The Dinner Party is Not a Revolution

Hosting and feeding friends and family

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY DANIELLE MULCAHY

“You may want the dinner party to come back, hearkening back to another era. But it will never happen,” quipped Louise Grunwald—Manhattan socialite, top-notch hostess and widow of former Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry Grunwald— several years ago in The New York Times. While a more recent Times article “The Death of the Party” lays the blame squarely on the instant gratification of social media and the “culinary anxiety” evoked in potential hosts when considering how to serve and entertain an ever-discerning “foodie culture.”

Despite such proclamations, the dinner party, a popular way to entertain as far back as Victorian and Edwardian times, is far from dead, even if some consider it a relic or behind the times.

Here in the Hudson Valley, the art of home cooking and entertaining continues to thrive, with a variety of dinner party hosts who regularly invite others into their homes and not just for holiday gatherings. The reasons for such events vary as much as the menus, styles of cooking and table settings. For some, it’s a desire to gather friends to the homes they love. For others, it’s a guarantee of being able to converse in quieter settings than many restaurants offer and without the pressure to vacate a table for another seating. For still others, it’s the possibility to be creative with a great bounty from area farmers’ markets, specialty cheese, meat, dessert and wine shops and even well-stocked supermarkets.

Food was an expression of love, and
I’ve carried that forward and view
the food I prepare for friends as an
expression of my love for them.

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FOOD AS MUSE

Nostalgia influences many of those dedicated to at-home dinner parties, like Roscoe Betsill. He has a country home in the town of Olive, and his love of cooking dates back to his Midwest childhood. Betsill learned to cook in his mother’s, grandmother’s and great-great-aunt’s kitchens and helped with his parents’ dinner parties where the hors d’oeuvres he passed might have been deviled eggs or stuffed celery. “I recognized that food brought people together and made them happy,” he says. He cooked with friends in college and participated in potluck dinner parties to suit everyone’s tight food budget.

After college, Betsill attended cooking school in Paris, which inspired his ultimate career path. “I didn’t aspire to work in a restaurant but make a living as a food stylist, tabletop prop stylist, writer and recipe developer,” he says. And even though he’s now around food all day, he and architect husband Steven Keith still relish having friends gather around their long wooden dining table.

For Dennis Nutley, who resides full time in Stone Ridge and owns the High Falls Green Cottage floral shop, a love of home cooking also started in childhood at his parents’ home on Staten Island. “My dad was a great cook and my mom was OK,” he says.

After he moved to the Hudson Valley 20 years ago, Nutley and his partner, jewelry designer-craftsman David Urso, planted a big vegetable garden and started cooking and entertaining at home. Nutley admits to becoming a total food control freak. “I don’t even like people peeking under the lid,” he says. What may be under the lid includes roast duck, paella, bouillabaisse or, on Sunday nights, spaghetti and meatballs. However, he concedes some territory by allowing a guest to bring dessert.

Some have come much later to the art. Sue Hartshorn, owner and manager of Rhinebeck’s Montgomery Row with daughter Piper Woods, entertains much more now as a single woman than she did when her husband, Tom, was alive. She has an ideal place to do it—a modern house just outside the village of Rhinebeck but high on a hill that offers breathtaking views of the Hudson River and surrounding countryside.

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WHO, WHAT, HOW

Developing a menu and guest list may be among the harder tasks for some hosts. Not for Heige Kim, who resides in Accord with her husband, Fred Lee. Kim, the owner and creative director of the recently shuttered Roos Gallery in Rosendale, keeps alive her Korean heritage by preparing recipes she remembers from her childhood on the West Coast. Many such dishes involve grilling at the table with Lee handling the grill while she prepares an array of side dishes, from scallion pancakes to vegetables steamed, blanched or sautéed, and an assortment of salads, or possibly a lettuce wrap with meat or veggies and sauce with hot pepper paste, soy bean paste and sesame oil.

Kim tends to use her mother’s recipes or ones she finds online and modifies them to scale back how much sugar is typically listed. Instead of wine, the couple usually serve Korean soju, a distilled, vodka-like rice liquor. Place settings consist of chopsticks and traditional individual plates offering both a wide variety and a continuous flow of food. For Betsill, menu ideas start with the guest list, which he refines when he heads out to shop or may be defined by how much time he has to prepare courses. He looks for ideas from his travels and restaurant visits as well as from favorite cookbooks. Hartshorn tries to have her guest list include a mix of genders and ages. “It’s important for me to have younger friends because of their energy levels and work and volunteer interests,” she says. Her style has evolved toward more preparation ahead of time, more vegetarian-inspired dishes, more buffet-style meals that allow guests to manage portion control themselves, and even cocktail and light party fare, so guests can feel free to move from the dining room to living room and back. And she, like Nutley, discourages guests from bringing food to share, in an effort to maintain control of food pairings.

