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Comments (7) Posted 02.10.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Alexandra Lange

Whatever Happened to the Dinner Party?



Scandinavian table setting (via Skimbaco Lifestyle)

Asked by an editor at the GourmetLive app, Are there any stories about design and food? I came up with two pitches. The first, "The Architecture of Food," ran last November and discussed the rising obsession of the design profession with food in all forms.
Jam-making jams, fertilized grow pockets, edible schoolyards, skyscraper farms. Every day my Twitter feed, nominally devoted to design, architecture and media, brings me a stream of architectural platings. I see packaging that becomes a food bowl, sidewalks that sprout, bananas with logos. Right behind the question Why Design Now?—the theme of this year’s National Design Triennial—appears the question What to Eat Now? And designers seem to be throwing themselves at the answer for many of the same reasons. Now that we know we produce too much waste, now that aesthetics are suspect, now that we must compost or perish, how do design and architecture retool themselves for less, or better, or tastier consumption?
But once I started thinking about food and design, I found I couldn't stop, and now I am contributing to that feed. One of the themes that came up most often in my interviews was nostalgia, for forgotten tastes, home cooking, grandmother's recipes. And I found myself nostalgic for the kind of entertaining my parents did when I was a child: dinner parties.

On January 24, 1981, my mother had a dinner party. She served mushrooms Berkeley, Creole bouillabaisse, a green salad and pear and ginger pie. She used her white plates—Arzberg Athena, a wedding gift from my grandparents—and a yellow Marimekko cloth probably bought at Design Research. On April 19, 1987 she also had a dinner party. She served cantaloupe soup, poached rainbow trout and strawberries with sour cream. The plates were Della Robbia and the centerpiece was hand-dyed Easter eggs.

In a new GourmetLive essay, "Whatever Happened to the Dinner Party?" I describe more of those venturesome menus--Ada Boni was my mother's goddess, not Julia Child--and explore why this form of entertaining may have become an endangered species. What this has to do with design may not be immediately obvious (though my mother's tablescaping notes are charming), but I hypothesize that it is the shape and size of our homes, as well as a changed attitude toward time, money and food, that has made the dinner party rare. We are happy to pay other people to design our eating experience, when, back in the day, our mothers (mostly) used to do it themselves.
The dream of the dinner party, in my mind, is the reciprocity of effort: care has been taken by the host to get the food and the people and the mood right, and care has been taken by the guest to be on time and accessorized and without children. We could talk in peace, drink as much wine as we want and, maybe, relax. Those that we invite would invite us back. We’d make new friends. The ambitiousness of cuisine in Julie & Julia used to be universal (among a certain set), and now it is worthy of blog, book, rom-com. But I’m equally intrigued in the ambitiousness of the social life—as distinct from social climbing.
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Comments (7)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Bard College Named Nation's No. 1 Dinner Party School [The Onion]

http://www.theonion.com/articles/bard-college-named-nations-no-1-dinner-party-schoo,19032/

Pardon the less-than-serious comment.
Prescott Perez-Fox
02.10.11 at 10:56

I'm a husband of a young, poor, college family. We've been to a few dinner parties. They just weren't as fancy as your mother's. So, you're right! you're not the only one.
Jonathan
02.11.11 at 12:05

I think a renewed interest in dinner parties is certainly developing. There is a popular email group here called Supper Underground (www.supperunderground.com/) whose members host monthly dinner parties with guests determined by first-come first-serve ticket giveaway. I know at least three individuals who regularly host their own dinner parties with carefully-curated menus. At least here in Austin-- but I think it's a broader trend-- more and more people are growing their own produce in home gardens and identifying as foodies. With a small surplus of produce and eagerness to show off their taste, I think more people will begin turning to dinner parties.
Bridget
02.11.11 at 12:30

As an anthropologist who spent 10 years living in various European countries and grew up in the US.

For those concerned, I can answer the question, "what happened to the dinner party?"

The dinner party has been quietly enjoying himself in Europe politely oblivious to the fact that he was uninvited to pursue smart conversation over convivial drinks in the US.

His place at the table has been filled with Mcdonalds type fare and conversations the length of tweets with all the thoughtfulness of mainstream TV news anchors.

The US cousin of the European dinner party was quietly buried in 1975 resting alongside Jimmy Hoffa. Mayor McCheese inherited his assets, but not his charms.
nick gogerty
02.11.11 at 09:17

Sorry nick that's just more pseuds pretentious Euro-crap.

Dweebs such as yourself are spotted far away and never invited to our dinner parties.
vanderleun
02.19.11 at 07:41

Dinner parties at our home in Amsterdam, for example, are quite common, but have a different image. Dinner parties are a way for friends to share good times, and for modest incomes to pool their resources together.

My friends—mostly European and North-American designers—and I have regular dinner parties. A 7 kilo bag of Turkish arborio rice (at 5 euros) has hosted a few of these parties, as have cheap and homemade everything, from pastries to pasta.

Entertaining is alive and well, it depends on where you are, and where you're looking.
M.C.
02.21.11 at 03:57

Read A. L`s interview in A.R. 01/11, so went looking for archirectural critique. Net takes you to places you would never guess.

Anyway, as a typical Architect, amazed that in 1963, just married, dinner party was on Marimekko cloth with Arzberg Athena in Zambia of all places, and our next friends for a meal will still be dining on and with these classics. In Qld Oz. 02/11.

Are we imprinted at a certain stage and can`t easily change, or is it just good design. Mind you, the menu has totaly changed, also with a better wine selection.

Walter
02.21.11 at 09:20


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
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BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

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