Very rarely are dinner parties about the food on the table. Throughout the history of evening mealtime gatherings, hosting was never so much about feeding friends and family as it was about flaunting accumulated wealth, according to Vox.com’s Nisha Chittal.
From the dinner tables of ancient Greece and Rome to Victorian England and suburban America, a percolating sense of class anxiety has motivated us to call our social circles to the table in an attempt not to display our skills in the kitchen, but rather our banquet halls, china patterns, and dedicated dining rooms, Chittal says.
Looking back at old episodes of The Barefoot Contessa and Martha Stewart’s Secrets for Entertaining, it’s clear that we still hadn’t shaken that anxiety as we entered the ‘80s and ‘90s, decades after the post-war boom of suburban life brought it to the forefront of American consciousness. On screen, Martha tried to turn us all into domestic goddesses in her own image, with “our own sense of hospitality” and the skills necessary to pull off a filet of beef, whole poached salmon, and a country ham “garnished with a wonderful glaze of red wine and brown sugar.” Oh, and three “spectacular, very, very simple desserts” for a country buffet with friends and family.
In an episode of The Barefoot Contessa titled “Elegant and Easy,” we watch Ina cheekily announce (as she irons table linens) that when she invites friends over for a weeknight dinner “and they’re expecting takeout pizza,” she prefers to “surprise them with something really elegant, like filet of beef with gorgonzola sauce.” In another episode about throwing stress-free dinner parties, after learning we should establish a seasonally appropriate color scheme for our gathering, we watch her pad downstairs to the kitchen in the middle of the night the day before her party. “I almost forgot something really important for the party,” she says, smiling at the camera in her pajamas: “Freezing the martini glasses!”
Enter Alison Roman. She’s been compared to Julia Child and Martha for her knack for empowering even the least experienced cooks to find joy in the kitchen, but this self-described “older millennial” cringes at the word “entertaining” where the domestic goddesses of yore leaned into it. Roman is leading the charge in revitalizing the art of gathering your community around the dinner table with her sophomore cookbook effort, Nothing Fancy, due out October 22.
“It’s like the semantics of anything in our modern world, where if people are like, ‘Is that your boyfriend?’ You’re like, ‘No, we’re just seeing each other,’” Roman says of the “e” word, and of the concept of throwing dinner parties. “There’s something about removing the label that relaxes me personally,” she says, preferring instead just to have people over, no label necessary. Where the dinner parties of our parents’ generation might’ve required a guest list and seating arrangements and color schemes, Roman recoils at all of these suggestions. Nothing Fancy won’t even include a suggested menu, a vital feature of the entertaining books of her predecessors.
Roman’s built a dedicated following due in large part to her “unfussy” style. From how she presents herself (gold hoop earrings, jeans, clogs, bright red lipstick and matching nail polish make up the uniform that help her feel “like an adult woman” every day) to the way she explains her recipes, Roman offers a mirror that any home cook can imagine herself in, where Martha and Ina were an aspirational ideal one was always meant to pursue and never attain.
It’s no wonder then that millennials have chosen to redefine what it means to “entertain,” Chittal explains. “If dinner parties in the 20th century were about showing off your wealth and class status... millennials have neither of those.” Living in smaller spaces with higher rates of debt, millennials are “the first generation to be worse off than their parents economically,” but Chittal has found that “millennials do really care about the social and community aspects of what a dinner party is and what it represents.”
Hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen invited Nisha Chittal and Alison Roman to the Eater studios to discuss the evolution dinner parties on this episode of Eater’s Digest.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Amanda and Daniels’ interviews with Nisha Chittal and Alison Roman.
Amanda Kludt: First up on the show we have Nisha Chittal. She is the engagement editor at Vox.com, and she wrote an incredible piece about the ways in which millennials are changing dinner party traditions. Welcome to the show, Nisha.
Nisha Chittal: Hi Amanda.
Amanda: So tell me about the history of dinner parties. Where did they start, how did they evolve through the 20th century?
Nisha: They are really an ancient thing, and they started in ancient eras. The Greeks and Romans used to love to have big elaborate feasts that they would often have in a castle or in a great hall, and they would have long tables with tons and tons of people, and have elaborate meals and all that kind of stuff. So in the ancient eras it was really this big production that only rich people with access to a great hall or a castle could do. The dinner table started to become a thing for a family dinner in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that people would often eat in shifts; people didn’t all eat together.
Dinner as a social and communal thing was not really a concept yet, but it started to become a thing more as the dinner table was introduced in 18th and 19th centuries. The Victorians also started to add really elaborate details. If you were rich, you started to have china and crystal and silverware, and it was them who invented around that time different plates for every course, and different forks for every course, and all these elaborate details that showed off your wealth and your social status.
