Twelve years ago, when I was young, single, and living in Nashville, Tennessee, I began hosting a weekly Tuesday night dinner party. My friends knew they had a standing invite to come over around 7 p.m. for dinner. They brought the wine; I made the food. To help cover the cost of ingredients, everyone generously threw in a few dollars.
It was nothing fancy — the mere fact that it was on a weeknight meant that I had minimal time to prep the food and set the table — but it was a chance for our friends to gather around my yellow table for a simple, homemade meal and good conversation. Sometimes five friends showed up, other times there were 15. When it was a larger group, we'd set up a folding card table and chairs to provide extra seating.
What's a crappy dinner party? It's the solution to seeing friends more and stressing out less.
My Dinner Parties Before Instagram
Luckily, this was well before the age of Instagram, because these dinners weren't exactly photo-worthy. The table was hastily set (usually by a roommate or friend while I finished cooking), with chipped plates, simple flatware, cheap wine glasses, and paper napkins. Sometimes I'd have flowers, but often not. There were always candles, though, to help disguise the fact that I hadn't had time to vacuum or dust.
The food was usually dished up in the kitchen — served straight from the pan or the pot it was cooked in, with salads served out of big prep bowls with metal tongs. It was delicious, but presentation wasn't exactly the goal. Or even the point.
But what was lacking in ambiance, we more than made up for in laughter. And stories. Oh, there were so many! Like the time I accidentally dumped an entire container of pepper into the Coq au Vin and everyone sweated profusely throughout the meal; or the time I bought a new blender to purée the soup and didn't attach the lid properly (the walls ended up coated in butternut squash purée moments before the guests arrived); or the time my brother brought a trombone and played it outside the apartment building, much to the ire of my neighbors; or the time we invited Irish musicians over for an impromptu after-dinner jam session.
These weekly dinners spanned more than two years and provided a depth of community that I've rarely experienced since. There was no pressure for them to look or feel a certain way. The point was consistency and connection. People showed up as they were and were fed. The evenings ended late, with a pile of dishes in the sink, empty wine glasses on the table, and full bellies and hearts all around.
My Dinner Parties in the Age of Instagram
Life looks quite a bit different these days. I'm married with a baby, and we live in Brooklyn. I still throw dinner parties, but they happen much less frequently. Everyone is so busy these days, juggling work and kids and relentless schedules.
Also, truthfully, as a blogger and cookbook author, entertaining carries a whole new level of pressure for me. I feel like there's an expectation that if I throw a dinner party, it should be Instagrammable. Because, when people go to dinner parties, the first thing they do is pull out their iPhones and start snapping pictures. Pictures of the table, pictures of the food, and pictures of other guests taking pictures.
And so I set the table with our wedding china, cloth napkins, pretty silverware, delicate wine glasses, and fresh flowers. And candles — of course! — although now they're not disguising anything; the house is spotless. Sometimes, I even handwrite name cards and make menus.
I also plan the menu in advance, shop ahead, prep ahead, and have hors d'oeuvres and bubbly waiting when people arrive. And, as a result, I have mini-meltdowns before guests arrive, because I want everything to be perfect.
Since when was that the goal?
The dinner parties I throw now are certainly more photo-friendly — I take pride in creating an elegant table and beautifully arranged food; I love the creativity of the process, and enjoy creating special memories for friends — but I admit, I'm jealous of my 24-year-old self, who could simply make a pot of soup, invite friends over, and call it a dinner party. The house might have been messy and I might have been in workout clothes, but no one was snapping pictures. Everyone was too busy enjoying themselves.
My Instagram-Free Dinner Party Challenge
When it comes to dinner parties, I'd rather make it simple and do it more often than have an Instagram-worthy soirée once a year. So I have a challenge — for you and for me. Invite a few close friends over, and when they arrive, ask them to put their phones in a basket.
Make a simple main course and have everyone bring something — a salad, an appetizer, a dessert, or a bottle of wine — so you're not stuck doing all of the work. Don't worry about deep-cleaning your house or setting an elaborate table; just treat it as a family meal. Who knows, you may have so much fun that it becomes a weekly event. Maybe rotate houses. Maybe bring an instrument. The main goal is to keep it simple, stay present, and to create community.
Instagram will never know.