By Elizabeth Speth
How I love a good dinner party.
It is one of life’s best joys. I haven’t thrown nearly enough of them in my life, but I do understand the essential elements. You must have food. You must have drink. You must have conversation, which necessitates people. For the conversation to be enjoyable, I suggest people you find pleasant and/or interesting.
A few other things that are nice to have but not necessary:
— Flowers, fragrant if possible, low to the table so people can see each other over them.
— Candlelight, because it makes us look younger, and also hides the cooking splotches on your clothing. The warm, flickering glow casts merciful doubt upon the arugula stuck in your teeth, that large splash of wine on your lapel from your too-vigorous toast, the dents in your ancient cutlery, and the stains on your faded linens, which occasionally double as dish towels.
— Live music, as from a moody, long-haired Spanish guitar player cuddling his instrument on a stool in front of the moonlit window, or a gypsy violinist, or a tuxedoed string quartet. I’ve never experienced any of these scenarios, but I think they would be great.
A dinner party can be an impromptu affair. Recently a few family members and I emptied out my sister’s refrigerator, and trooped out to her deck juggling containers of humus, cheese, olives, crackers and the like, and a jug of wine. We laughed and talked for hours while a huge bank of summer thunderclouds darkened over our heads, and only scurried inside when the first clap of thunder coincided with drops the size of salad plates landing on our heads. That was a very fine dinner party.
Swap out the wine for water, the lamb shanks for French fries, the finger bowls for pre-moistened, packaged towelettes from the take-out barbecue place, and you’ve still got a dinner party as long as you’ve got at least one other person to sip and sup with you.
Because eating and drinking and talking together is a wonderful, intimate, convivial, bonding, dare I say loving thing to do amongst humans. It elevates sustenance of the body to nourishment of the soul.
It’s the closest you can get to people without taking off your clothing, or violating your marriage vows or sterling reputation. For the space of that meal, until the chewing and swallowing are done, you must look each other in the eye, listen and speak, give and take. You must let down your defenses as you replenish yourselves. It’s a glorious exercise in mutual vulnerability.
So, working from that premise, I posed this question to scores of friends and acquaintances:
What person, living or dead, would you like to have at your dinner table?
I’ll start. I think about this a lot, usually while I cook. There are so many people with whom I long to break bread, and the social barriers of polite restraint.
Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. I want to talk to him about parenting. I want to see him raise his bushy eyebrows at us leaning in, wondering if we can ‘have it all’, be good parents and big career builders too. I want to hear how he informed visiting heads of state from countries like Japan and Germany that their work was done for the day, because he had a standing date at 4:30 pm to play touch football with his children on the lawns at Sagamore Hill. The heads of state were always invited to join in, but the appointment non-negotiable. I want to ask him how he overcame physical limitations to embrace a life of such adventure. I’d like to know how in the world he endured the loss of his wife and his mother in the same day.
I’d love to eat dinner with the first fellow who ever thought to eat an oyster. He probably had a lot of other really marvelous ideas.
I’d have Dorothy Parker for dinner in a New York second, but I’d water down her drinks and keep an eagle eye on my husband. Parker is of course famous for saying that she likes to have a martini, maybe two at the most. At three she’s under the table. At four she’s under the host.
Jane Goodall would be a wonderful dinner companion. She would not be a conversation-hog. In fact, you’d likely never know she was there but for a pair of watchful, intelligent eyes peering out of the floral arrangement. Occasionally you’d hear the ‘scritch-scritch’ of a pen as she observed the dinnertime behavior, especially when the more bombastic guests started chest-pounding.
I’d love to eat dinner with Robert Duvall. With Anthony Bourdain and Erik Ripert. The guy who thought up the show Deadwood, David Milch. I wouldn’t even ask him to clean up his language. He could lay waste to the dining room with F-bombs if he wanted.
But enough about me. Here’s what you all said. In some cases, I have condensed and paraphrased, so please forgive me. Curse me for it, if you like. Call me names, but never call me late for dinner.
There was, amongst you, some duplication of dinner invitees, so I’ll cover that first. Jesus Christ was the most popular answer, perhaps not surprisingly, and the reasoning varied. (We all know what Jesus looks like at supper, so I have skipped the photograph.)
My lovely friend Bridget, a missionary who devotes her life to rescuing children from the sex trade in a very poor country, explained her choice:
I would have answers to hundreds of questions, like are there aliens, who first thought lobsters looked delicious. Since His first miracle was water to wine, we’d be having the best, and Italian food, lots and lots of Italian. There would be great conversation, joy , peace and laughs because God does have a sense of humor. I want to ask him: ‘Hitler. Why?’
My sister Anna is at the very least agnostic, if not atheistic about her beliefs, although we have certainly discussed at length the historical proof of Christ’s existence. She said she wanted to ask Jesus:
Are you sorry you didn’t just lay low? I mean, wouldn’t you rather have led a quiet carpenter’s life? Did you really maybe mean to be a Buddhist?
Another popular dining guest choice was Abraham Lincoln, and I agree that his eloquence at the dinner table, his sensibilities, intelligence and kindness, would be a thing to behold.
My husband Neil’s rationale for inviting him:
He was a good storyteller. He had a sense of history, and such a great sense of humor. I want to know what he’d have done about Reconstruction, and what he thought of America today.
