There’s a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons where Superintendent Chalmers arrives at Principal Skinner’s house, expecting a homemade meal. Skinner burned the ham he was meant to serve, and instead passes off a plate of Krusty Burgers as his own cooking, swearing up and down it’s an old family recipe for “steamed hams.” Ever since this snafu, we’ve gotten the idea that serving food at a dinner party that you didn’t make yourself is somewhat shameful. Okay, it probably started way before that, and is more deeply rooted in misogyny, but that’s the scene I think of: Skinner sweating as he presents a tray of burgers and fries to his boss, feeling the need to keep up the lie that he cooked it himself even though it’s so obvious that’s not the case. And thinking I would not mind if someone served me fast-food fries on a silver platter.
As much as I love dinner parties, cooking for an entire group is a hassle. So I want to give some permission here: Serving prepared, store-bought food at a dinner party is fine. Maybe you cook a whole dinner but buy a cake for dessert from your local bakery. Maybe you build your dinner party around a grocery store rotisserie chicken, or you make the centerpiece and fill it out with prepared sides from the market counter. Hell, buy the whole thing and just create a beautiful tablescape with it. The point is the care and community that come from serving the people you love, regardless of where the food came from.
Plus, outsourcing either part of or the whole meal leads to better parties. The less time you spend fretting in the kitchen, the more time you can spend focusing on your guests. There are also just some things professional kitchens can do better than you. For instance, I know even if I try for years, I’ll never make croissants as good as the ones from the patisserie up the street. Buying those for my brunch party means I have more time to make waffles and egg strata for everyone. Not only is it easier for me, but what a joy to provide my guests with something I know is well made (and also to show off I know where to get the good pastries).
The way to accomplish this is obvious. But actually getting there emotionally may take some effort. After all, the food media have spent a long time driving home the supremacy of homemade, from-scratch cooking over anything store-bought or semi-homemade. Our modern domestic goddesses like Alison Roman and Molly Baz may make throwing together a cool, casual dinner party look like a breeze. But behind the batched martinis and artfully messy platter of homemade gougeres is the fact that cooking, though it can be a joy and an art, is most often labor. So why not pay someone fairly for it?
Janna Morton is a Baltimore-based illustrator and lifestyle blogger whose colorful work focuses on themes of nature, inclusivity, overlooked beauty, grief, and joy.