Late to the ball once again, Etiquetteer just discovered Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano, creators of the radio and podcast program The Dinner Party Download, just as the podcast was ending permanently. The bridge between this program and their next ventures, Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, takes a wildly irreverent 21st-century look at what is sadly a dying art: welcoming friends into one's home for a meal.
Because, let's face it. people are afraid of letting people into their homes and offering them a meal. They feel daunted by the necessary labor, anxious about the known and unknown food issues that could wreck a menu, pressured to perform perfectly, and conquered by sloth*. Newnam and Gagliano's book is filled with an electric, rowdy energy not often associated with a dinner party (and very rarely associated with etiquette books). It crackles with enthusiasm to take back our social lives from the restaurant-industrial complex! Why not reclaim our weekend days for True Sloth and shift our mealtime socializing to the dinner hour?
Etiquetteer should specify right up front that what the authors are really advocating is an informal dinner party, not a formal dinner. What used to be called "dinners of ceremony" live on only in the worlds of politics and international diplomacy. Dorothy Draper put it perfectly in her delicious little book Entertaining Is Fun: "Formality applies to the clothes you wear and the perfection of every detail of the service . . . " [emphasis author's]. Brunch Is Hell celebrates imperfections and errors. "At brunch, if the food arrives burned or bland, you complain and threaten to never return unless you're given a better quiche, or a refund. At a dinner party, if the food arrives burned or bland, you express sympathy and share a good laugh. Because, hey, we've all been there, and nobody's perfect" [emphasis author's]. Let this sound advice be your guide.
They also advocate for the dinner party as an "unstructured time to do ridiculous things," while Etiquetteer would Respectfully Suggest that of course a dinner party has structure and that conversation (the true purpose of any dinner party) may be about as ridiculous as any set of dinner guests needs to get. Interpretive dance and illegal substances don't need a place at a dinner party. But we all agree that conversation should stick to topics a few cuts above how someone got a refund at a Big Box Store or how directions to the home of a friend of a friend in Tuscaloosa were found.
Brunch Is Hell includes some refreshing guidance for the still-new century. The old mantra "If you want conversation in the foreground, no music in the background" has been replaced with the need for a good playlist to shape the mood and conversation of the 21st-century dinner party. "A musicless party is like food without salt: serviceable but dull." While Etiquetteer is familiar with very few of the musicians they refer to (what, no Lee Wiley?!), advice to avoid using a TV monitor to play music, to stick to one format, and to prevent the guests from substituting their own choices sounds solid.
Their analysis of how to say goodbye after a dinner party must be read to be believed. See especially references to the "twenty-cheek kiss" and the "Jar Jar Binks Goodbye."**
But they also share information that Etiquetteer would have to file under No One Should Have to Tell You This. You don't see Emily Post, Lillian Eichler, or the other great 20th century etiquette writers instructing their readers to clean the toilet before company comes, because it is understand that for Heaven's sake, the toilet is faultlessly clean whether company is coming or not. They would never have had to specify that one doesn't talk about poop at the dinner table, because ladies and gentlemen didn't even think about poop, much less talk about it!***
Etiquetteer comments further on how the authors suggest sending invitations, and some additional invitation pitfalls in the video below.
Reading this volume, Etiquetteer couldn't help entertaining the vision of a lady from the early 1930s at a dinner party of that period - hair perfectly marcelled into rainbow waves, sleeveless satin dinner gown with bits of discreet beading here and here - and wondering what she'd make of this Brave New World. For the upper classes, Novelty is so important, but only within the safe confines of a certain level of amenities. If she was a good sport, a Game Old Girl, Etiquetteer bets she'd switch out that satin gown for a dashiki and velvet slacks (but keep the marcel waves) and unbend enough to chat about almost any topic. But not poop.
Your assignment from Etiquetteer, dear readers, is to read this book, hold a dinner party, and report back. It will definitely be worth your time.
*Let's face it, you are afraid to have a dinner party, and Etiquetteer knows how beautiful your dining room is.
**Etiquetteer recommends you heed the words of Great Grandmother Dougherty: "If ya gonna go, GO."
***The authors may have included that as humor, but Etiquetteer has long been disgusted by the References to Bodily Function that have crept into regular discussion among Civilized People. It's gross, and it simply isn't necessary. Stop it at once!