My friend Lucinda on Abe:
How do you make decisions that result in death and suffering for so many no matter what you choose to do?
A few chose Thomas Jefferson. He’d be on my list too. He was a great locavore, and I think he’d have loved our California foothill wines.
My friend Mark on Jeffersonian company:
Tommy Jefferson would be on the top of my list. He invented our method of surveying, sent out Lewis & Clark, had a vision for this country before most, He was into bi-racial (er… let’s just say Mark said ‘relations’), and I’m pretty sure he brought an end to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was a little clingy to the French, though…
My thoughtful friend Christian opined that Jefferson, and some other historic leaders, would have words of wisdom for a country that frequently finds itself torn in two, politically:
I’d love to have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over for a long meal, multiple courses, dinner, coffee, and brandy, to discuss how they compromised their personal beliefs to write a Constitution that the States would ratify. Also, I would have the prophet Mohammed over for a simple halal meal, to discuss how his followers have perverted his words (or maybe he would feel they haven’t) to justify some terrible positions regarding women in the 21st century, and dealing with the rest of the world’s non-believers. I feel like we need more leaders who can build consensus, rather than stake out a position because it’s popular with their followers. I would think a couple of dinners like this might just be the ticket towards some ideas to heal our society / world.
A lot of you would like to have dinner again with family members who have died. My Uncle John comes from a long line of artists, and he very much embraces modern technology in his work. He opted to send out an invitation to dine to his deceased father, Merle, also a man of considerable talent.
I’d love to turn his designs into laser art, John said.
My friend Ken suffered through the agony of his father’s dementia, watching the man fade away mentally long before he did physically.
With all the conversations we had, I would love one more, he said, and there is a lot of heartbreak behind that simple statement.
A lot of my female friends wanted another meal with their grandmothers, myself included. We want to talk to them about their wonderful contributions to history, about those old recipes that were such a big part of our childhood. It is our consolation for growing old, I guess, for the slow murdering of our vanity by time, that our daughters’ daughters will not cease loving us.
But historical figures definitely carried the day, in terms of desirable diners.
Take my friend Crockett, a modern-day man of the frontier if ever there was one (his address contains the words ‘outlaw’ and ‘trail’), who chose:
Etta Place… I’ve got not a clue to where/ how she disappeared so successfully. Also Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy). These are the things I would ask him: Where is the Rhodes Gold Mine, where is the Lost Dutchman and where is Butch Cassidy Buried?
Laurie said: I’d go with Anne Frank, because she left so much of her life’s story unsaid. I would love to sit next to her and let her be a child again at a table where she could eat to her heart’s content and talk as loud as she wanted.
Spencer’s selection: Alexander the Great. Questions… What makes you so confident? How were you able to conquer so much territory? HOW DID YOU DIE? (Illness? Poison?)
My friend Jacqueline, a woman with a colorful artistic personality, would gravitate to the table with Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, and they would eat paella. A table always needs an artist, she explains.
Laura, my literary and nature-loving friend:
It would have to be Henry David Thoreau, though he wouldn’t care for me, nor would he drink with me. He was not, in general, a fan of women, nor did he drink. He was a rather stiff and solitary fellow, as Emerson said of him, “One might as well put one’s arm around a young pine tree.” But he did like conversation, and I don’t believe he hated women, just didn’t have much use for the overall frivolity factor, in either men or women. So perhaps we would find something in common. Hard to say. Many people found Thoreau off-putting and difficult. But then, this could also be said of me.
(For the record, Laura is neither.)
My son Leland:
I’d like to get ridiculously drunk with Ulysses S. Grant. I’d want to figure out how to be a strategist like he was.
Uh, Leland? Not until you are 21 (you’ve got three more years, young man!), and I respectfully submit that the first step to being a great strategist is sobriety.
Finally, a last few invites to share with you.
My nephew Andres:
Bob Marley. Just to listen to this man who was so at peace with his life. I’d ask him questions about his history, what he thinks about modern medicine, what he thinks the purpose of life is.
Andres did say what would be on the menu for his dinner with Bob, and I’ll just say that they’re both going to be mighty hungry when they’ve finished that particular form of…er…refreshment.
Tracey, my adventurous hiking friend:
Amelia Earhart is THE woman. She said: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself. Decide if the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is — stop worrying.” I would love to ask her if indeed it was worth it.
My niece Olivia:
Esther Earl. She was Sixteen when she died of thyroid cancer. Through the Harry Potter Alliance she got books to kids who didn’t have access to them. She was just a normal girl who made such a difference in a short time. I’d want to cook fancy food for her. We’d have a proper English tea time.
From my niece Mari:
Carl Sagan. I’d ask him if he’d finally made contact with other life forms. I’d make him seared ahi, sautéed spinach and mashed garlic taters.
And Erin, my wonderful horse-loving, Wild West-embracing, very literate riding buddy:
Virginia Woolf, Queen Noor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and also my great grandfather who rode with Wild Bill Cody and broke horses as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
My son Lyle:
Bill Murray. He is an anomaly. Humor and personality.
Ideally, of course, the dinner party ends here — with you ringing a little bell (which summons people to clear our dishes, put food away, render the kitchen spotless), and me fetching the cigars and brandy.
It’s been lovely. Let’s do it again. And soon.