Several years ago an email came in from a listener that ran like this:
Dinner dynamics intrigue me. Gather a group at a table and inevitably someone ends up being ignored while everyone else talks. It is hurtful, yet is there a solution?
My original answer was this: If you get to decide who sits where, arrange guests by personal chemistry. Seat generous engaging types who naturally bring out the best in others next to shy ones. Pair up outgoing, potential scene stealers who love to talk. They'll work all evening at enthralling each other, while giving the table just the right measure of entertainment.
Years ago an even better solution existed. Etiquette dictated you talked to the person on your right through the first half of the meal and the one on your left during the second half. Pretty civilized.
Since that email there's been more musing over this question of dinner dynamics, not a little personal trial and error experimentation, and a lot of gathering of wisdom from others. Today, in interviewing designer Isaac Mizrahi, I found out he is terrified of cooking for friends. Isaac cooks all the time for his boyfriend and loves it, but when others are coming to dinner, he freezes. Sound familiar? Turns out he uses the Tom Sawyer approach ? that is, convincing friends what fun it would be for them to cook for him (and each other) when they are invited to dine (Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer applied the same logic in getting his pals to paint his fence).
My own version of this is to deflect the great expectations of eating at our house by suggesting pot luck. "Everyone has a chance to shine," say I. And everyone lifts the pressure from my having to produce perfection. Besides, I love other people's cooking.
Back to dinner dynamics. Isaac's ice breaker is as he puts it, "booze." He explained that the fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland believed that if you had a stunning top and bottom what was in between didn't matter. In her lexicon that meant gorgeous hair and shoes. Isaac's dinner dynamic rendition of this concept is an original drink as an ice breaker and a dynamite dessert.
From Washington, D.C. hostess Sally Quinn we heard about seating. She spends more time figuring out who to put next to whom than anything else. Her best advice was, "It is not about you, your food, your home, your brilliance; it is about your guests. Figure out how to make sure they have fun and feel welcome, and the evening flies."
It reminded me of the '80s, that era of competitive cooking. You'd spend night after night the week before a dinner cooking your heart out, doing ridiculously elaborate dishes. By the time your company arrived you hated the sight of them and you were so exhausted you couldn't wait for them to leave. I paid those dues a long time ago and shall not do it again.
All this and our own mistakes gave us some home rules. First, just because you love them all doesn't mean your friends will like each other. When bringing people together think chemistry and who will spark whom.
Second, crowd the seating around the table. You have to talk to someone if you are practically rubbing shoulders with them. When everyone gathers around the table figuring out where to sit, announce the house rule: "You can't sit next to the person you sleep with." It always gets a laugh and breaks up that security blanket thing that some couples use to insulate themselves from engaging with others.
Third, cook what you like to eat, but do nothing that demands immediate serving. That's pressure you don't need. Cook to your own taste, not the imagined taste of others. Three dishes served generously are better than six that you've fussed over. Lots of wine and non-alcoholic liquids comfort people. Fussy starters sap your energy and kill off appetites. Besides, you want people really hungry when they sit down.
Lastly, follow Isaac Mizrahi's advice about having a lavish dessert. It's the thing most of us remember. It could be homemade ice cream or a frozen mousse you made last week, or a store bought pie served with dead easy to make panna cotta.
And relax. Enjoy. If you do, so will everyone else.