judy montagu 88.
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He showed me his bill of fare to tempt me to dine with him; said I, I value not your bill of fare, give me your bill of company
- Jonathan Swift, essayist and satirist (1667-1745)
Did you ever sit at a dinner table with a group of perfectly nice people and eat some very creditable food - and then go home feeling that, despite noble intentions all around, a faint but undeniable tedium had hung over the proceedings?
That although a social obligation had been discharged, with pleasantries - what the French call parler de la pluie et du beau temps - exchanged and gossip (inevitably) aired, those few hours hadn't really evolved into anything beyond a mildly pleasant way of passing the time?
"When people break bread together, a certain magic can happen," I read somewhere recently.
More often than not, it doesn't. Have you ever wondered why?
I'm not really talking about inviting your parents or children, close siblings and a longtime neighbor all over for a Friday night meal. Nor about dining with a group of friends who meet regularly in each others' homes.
In both cases, these are people who feel comfortable, even intimate, in each others' company, and their joint experience, familiarity and history of shared enjoyment is all that's needed to make the occasion soar.
Not so when your dinner invitees comprise a group of, say, eight to 10 people who know each other somewhat, slightly, or not at all. With a group of that nature, the host or hostess, already burdened with the multiple demands of entertaining, must assume an additional role: "Magician."
IT'S not about pulling rabbits out of hats - or even chickens out of pots. It's about raising the act of eating in diverse company from the mundane to the memorable.
No one said it was easy. No art ever is.
And - Jewish mothers will find this hard to digest - it isn't mainly about the food, though one always hopes it will be excellent. It's about melding that disparate group of people into - for those few hours, at least - an organic, evolving, engaged and responsive whole.
A dinner party is a work-in-progress, and good hosts are a bit like choreographers, or like music conductors. They set the pace and tone of the proceedings, then watch to see how people keep up - or not.
When a guest remains quiet, wanting perhaps to join in, but shy, the host, something like a Mehta or a Giulini, might address that person directly, skillfully leading him (or her) into the ensemble.
And when the pace or tone changes, a host may need to act as umpire, too.
Politics and religion are no-no topics for dinner-party conversation, the etiquette books say - but just try telling that to a group of Israelis! It's the host's job to make sure the debate stays this side of civil.
'WHEN someone is sitting there embarrassed because of what another guest has said, the host has to step in and gently interject something that leads the conversation away," says Jerusalemite Pamela Loval. She and her husband, Werner, spent several years in the diplomatic service and have had a very active social life. What she doesn't know about entertaining probably isn't worth knowing.
Crucial, she says, is a good mix of people.
"Even when you're inviting family, always have someone else who is unknown to the others. It provides interest. Try to introduce everyone to each other, and to include everyone in the conversation.
"The worst thing is when people start talking about their grandchildren. A lot of people I know are guilty of this. There's a kind of one-upmanship - you know, 'My grandson has been accepted into this elite IDF unit...' 'My grandson's commanding officer said he had never seen anything like the way etc., etc.'
"And God forbid anyone should be allowed to start describing his illnesses, complete with a full list of symptoms. It's so depressing!
"Nor his diet," she adds, laughing. "No one wants to hear a list of what someone can't eat."
That comment reminded me of one unforgettable guest in my home, a visiting journalist colleague, on a diet, who accepted virtually nothing except a few lettuce leaves - which she then proceeded to weigh on a small portable scale she took out of her handbag. Everyone's appetite waned after that, visibly.
"Finally," says Loval, "a host needs to be alert to guests who try to hog the conversation."
ONE hostess I know, who entertains more than a dozen people around her table for Shabbat meals and has clearly endured a lifetime's worth of trivial table talk, lays down a rule her guests have to obey. She sometimes enforces it even when she herself is a guest:
"Everyone has to describe something interesting that happened to them in the past week."
Now this type of request (command?) has an undeniable artificiality to it, and can elicit groans. But "spontaneous" interesting conversation - as opposed to mere gossip - too often just doesn't arise; and on the one occasion when I was invited to a Shabbat meal, along with this woman, people's various stories did indeed engender an unexpected number of stimulating topics.
Put on the spot, I recalled two brief incidents I had witnessed that week involving young haredim behaving in ways that broke the "insular" haredi stereotype.
One young man, I remember, had been walking by when a woman's shopping bag burst, and he had run this way and that, chasing after rolling oranges and runaway potatoes until she had everything safelyback together again.
A host is like a general: Calamities often reveal his genius
- Horace, Latin poet
I ONCE listened with horrified fascination as an acquaintance described how, at an important dinner she was hosting, she asked the guest of honor, her husband's boss, whether he'd like another plate of soup - when she knew very well it had all gone.
"It seemed only polite," she said, "and I was sure he would decline. But he said, 'Yes, please.'
"So, back in the kitchen, I 'cooked up' a disaster in which the nonexistent extra portion of soup had been appropriated by the (nonexistent) household pet.
"That naughty cat!" I expostulated to my VIP diner. "He thinks he's the most important member of this family!!
"May I offer you a slice of smoked salmon instead?"
Loval muses about "a good friend who regularly doesn't lay enough places for the number of guests she's invited, saying, helplessly, 'Oh, I can't count.'
"It's embarrassing because each guest inevitably wonders whether he or she was the one left out."
THIS, I think, sheds lights on the most fundamental point: People will remember an occasion with pleasure and appreciation not chiefly because of the food served, but because they were made to feel they mattered; that those present were interested in them, and in what they had to say.
Isn't that the basis of all good fellowship?
I COME to the end of these lines knowing I may never be invited to a meal again. Which is a pity, because I like company, and I adore food I haven't had to make myself.
And while I'm curious and tend to philosophize, I try not to be judgmental about others. I realize there's more than one way to do most things, and that there are many roads to success - including meeting the challenge of having a bunch of people round to dinner.
By the way, I'm free this Friday night.