Growing up in Naples, I loved Saturday nights, when my parents would almost invariably have their closest friends over for dinner. I still believe in what was so clear to me then: that there is nothing better than getting together in the comfort of a home dining room – far from the stress of booking a restaurant table, queuing for a spot in a room already crammed with strangers and struggling to hear what the person sitting next to you is trying to say, as the waiter brings you the wrong order, cold and late…
But most importantly, those evening gatherings at home taught me the meaning of true hosting: the joy in crafting a menu that will delight your friends, cheer them up and provide much needed comfort at the end of a crazy week.
I delighted in the buzz of excitement around my parents as they rushed around, discussing – and often arguing over – which cut of beef to buy, or which shop sold the freshest mozzarella di bufala and the tastiest pomodori di Sorrento for a perfect insalata caprese starter. It was clear how happy it made them to organise an evening of fun where everyone would be spoilt, be it with my granny’s recipe for ragù alla Genovese, my aunt Carla’s torta caprese or the best Fiano di Avellino wine.
As the tomato sauce for the montanare (small fried pizze, a typical Neapolitan street food) bubbled away on the stove, delicious smells – maybe of focaccia and rosmarino – would waft from the oven, my parents’ voices rising above the clashing of saucepan lids to finalise the seating plan. Amid it all, I would see the concentration on my mum’s face as she threw everything into preparing an unforgettable meal for their friends.
Food was always going to be the star of the evening. And I’m certain nobody ever mentioned preferences, allergies or intolerances – or any other personal food requirements. It was, quite simply, not an issue.
Fast-forward to January 2018. My dad is sadly no longer with us, but he lives on through the generosity and the passion to cook for the people close to my heart I inherited from him.
It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m telling our friends at what time we will be expecting them the next day. They are yet to sample my cooking, so I am keen to keep it simple – but I’m also determined to showcase my cavallo di battaglia, my pièce de resistance. I will spoil them with a Neapolitan lasagna, which I know for sure they will never have had before. It’s made with a couple of secret ingredients that make all the difference and turn simple lasagne into a piece of art.
The menu decided and food shop completed, I find myself chatting to two other friends on What’sApp. In an outburst of spontaneity, I say: “Are you up to join us tomorrow for an informal [when I say informal, that doesn’t mean small] meal with us? We’d love to see you!”
Three seconds later, I freeze. A few swear words tumble out. I suddenly come to the shocking realisation that one of them has recently gone vegetarian. I immediately panic. The menu is all based on meat and fish! The shopping has been done! What am I going to feed her? But wait – we don’t know yet if they can make it…
“Thank you for the invite”, reads the reply. “How could we decline an offer to come to one of Mc’s epic feasts?”
I sit down, feeling a little sick. I am excited to see them both again, but the thought of having to prepare a vegetarian alternative menu exhausts me. Finding a suitable vegetarian option is not the problem. A simple bowl of pasta with fresh tomato and basil sauce will always hit the spot. In fact, I can hardly think of anything tastier than this beloved, traditional pasta dish.
The upset comes from not being able to deliver on the spoiling aspect of things. Some will claim that it’s not about the food but all about the company. Well, no. If that were the case, you could invite people over for drinks and nibbles, a cuppa and biscuits.
A dinner party is about celebrating life with outstanding dishes you have made with your heart to spoil and to gift your guests with something exceptional: the best wine, the best cut of meat, the freshest scallops, the tastiest bread. The only stress should come from having to decide which fabulous food items will be on the menu.
Yet these days the prospect of hosting a dinner party is loaded with potential pitfalls. You have to come up with a menu that is vegan-friendly and takes into account an infinite list of food intolerances. If you are lucky enough to have a broad group of people, you may well end up with a vegan, a vegetarian, someone with a nut allergy and a few who who are gluten-intolerant (any Italian’s worst nightmare).
To dream up a menu that can fit all of the requirements above is no longer a joy, but pure stress. There is no fun in simply sourcing a solution to a problem. Because that is what we have come to – though I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. Perhaps we’ll have to start organising dinner parties themed on the basis of food preferences and allergies? In February we are hosting the vegans and in April the gluten-intolerant…
Society has changed, and change is welcome. But I can’t help but feel that with these changes, dinner parties may soon be facing extinction.
Dinner parties have become dinner nightmares. That may not be the case for the more chilled among us, but as for me, I’m sad that these days I find myself including and excluding certain friends depending on their food requirements. I can’t cope with the added organisational skills you need to plan something that will be fit for purpose for every single person. And to those who say, with all good intentions, that “they won’t be able to eat all the courses, but I am sure they won’t starve”: that is not the point. It’s the death of joy and fun involved in planning such events.
But I won’t give up. There is nothing that makes me happier than entartaining. To surprise and to show love through great home-made dishes – the same ones I saw my parents prepare for their friends – gives me infinite joy.
Whether there will be anyone in the world still able to taste such dishes is another question. We can but live in hope!