Dinner parties are back?! Only Jamie Oliver can save us – Jane Bradley

Abigail’s Party is a warning from the past about formal ‘soirees’ that we would do well to heed, writes Jane Bradley.

Mike Leighs play Abigails Party didnt actually involve dinner, but contained all the essential elements of the excruciating chat and attempts to impress (Picture: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)
Mike Leighs play Abigails Party didnt actually involve dinner, but contained all the essential elements of the excruciating chat and attempts to impress (Picture: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)

Apparently the humble dinner party is back. A survey claims the average household throws at least one a month, with half of people saying they prefer to stay in and cook for friends than go out for dinner.

Restauranteurs would probably agree with this survey, conducted by Stoves, the oven manufacturers, who I suppose it is fair to say, might just have a vested interest in these things.

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Many local restaurant owners have complained in the past couple of years that business is slow, while even the big chains such as Jamie’s Italian, Byron Burger and Prezzo have admitted they are struggling, closing numerous branches across the country.

According to the study, we now refer to our food-based soirees and gatherings as “kitchen suppers”, with as many as 78 per cent of people feeling that the term “dinner party” is outdated.

Personally, I feel that both terms grate somewhat, although the change clearly comes from the formal, socially awkward affairs of the 1970s and 1980s, when the boss and his wife were invited round for dinner to make small talk about golf (the men) and the best ways to get their kitchen tiles sparkly clean (the women).

In Britain at least, dinner parties were transformed just 20 years ago or so – single handedly by TV chef Jamie Oliver. His original series in the early 2000s saw viewers ditch the white linen tablecloths and canopes in favour of a gang of mates pitching up around a scrubbed wooden kitchen table, clapping each other on the back and slugging lager straight from the bottle.

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It was a welcome change – and not one which we should reverse. I remember my first Jamie Oliver dinner party in my student days – it was where I essentially met my now-husband. In a meal held to celebrate Valentine’s Day for those of us who were at that point single, I cooked Oliver’s pork steaks with tinned peaches, followed by chocolate pots. It felt oh-so grown up.

I hardly knew my random guest – we were vague colleagues on the university newspaper at the time – but in the spirit of Oliver, when I bumped into him on the street earlier that day, I decided on a whim to invite him to eat with my friends that night. The more the merrier, I thought, not realising that it would be the first of literally thousands of meals we would share together.

He bravely turned up, clutching a bottle of red wine and made polite conversation with my flatmates, who he’d never met before and who, like a pack of preying hyenas, had already decided that he should be my next boyfriend. It was when he didn’t run away screaming – from either the food or the friends – that I realised he was a keeper.

This week, I was reminded of the social awkwardness of the traditional dinner party when I went to see Abigail’s Party at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre. While it wasn’t a great performance – the actress playing Beverley performed in a less than subtle way with an accent that rivalled that of TOWIE star Gemma Collins, making me want to run my fingernails down a blackboard as light relief – Mike Leigh’s script remains both entertaining and on-the-button today.

Written in 1977, the play is more than 40 years old, yet the excruciating chat remains largely the same as in the 2010s. While not strictly a dinner party – although she does do a good line in cheese and pineapple on a stick – Beverley’s stilted “soiree” (the eponymous Abigail is never actually seen on stage) exposes the cracks in the bourgeois and wannabe-bourgeois facade of her guests.

We might now not so readily accept a fleeting remark that a woman’s husband “does not let” her drive a car – while the gags relating to the records of Demis Roussos records and the exoticism of olives are somewhat outdated. Yet the mind-numbing conversations about property prices, coupled with the preoccupation with just how “nice” other guests were made me feel like I was reading down my Facebook newsfeed rather than sitting in a theatre watching a classic piece of theatre.

Yet what the survey seems to suggest is that although we like to think we are holding these oh-so-casual “kitchen suppers”, we are actually dedicating ourselves to a return to the more formal times of the 1980s.

Organising a dinner party, according to the survey, people find to be time consuming, with hosts now wanting to bring a “restaurant into the home”, rather than just cooking a simple meal. On average, hosts say they spend 86 minutes cleaning after a dinner party, 52 minutes making a playlist for music to create an ambience during the meal and 61 minutes planning a menu.

Finally, hosts apparently spend 107 minutes cooking for their guests and an additional 91 minutes cleaning before the party, as well as more than an hour shopping for food.

Let’s just all chill out. Dinner parties should not be about impressing people. While I still hate the term, let’s not lose the Oliver legacy of the more relaxed “kitchen suppers” and return to the bad old days of the dinner party. It wasn’t fun for anybody.