Nora Ephron's Rule of Four: How To Intrigue and Satisfy Your Dinner Guests

Pin it button

I am an unabashed lover of romantic comedies. And like most diehard romantic comedy fans — if you'll permit me to be a curmudgeon for a moment — I also believe the genre had its heyday in the 90's, mostly due to Nora Ephron, writer and director of such classics as Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You've Got Mail. (Thanks to Ms. Ephron, I learned the word "tweaking" from that film, and how much I wanted Meg Ryan's haircut. And wardrobe. And irresistible charm.) Nora Ephron died last June, and I've since discovered she was an avid home cook and dinner party hostess extraordinaire. What made her parties so memorable? Well, one clue can be found in her Rule of Four theory:

In her essay "Serial Monogamy: A Memoir," which was published in her 2006 book of essays I Feel Bad About My NeckMs. Ephron recalls the cookbooks and cookbook authors that had the most profound effect on her. In particular she talks about meeting Lee Bailey, who more than anyone else inspired her to find her own unique, personal style of cooking and entertaining. It's from him that she learned what she says is one of the key elements to a successful dinner party: having a fourth food on the plate that's unexpected and delicious. Here's how she described it:

The most important thing that I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again. ~I Feel Bad About My Neck, pg. 25

Isn't that great? It's so simple, but it makes a lot of sense. When planning a dinner party menu, there should be both continuity and contrast, a well-rounded mix of protein, starch, and vegetable with a balance of color, flavor, texture, and weight. 

But after you've hit the basics, Ms. Ephron says to take a moment to think of that special something, that unexpected, untraditional, and maybe a little out there element you could add to the plate, because that's what will draw everything together. That's what will make your guests raise their eyebrows and eagerly dig in for a taste. That's what will keep them coming back for more.

What unexpected dishes have you ever added to your dinner party menu that ended up being a huge hit? Why and how did you choose to add that particular dish? 

Other Helpful Posts on Building a Dinner Party Menu:

(Image: Leela Cyd Ross)

21 Comments