Jim Duffy: This is why dinner parties are dying out

The play Abigail's Party satirises 1970s dinner parties, although the title character, a 15-year-old girl having her first party next door, never appears (Picture: Nobby Clark)
The play Abigail's Party satirises 1970s dinner parties, although the title character, a 15-year-old girl having her first party next door, never appears (Picture: Nobby Clark)
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The astonishingly rapid rise of allergies and food intolerances is making it hard to cater for a party of friends, says Jim Duffy.

We live in an age where there is more choice of food than ever before. In the last decade, restaurants have sprung up all around us from large chains to smaller niche offerings. We have enigmatic designer burger joints everywhere, serving beef patties with all sorts of yummy creations from blue cheese to avocado to chilli. But, alas even the burger may have had its day as Byron, a well-known UK chain, has announced that it is downsizing.

And of course, we have the high-end fast food chains like Five Guys. Steak is everywhere also and our appetite for it has not waned, despite all the vegetarian hype. But, while the successes of restaurants and some foods is sinusoidal, one eatery is most definitely on the demise – the humble dinner party.

I recall when I was younger my parents having dinner parties in our home and, of course, going to their friends’ houses as they reciprocated. There was the ubiquitous bottle of Mateus Rose that swapped hands at each event. I’m not sure if it was consumed at all, just recycled for each doorstep. Then there was the food. Who recalls the introduction of prawn cocktail? Yes, this little belter usurped the reign of the cream of mushroom soup. Then there was smoked salmon with brown bread. A step up. We had posh pink dinner napkins that we set out with the posh knives and forks. Silver-plated knives and forks that needed Brasso to keep them clean. You know the ones. They are probably lying in your attic just now in the wooden box that you were given as a wedding present.

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Then there was the glasses and ashtrays. Yes, smoking was very much part of the dinner party when I was a boy. Guests arrived, ate, drank and were fairly well behaved and merry. Carriages around midnight, although on a good night, I always awoke in the morning to find some guest sleeping on the couch with a knitted shawl over them to keep them warm. The point is they all enjoyed these dinner parties, weren’t fussy and ate what was served up. But, oh, how things have changed.

We live in a cleaner world today. The dust we have is cleaner apparently. And human beings need dirt and dust to keep their immune systems firing adequately. So, it seems we have developed allergies and intolerances that prevent us from enjoying some foods. Scientists are not fully certain why we have developed intolerances and allergies. It may be environmental triggers. It could be the new micro-cleaning products that we use domestically. It could because the food producers a few steps back in the food chain are using certain pesticides. A food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening, while a food intolerance generally has less severe symptoms and is often limited to digestive problems. Many more people suffer from being lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, allergic to nuts or eggs or food additives in general. And this is why the dinner party is dying. It’s too much hassle catering for so many different tastes.

Serving up a chicken risotto or a bog-standard lasagne can be a minefield these days. Not so in the Seventies and Eighties. The rise in food allergies is meteoric. I bet you know someone right now, off the top of your head, who has a food allergy or intolerance. You may suffer from this yourself.

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So, cooking for a group of ten these days means that probably two of them will have some form of dietary requirement. Inviting people for dinner becomes tricky. You know how it goes – “Mhairi is gluten free and I don’t eat meat”. This immediately causes issues in the kitchen. And while you are cooking up a menu for your guests, it means you have a liability as the food provider. Oh, you think this is ridiculous? Well, the number of claims for life-threatening allergic reactions to foods has increased by a multiplier of five in the USA. Fancy that – inviting your guests round for dinner and one of them sues you as they spent the next week on the toilet after you forgot they were gluten intolerant. Oops…

I recently was invited to a Burns Supper. It was a terrific night and our hosts were fabulous. When it was grub time, we rounded on the kitchen to find two pots of haggis. One regular and one gluten-free. You know it did not even cross my mind that both would be on offer. I opted for the regular. But, this was a fairly straightforward choice. So, what happens when you decide to cook roast lamb with mint sauce, rosemary, supergrains, wheat berries, and a yummy gravy with gluten in it?

It’s amazing how far we have come in such a short time in terms of human biology and how we are impacted by what goes into our bodies. There would most definitely appear to be something happening around the development of the human gut. But, while this goes on and science tries to keep up, the dinner party is dying on its feet. Who has time to create and print out a menu that caters for all of this, canvassing guests for what they can and cannot eat?

I’m not sure where it will all end, but I do know that if anyone wants to invite me – I’ll gladly eat whatever you serve up – for now.