, trying to figure out what was wrong. Then it hit me—this wasn’t the way my mother did it.

Where were the flowers? The placecards? And that cheese and salami for hors d’oeuvres? I don’t think so—the classic and only truly acceptable hors d’oeuvre is a salted almond. Where are the new faces to enliven the conversation? And that bundt cake. Even a fool knows you don’t serve bundt cake—or any kind of cake—at a dinner party. As Emily Post so succinctly put it: “It is ice cream that brings a dinner party to its inevitable conclusion. Cake and pie, delightful as they are, are only served en famille.”

Nobody entertains like that anymore. Oh, I’ve heard about an elderly couple on Casey Key who still do—they expect their guests to arrive in black tie—but this type of party-giving, the kind my mother and the other ladies of her generation took as a matter of course, has all but disappeared. It had its arcane rules and rituals, and if you deviated from them you were considered to come from an improper background, like Brooklyn.

Among the things one always looked for—and I still do—when assessing a hostess’s skill:

Does she use salt cellars? At a dinner party salt is always served in a little crystal dish with a little silver spoon, never in a salt shaker. These cellars are placed between every other guest, along with a “pepper pot.”

Are there napkin rings? This is a big no-no. Don’t they know what napkin rings are for? Back in the old days each family member had his or her own napkin, which was used successively for several days until it got dirty. (And that could take a while, particularly in a Presbyterian household.) So to make sure you didn’t get the napkin your sister used at breakfast, you put yours back into your own personal napkin ring. Thus, for a dinner party, napkins should be folded simply—elaborate foldings that resemble origami or God forbid, cute animals, are considered the mark of the parvenu—and placed on the service plate (today known as a charger).

Is the table set with geometric precision? The centerpiece must be in the exact center, the place settings at equal distances, all accouterments perfectly balanced. Queen Elizabeth uses a tape measure when setting her table.

Is the oldest woman present accorded the role of guest of honor? (You can imagine what a problem this would cause in present-day Sarasota.)

Is the kitchen invisible, inaudible, and unsmellable? Cooking odors must never penetrate into the living room or dining room. That’s why you must leave the windows open until just before the first guest arrives.

Is the menu correctly chosen? Back in those days, unusual dishes were not encouraged. The emphasis was on classic dishes, perfectly cooked. God forbid you should serve something ethnic or spicy. And you must balance your meal. A simple course is followed by a rich one, then another simple one, etc.

Does she “turn the table” correctly? During the first course the hostess would always talk to the gentleman on her right. Then, when the second course arrived, she would switch to the gentleman on her left. The whole table would follow suit, back and forth, like a tennis match. The greatest skill a hostess could have was to accomplish this so deftly that nobody realized it was happening.

Do the ladies retire after dinner? What’s supposed to happen is this: As the guests are finishing up their desserts, the hostess eyeballs one of the other ladies and a secret age-old feminine signal is passed between them. Both rise. The other guests realize what is happening and rise, too. The ladies then go off to the living room, where they are served coffee and talk about womanly things. The men stay at the table, drink port and brandy, and talk about business and politics. Then, after 20 minutes or so, the host says, “Shall we join the ladies?” and they all get up and head to the living room. (This is when you get your bathroom break.)

Other gaffes to avoid: Never serve coffee at the dinner table. Never serve butter—don’t ask me why, it’s just not done. Never serve steak—any meat must be cut up into tournedos or medallions. Never serve corn on the cob.

Another element that has disappeared from the dinner party is smoking. I remember my mother, who never smoked in her life, setting out cigarettes in this sort of egg-cup-type thing, right on the dinner table, and people routinely smoked at dinner. In fact, they routinely smoked before, during and after dinner.

With all these rules and regulations, you would think that nobody ever had fun at these parties. On the contrary, they could be the most exciting social events ever. A good hostess really knew how to make them work. She showed each guest equal attention. If someone broke a priceless wineglass, her only concern was that the guest might be uncomfortable, even if she might be seething inside. She made sure the conversation flowed smoothly. She had the instinct of a showman—she knew how to make each of her guests “shine” at the appropriate moment. The key qualities were tact, sympathy, poise and perfect manners. I watch the Real Housewives on TV and can only shudder at how low we have sunk.

Except, of course, in Sarasota. The rules may have been modernized, but the spirit of gracious hospitality remains. That delicious dinner was probably prepared by a caterer, not the family cook. Maybe the table isn’t turned properly and everybody joins in one raucous conversation. That is usually more fun, anyway. And as for a perfectly appointed dining table, with any luck the meal will be served outdoors on a balmy night. Oh, and one more thing. I’m beginning to rethink the bundt cake rule. Susie’s was delicious.

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