But it was in the 20th century, particularly in that mid-century period, when there was this big post-war economic boom, and more people were reaching the middle class. People were able to buy single family homes, and then they were able to have a dining room. And they could have an actual dining table, and they could have the space to invite people over and have them around this large dinner table and provide them with an elaborate meal, and food and wine and multiple courses and all of that stuff. So it became, especially in that mid-century period, what we know of as the modern idea of the dinner party became this way to show off — that you had made it, you have this wealth and social status, and you had the American dream of your own home and the white picket fence and everything.
Amanda: And how did the housewife play a role in all this?
Nisha: I think the housewife was a very big part of it. She had the time to make elaborate meals, several courses, she could spend all day working on elaborate Julia Child recipes. She could make a hand-shaken cocktail for every guest that came over for dinner. It was really important for men to be able to have their colleagues over for dinner, and their wife would serve this elaborate four course meal with drinks and all this stuff. She became a really big figure in entertaining and being a hostess, and there were all these really elaborate guides to how to entertain. All the rules and all the etiquette, and how to be a good hostess. The Emily Post guides are fascinating. There’s all kinds of rules for what table settings should look like. They talk about how you have to send invitations in the mail, and even today they still recommend sending invitations in the mail instead of email, because... I believe the Emily Post guide said email invitations have too many ads and they’re not personal enough. So you have to send something in the mail, you have to have an RSVP deadline. There are a lot of rules about how you arrange a tablescape, and what order the forks go in, and how you course a meal.
And Martha Stewart recommends you should always have a theme, and you should start preparing food a week in advance. Martha Stewart became an ideal, she is the person who knows how to entertain, she’s our domestic goddess. People look to her as the ideal vision of how to do this thing, but they also see her as a person who has a lot of elaborate details, and a lot of rules, and a lot of preparation. And things that feel certainly aspirational, but not necessarily attainable to most regular people.
Amanda: And young people now are having fewer formal dinner parties. Why do you think that trend is going out of style?
Nisha: Well, I think a big part of it is economic. So if dinner parties in the 20th century were about showing off your wealth and your class status... I wrote in the piece that millennials have neither of those. Increasingly more of them are living in apartments instead of buying homes. Millennials are actually the first generation to be worse off than their parents’ generation, economically and financially. And so they don’t have that wealth to show off. But I think that what I’ve found is that millennials, they do really care about the social and community aspects of what a dinner party is and what it represents. They care about gathering together with their friends and having meals together, but they don’t have the stuff, they don’t have the trappings. And I think what they’ve realized is they don’t have to let that stop them. They don’t have to follow all those old rules of dinner parties, and they don’t have to let that stop them from having people over for dinner. And so they’ve found a way to rewrite the playbook, and have much more informal, much more casual dinner parties that fit their lifestyle and their budgets in 2019.
Amanda: Thank you so much for giving us all this context.
Nisha: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: Next up on the show, Alison Roman. Alison’s new book Nothing Fancy comes out... What’s the publish date?
Alison Roman: October 22!
Amanda: So we want to talk about the idea of the dinner party and entertaining, having people over. How that’s changed over the last, I don’t know, generation? Decade? This is something that you talk about a lot in your book, but also in the writing that you’ve done all over the place. So in the New York Times, and Bon Appétit, wherever else you have your recipes. Oftentimes it’s about making cooking easier, but also making quote unquote entertaining easier and more accessible for people. So talk about the idea of calling it having people over versus entertaining, because I feel like that’s a good entry point in.
Alison: Yeah, I think it’s like the semantics of anything in our modern world, where you’re like, “Is that your boyfriend?” You’re like, “No, we’re just seeing each other.” Right? It’s the same thing. There’s something about removing a label to something that somehow relaxes me, personally. I’m a Virgo, and I feel like I am obsessed with labeling things, this is that, this is that, putting things in a box. And I’ve found that as soon as I stopped doing that, I felt a lot more relaxed about stuff. And so to me, the calling it this dinner party, calling it entertaining or whatever, just immediately freaks me out. I’m like, “Well, then I’m setting you up as having expectations on what to expect when you come over.” And I’m probably not going to deliver on any of that stuff. So if I say, “Oh, just come over, I’m just having people over,” then your expectations are extremely low, and I will under promise and over deliver every time. It’s kind of my MO.
Amanda: That does seem like a lot of the vibe of the book and the writing, where you’re just like, “Oh, it’s just sloppy old Alison. I’m a mess.” But then everything is perfect, and the recipes all work, and it seems like there’s obviously a lot of work behind it. Is that intentional?
