The dinner party – that staple of middle-class life – is on the way out. It is going the way of the prawn cocktail, the Black Forest gateau and Liebfraumilch.
Its decline has been confirmed by a recent YouGov survey in the UK which revealed that 40pc of people think dinner parties are too expensive, too time-consuming and too stressful to bother with.
If reports of the dinner party’s death are accurate, it has been a steep decline. For in Ireland during the boom, “the dinner party was the pre-eminent social occasion” according to one society caterer.
“People liked to show off their homes, their taste and their sophistication,” adds the caterer. “I spent the early naughties making foam reductions and jus for southside hostesses. Now, people want good, plain ingredients with not much done to them.”
The dinner party has been about showing-off ever since Victorian times, says social historian Tony Farmar.
“That was always part of the dinner party game. The husband was showing off his wife, and the wife was showing off her napiery, linen, glassware and what have you,” says Tony, author of Privileged Lives, a history of the Irish middle classes.
“The dinner party was the only way for a couple to break into wider society,” says Tony. “It was run from the 1880s right up to the 1930s or so according to strict rules.”
According to a book entitled Manner and Tone, a Victorian etiquette guide popular in Ireland, a hostess must give good dinners as “there is no better or surer passport to good society.”
The book goes on to set out the proper form for such evenings. Also helpful was a list included in Thom’s Directory every year which set out the order of precedence as approved by the authorities in Dublin Castle.
These rules governed the order in which guests were to “go down” to dinner, and where they were to be seated. As Tony Farmar helpfully points out in Privileged Lives, the younger sons of earls went down ahead of the Lord Chief Justice. Just so you know.
There were also strict rules about use of cutlery (forks only for “made” dishes such as rissoles or patties), the placement of bread (broken and placed on one’s left) and the ejaculation of cherry stones (discreetly behind a cupped hand).
The elegant formality of Victorian dinners has been depicted in period dramas from Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey. Viewers see the grandeur, but perhaps the sheer tedium of such occasions is glossed over.
The break-up of the formal dinner party began in the 1970s, when more women began to work.
Memoirs of the period are full of accounts of vivacious, intelligent women having to drag conversation out of monosyllabic colonial officers, mumbling majors or recalcitrant rectors with soup-strainer moustaches.
“My own mother – who is not in her nineties – was advised to go through the alphabet until she found a subject on which her dinner companion could engage. One night, she had to go all the way up to r for rugby until the chap would speak,” recalls Tony.
The break-up of the formal dinner party began in the 1970s, when more women began to work. “There was no one at home to spend the day preparing for a formal dinner party,” says Tony Farmar.
“And it was a lot of work. It was fine in the days when people had servants. But for a woman whose husband came home for lunch, for her to then clean the house from top to bottom and prepare four or five courses was quite an ordeal.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, “kitchen suppers” became more common – “these were a deliberate way of saying ‘this is not a dinner party’,” adds Tony. But the formal, full-on, candelabras-and-all dinner party returned during the boom, only to fade away again just as quickly during the bust.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that we’re ahead of the British trend. Several couples interviewed for this article said they could date the moment they stopped entertaining at home “to the collapse of Anglo”.
And recent consumer surveys identify the “cocoon” effect – the idea that families are hunkering down to see out the recession. The focus is inwards, towards hearth and home, rather than outwards.
The financial impact of the recession is also a factor. “I just can’t afford to give a proper dinner party any more,” says a Dublin human resources executive.
“Say you’re having eight people. By the time I’ve bought eight decent fillets of fish or meat, all the trimmings, cheese, wine and a dessert, you’re looking at about €300,” she says.
A tax consultant from Dublin 6 agrees. “We’re giving fewer dinner parties, and we’re invited to fewer. I would say that we are invited to probably less than half of the number we used to be invited to, but how much of that is due to economics and how much to other reasons – busier family lives, etc – is hard to say.”
The tax consultant is something of a wine buff, and has noticed that “the quality of wine on offer at dinner parties has declined dramatically. Also, these evenings tend to be shorter than they were in 2006, so there’s less drinking time.”
The quality of wine on offer at dinner parties has declined dramatically. Also, these evenings tend to be shorter than they were in 2006
An architect and cook with an extensive social network in Dublin’s southside agrees that the formal dinner party is on its knees. “We just not being invited to any these days,” she says.
“Now, it’s much more likely to be a weekend lunch. People prepare big bowls of food, and guests come and go at different times. It’s much more informal.
“A couple of years ago, I think people held dinner parties so they could brag about how much their house was worth. Obviously, they can’t do that these days,” she adds.
“Before, it used to be more about fine dining; TV chefs changed that a lot and made it more informal. There are things like food clubs, and people bring along a dish each. The last dinner party we were at, the wine was served in old jam jars – there’s a kind of anti-ostentation thing going on.”
A Dalkey hostess agrees that the focus has changed from the food to the people. “People are bring a pot-luck dish along much more now – the point is to get together and not to kill yourself with either labour or expense,” she says.
The days when women such as Monica Sheridan dusted every surface, sprayed air freshener, fluffed towels and then cooked a cordon bleu meal are certainly over.
Consumer surveys identify the “cocoon” effect – the idea that families are hunkering down to see out the recession
However, the obituary of the Irish middle class dinner party is not ready to be published just yet. “It’s back to being a social thing, rather than a status thing,” says the society caterer.
“But people are people; they like to eat and drink and talk. So there’ll always be dinner parties of some sort. They may not be grand affairs any longer, but they’re still happening.”