Weekend Meditation: On Formality

I don't think I've ever given a formal diner party. Mostly because I don't have the stuff -- nothing in my kitchen matches, not the plates or forks or glasses or even the chairs. But I also don't have the stuff, by which I mean I lack the desire and discipline I assume it takes to do such a thing.

I do have a deep respect for formality, however, and there are many places in my life where I'm grateful to encounter it: Traffic signals, grammar, the construction of bridges and tall buildings, Wendell Berry essays ("Forms join us to time, to the consequences and fruitions of our own passing.")

Form conveys culture, makes creation possible, defines (and therefore enables) freedom. Much of author/artist Maria Kalman's genius lies in her easy juxtaposition of the formal and the absurd. And in religious rituals, forms create a tension between spaciousness and containment, allowing the sacred to be brought forth and experienced.

The natural world is simultaneously chaotic and deeply formal. A botanist friend tells me that an orchid and its pollinator are often so perfectly matched that if the pollinator disappears, that kind of orchid will never reproduce again. Or consider the formality of a redwood grove, or a starfish, or the impressively complex patterns on a chard leaf.

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When I cook for friends, however, the last thing I want to do is impress them (and even if I did, they're such a wise and wily bunch that they'd likely lock me in the bathroom with a bottle of gin and the Bhagavad-Gita until I came to my senses.)

Instead, I want community and communion, shared pleasure, laughter, relaxation, discovery, spontaneity. Perhaps a small touch of formality is allowed in basic courtesies (please don't start eating until everyone is served.) Mostly, though, I just want people to be well-fed and happy.

So what do you say: formal or informal? Besides fulfilling a social obligation, why do you invite someone over for dinner?

- by Dana Velden

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Weekend Meditation

Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.

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