Alison: Well, I mean that’s the thing, is I really am a mess. I really am kind of a disaster. But I think that-
Daniel Geneen: There’s hope for me.
Amanda: Yes, see that’s the whole thing.
Alison: But I’m also a perfectionist, and writing recipes is my job. And so I feel like when it comes to that, it really does matter to me to have things work and to have you achieve success when you’re doing something. So it should look and feel effortless, but there was a lot of work on the back end to make it so. With my first cookbook I assumed a lot. I assumed that people reading cookbooks knew different things than maybe they did. This time around I really wanted to get ahead of a lot of those things, and get in front of questions you might have, or make you feel better about things if they weren’t going to be perfect or turn out well. Because I think so much about wanting to have people over is doing it once and being successful at it. But I think if you cook a recipe and then have the people over and have permission to feel imperfect and a little bit messy and more yourself about it, then you’re like, “Oh, well that I can do.”
Amanda: What does the word unfussy mean to you when you write about making food that’s unfussy, or throwing parties that are unfussy?
Alison: To me it’s more about what is fussy, and fussy to me just means really involved, over achieving. Like tiny, delicate details, unnecessary worrying, and I’m just like, “Who has the time?” I’d rather focus on big picture than tiny little fussy details.
Amanda: What are some of the things that you’re eschewing from your, I don’t know, philosophy in these books? What are the things that you’re completely throwing out or skipping that might be in entertaining books of a decade ago?
Alison: I think most of the stuff. I feel like having a menu... Which to me, I didn’t want this book to have a menu. I thought about it, and I went back and forth on it a ton of times. But ultimately I just thought that menus were really hindering to people, because even if I tell you, “You don’t have to make everything in this menu,” it’s really tough to look at a menu and be like, “But what else do I do?” And I was like, “Okay, well then I’ll just make suggestions.” So throughout the book there’s sporadic suggestions on what I would serve this with, but they’re just to get your mind going on how to construct a dinner. They’re not meant to be focused as menus, and I think a lot of entertaining books start there. I also think a lot of entertaining books will tell you all the things you should worry about, like this cutlery and the plateware, and whom to sit next to whom. And having a theme, and having a this and having a that, and I don’t know. That seems fun, don’t get me wrong. I will absolutely go to a theme party if you invite me to one, and I will kill it, but I feel-
Amanda: But you’re not throwing one.
Alison: I mean, my theme parties are very vague. I’m like, “Oh, come over for Eastern European steakhouse night.” And all that means is that we’re going to eat a lot of sour cream and fish eggs on stuff.
Amanda: It’s kind of a theme, though. I like that.
Alison: Yeah, it’s a general encouragement, but-
Daniel: Yeah, I don’t think that’s what people would immediately come up with when they thought of vague.
Amanda: Eastern European steak night.
Alison: I mean I’ll call it something, but you know, whatever. It’s unfussy themes, you know?
Daniel: Right, right, right.
Amanda: Would you ever throw a party with name tags, name plates?
Alison: Oh my God, no. That would stress me out so hard. I’ve been a part of those parties, where I’m cooking or it’s a part of an event that I’m doing, but the idea that I’m going to tell who to sit next to whom? Ah, no thanks.
Daniel: What if you have huge clash potential, though?
Alison: Don’t invite those people. There’s an art.
Amanda: Or set up potential.
Alison: Well that is a game I love to play, and I have won many times. I’ve also lost a few times, but not because of me.
Amanda: Not my fault.
Alison: Not my fault. I did my best, and I actually have a really good success rate with setting people up. I feel like-
Daniel: European European setup night.
Alison: That’s right.
Amanda: Exactly. Brought to you by the makers of Eastern European steakhouse night.
Alison: If you’re unsure about the guest list, make it over six. Don’t invite six people where you’re like, “I’m not sure how this is going to go.” If you’re going to invite people that don’t know each other, and make it an eight to 12 person party, so there’s enough buffer room.
Amanda: Right. And I think that’s a great tip, and the book actually has a bunch of other tips that does make it more... It is helpful for people trying to entertain. There’s a tip about always having maybe a hunk of cheese out when people are coming over,` so when the two people who show up first and don’t know each other and it’s really awkward, at least they can-
Alison: They can talk about cheese.
Amanda: They can talk about cheese, or something like that.
Alison: Yeah, instead of having a, “Here’s what you need in your pantry to make yourself a good cook.” It was more of like, “Here’s what you should have in your pantry to make having people over easier.” And yeah, having a big hunk of Parmesan in your fridge at all times, because not only can you cook with it, but you can also just eat it.
