Changing This One Thing Made My Dinner Parties So Much Better
I was the queen of multiple-course, over-the-top menus—and then I realized that nobody was having a good time.
My rock bottom was a coconut.
Not just any coconut, but a perfectly symmetrical, unblemished orb that I spent no less than 10 minutes hand-selecting among so many organic specimens at the green market. I was hosting a dinner party, you see, and I’d decided to cook a shrimp stir-fry from a recipe in an obscure Thai cookbook. The recipe was three pages long and called not for shredded coconut or coconut cream or coconut chunks, but for a fully intact coconut that the home cook was to render into shards by hurling, javelin-like, onto the ground.
This was back when I lived in an apartment with roommates whose communal spirit did not extend to the kitchen table. Home cooking generally meant fixing myself a salad or a bowl of Grape-Nuts—with raisins when I wanted to be wild. There was no point in proper cooking if it was only for myself, was the way I saw it, and no point in cooking for others if I wasn’t going to wow my assembled guests by sprinkling candied rose petals onto a homemade Meyer lemon tart or, you know, lobbing a coconut off a second-floor balcony. Entertaining was a performance, and I was going for a standing ovation every time.
An older friend and her husband kindly let me host the coconut night in their apartment. They lived in a garden duplex, with an iron balcony overlooking a brick ground that lent itself to the coconut explosion. My guests arrived one by one, and I made sure they were wildly impressed before they tasted so much as a morsel. I’d mixed a batch of rum punch and put out enough tea lights to concern any fire department. There were so many side dishes too—side dishes that had no business accompanying a spicy seafood main, but no matter. Why couldn’t I also serve warm gougères and a dill-inflected white borscht? I scurried around the home that was not my own like a harried diner waitress, proffering trays and platters and pours of wine. The main course was perfectly edible, savory, and fragrant with ginger and lemongrass. I had seconds, then spent a good while in the bathroom extracting coconut from my teeth.
My elaborate feasts went on over the years, each more over-the-top than the last. Osso buco, blood sausage cassoulet, pork and chive dumplings I stuffed by hand and served with a trio—a trio!—of dipping sauces. My parties were successful, I guess, but that’s not the same as saying I enjoyed them. I mean, I certainly enjoyed being the kind of person who appeared to be capable of whipping up paellas and blackberry blintzes. But my memories of these nights make me tired. They involve my washing dishes between courses and not hearing much of the conversations around me. Everything was in place, everything and everybody looked good. There was just one thing: Nobody was having that much fun. Read all the cookbooks you want—there’s no recipe for that.
As I got older, the gap between dinner-party food and food I actually ate narrowed. The contents of my grocery bag became less pathetic as my repertoire expanded to include fried eggs and roast chicken. Things started to change in other ways too. I met somebody I became serious about, an intelligent and soft-spoken man whose idea of a good time is talking to interesting people, not being stranded in a room with 15 near-strangers while his partner is in another slaughtering a coconut. He taught me things, about art and Japanese film and the pleasure of sitting—not sprinting—around a table with friends.
Bit by bit, our gatherings have become virtually unrecognizable to those who knew me before. Now the invites go out later, sometimes the morning of. The table is not set so much as cleared, ready for people to bring their plates over and take a seat. No matter how much Ben and I straighten up beforehand, there are always toys on the rug, a book I’m in the middle of reading hanging off a window ledge. We’ve adapted. When people ask how they can help, I guide them to the nearest cutting board. Ever the multitasker, Ben tidies up while he pours drinks. I’ve left the place cards to our daughter, who is 4 and cannot spell but has a fantastic sense of color. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for elaborate dinner parties. We have friends who put together meals whose mystically foraged salads or wild flower arrangements alone belong in international art fairs—and the nights when I scroll through Instagram and see we were not invited to their dinner parties bring me great sadness. But when it comes to my own turf, there’s a little less stagecraft involved.
There are no courses—just olives and a cheese (a single cheese on a board, not a cheese board). Then we head to the table for a salad and a no-fuss main (slow cooker chili, spaghetti Bolognese, or a bouillabaisse that takes one hour to prepare and is so delicious I cook it over and over, no matter how recently I’ve already served it to my guests). Around the middle of dinner I will remember something important—to pass out napkins, to put the music on.
And you know what? These dinners are so much better. There is a looseness to them that lends itself to intimacy. Nobody complains about missing my pavlovas or candied lavender. Now it’s ice cream for dessert, maybe with a drizzle of honey or berries. We laugh more, sit around the table longer. I don’t wake up feeling spent, dreading a sink full of five courses’ worth of pots and pans. Instead I put on the coffee while Ben goes out for the paper. When he joins me, we flip through our favorite sections and find ourselves talking about who we want to have over next.
Lauren Mechling is the author of How Could She ($18; amazon.com). She lives in New York City.