Tessa Edick’s guest list also reflects her love of being with others, as well as her love of food, which reflects her professional life. Edick founded FarmOn! Foundation, a nonprofit organization to develop and fund youth educational programming and preserve family farming. When she moved to Copake Lake in Columbia County, first as a weekender 15 years ago and then full-time five years ago, she had a perfect place to entertain. She hosts dinner parties once or twice a month with partner Eric Williams. A “good guest list” ranks at the top of her essential ingredients. “I’m very committed to networking and love to put people together, which means seating them correctly. I don’t let people who’ve come together sit together, I love to welcome children and arrange all my guests at one long dinner [table], which means no more than 12,” she says.

Fall dinners may involve a sampling of cheeses, salamis and pickles and a specialty cocktail, homemade soups, roasted meats and vegetables and fruit desserts, maybe with citrus, or something “cobbled” together, or simply hot tea and cookies. Edick refuses to serve buffet style or allow potluck. She prioritizes atmosphere with a lovely table, good lighting, real dishes and cloth napkins. She makes it a policy to never start cleanup until everyone leaves. “When you leave food on the table, people have longer inspiring conversations and feel more comfortable, even picking at the food that remains,” she says. She prepares most dishes the day of or day before and saves more complicated Julia Child–style recipes for holiday meals.

JT McKay, creative director at China Grill Management, a corporation that owns and operates many restaurants in New York City, is committed to preparing a menu based on what he wants to cook, rather than according to guests’ food idiosyncrasies. He and partner Sean Nutley, co-owner of Rhinebeck kitchen and gift store bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy and brother of Dennis Nutley, like to have six guests come for dinner once or twice a month to their Catskill home, a number that can comfortably sit around their table. “We hate cramming too many together,” says McKay, who takes charge of food prep. “I grew up with a Sicilian father and Polish mother who became a good Italian wife, and the philosophy was that if you didn’t eat, you didn’t love your mother. Food was an expression of love, and I’ve carried that forward and view the food I prepare for friends as an expression of my love for them.” For company meals, McKay rarely uses cookbooks, or only Julia Child’s The Way to Cook (Knopf, 1993).

McKay’s menus change according to season with fall inspiring, maybe, Cornish game hens stuffed with a “nice French boule [bread] cut into big squares with lots of caramelized onions, celery, garlic, herbs, pecans, chopped apples, fresh or dried currants.” With that he’ll serve Brussels sprouts that he’s parboiled, cut in half, sizzled in rendered duck fat and topped with a healthy sprinkling of fresh bread crumbs, salt, pepper and lemon juice. He also might include a kale chiffonade dressed with smashed garlic, fresh lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and sometimes other ingredients such as baby beets, grated raw carrots, chopped tomatoes and/or black truffle salt—maybe corn on the cob and frisée if there’s some left over. For dessert, he may make a crumble, though he doesn’t consider himself a baker, or he might go easy serving ice cream sundaes with fresh chocolate sauce, which are part of his regular nightly repertoire.

The partners set the table with favorite collections—bowls filled with produce from the season such as apples in fall, salt and pepper shakers, cast-iron candlesticks from McKay’s mother and oversized cast-iron stars a friend gave. McKay shops mostly at a farm co-op, Gadaleto’s Seafood Market & Restaurant for fish and Adams Fairacre Farms market or Emmanuel’s Marketplace in Stone Ridge for meat. One of McKay’s cooking interests is to learn more about the science behind what makes different recipes work, such as adding garlic toward the end if using it with sautéed mushrooms or green beans. “It’s the first to burn,” he says, referring to garlic. His decision to cook what he prefers stems in part from his interest in making the activity the focus of how he unwinds on weekends. “I’m here in the mountains without TV, and our weekends center around food. If I have to worry about not using this or that, I tend not to enjoy the work,” he says. Yet, it seems to work; guests keep returning.

An invite into someone’s home for food lovingly prepared in a dinner party setting, plus stimulating conversation and a warm sense of camaraderie shared by all, certainly retains an appeal, whether it is deemed fashionable or not. British writer William Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge, imparted this nugget of wisdom, “At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.”

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WHERE TO START…

For those new to the role of dinner party host and who find the idea intimidating, here are a few tips to help ensure success.

  • Find the right cookbooks or food websites for recipes that can be made ahead, even frozen, rather than prepared the day before or day of the party.
  • Keep the focus on good but simple and fool-proof recipes rather than anything complicated or laborious; save fancier preparations for later or never.
  • Make a checklist of what needs to be done: shopping, setting the table, preparing the food, developing a playlist, stocking the bar, deciding on a seating chart and so on.
  • Reduce stress by preparing as much as possible in the days before the dinner.

RECIPE

Coq au Vin

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