Alison: So let’s say that you have no other snacks and the chicken’s still roasting or whatever. You’re like, “Parmesan snack,” and set that out. I would be really happy with that.
Amanda: Do you think there’s something about this generation that gloms onto this idea of the more casual, versus the Martha Stewart generation? Is there something going on with millennials or Gen Z that you think fits into this?
Alison: I don’t know what it is. I honestly think that people are just tired of spending money at restaurants. I think that people want to make stuff again. I think that we spend so much of our time in a space where we are obsessed and married to our phones and computers and email, and constantly engaging with something that’s not totally real. And so that’s why I think everyone’s a ceramicist now, and that’s why I think everyone wants to make a dinner party.
Alison: Because they’re things that you can make with your hands, they’re things that are real, they’re things that you can learn how to do, put the effort in and see a result. That’s why people like making bread now. It’s a whole back-to-the-land thing, so we can take a picture of it on our phone.
Amanda: Back to land, kind of.
Alison: I don’t know. Yeah, I feel like I’ve always been that way. I mean, I’m definitely addicted to my phone and I spend way too much time on my email, but I feel like me entering the food space was a way to focus my energy and creativity into something that was decidedly not tech-based.
Daniel: Did you write somewhere that the most important part of a dinner party is a Polaroid camera?
Alison: I may have. I have three of them, so that could be something I said.
Amanda: Sounds right.
Alison: If somebody else said it, I’m sorry.
Daniel: My cynical take is that the new display of value is that photo of you and your friends at home eating, instead of at a restaurant. So I don’t actually think the aspiration—
Alison: Well it definitely separates the... I’m going to botch this, but there’s a euphemism, separates the wheat from the chaff or something like that.
Alison: Which is something that I’m actually quite pleased about, right? So five or six years ago you could become really successful on the internet in the food media world, or just whatever, if you just went out to eat a lot. Which means that you probably had a lot of time and money.
Amanda: And money.
Alison: And you didn’t know how to have to do anything. All you had to do is have the money and the time and know where to go, which is pretty easy.
Amanda: Yeah, and then you can say like, “I went to Arpège,” and blah, blah, blah.
Alison: And then yeah, so you take a picture of it, post it on the thing. Now, I feel like you got to actually do the thing, you got to actually make the thing. And so for something like a recipe to achieve any sort of status you actually have to put in the work. So you are seeing people do stuff, it’s not performative. It’s like they’re cooking the thing, and presumably eating it.
Amanda: Right, spend time to make this thing.
Alison: Yeah, there’s something, to me, that has a lot more integrity about cooking at home and being proud of that and taking pictures of it, which is why that’s not annoying to me.
Daniel: Or at least it’s an effort. I think the internet and social media blurred the lines between the producers and the consumers. And a lot of consumers started believing they were producers, just because they were where all the producers were. And at least in this case you actually have to produce something, even if it’s awful. You have to put yourself out there a little bit. So all cynical takes aside, we’re moving in the right direction.
Alison: I totally agree. I think it’s great, and I enjoy it even when people... Something doesn’t look exactly like the picture or whatever. But if they’re like, “This wasn’t the prettiest thing, but I made it and I loved it.” That’s really encouraging.
Amanda: Do you remember going to dinner parties with your parents when you were a kid?
Alison: My mom threw a lot of dinner parties. Yeah she had people over all the time, but we didn’t call it dinner parties. But it was just—
Amanda: She also called it having people over.
Alison: Yeah, I owe her a lot of money for that. No, when I grew up, it was every Friday or Saturday night we were having people over. And it was nice because she never made me sit in the other room, I was often the only kid. And it was nice because I didn’t have to go anywhere, she wasn’t like, “Go in the other room,” or, “Eat at a different table.” I got to be part of that engagement and environment, and I don’t know, it’s just the best way to spend time with people that you like.
Alison: And I think that especially for her, when she had me, it was like, “Well, I’m not going to get a sitter so I can go out for two hours, race back and...” I’ll just have people over. And so it made it easier I think for her, but also she really enjoyed it. She liked taking care of people. She still does, enjoys that process of taking care of people and doing something nice for them. In addition for it being convenient if you have a kid to take care of, but...
Amanda: What were her dinner parties like?
Alison: They were nice. A lot of candles, a lot of Sade. Not necessarily in a sexy way, but in a... I don’t know.
Amanda: Smooth jazz.
Alison: Set the mood.
Amanda: Alison Roman, thank you so much for coming.
Alison: Thank you for having me. You guys are great.