The Wayward Joy of the Dinner Party

Of the many rituals that the past several years have upended, the dinner party seems, at first glance, to be the most minor. And yet there are few traditions that have been as profoundly affected. Not just by Covid-19, either — the idea of sitting down with other people, some of them strangers to you, some of whom might have different, even shocking, political opinions, feels like a relic of a lost era.

But dinner parties have always been potentially combustible affairs. Take a bunch of people (all in various moods and mind frames), place them in a context governed not by law but by social expectations, add in a few bottles of alcohol and you have a potential tinderbox. It’s why we look forward to dinner parties, and why we dread them, too (and why they’ve always been such rich fodder for satirists). A host’s nightmare — a misbehaving guest; a disagreement that accelerates into a full-blown fight — can make for delicious art.

On the Covers

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli and friends.Credit…Robi Rodriguez
From left: Sheila McCarthy, Kate Hallett, Michelle McLeod, Sarah Polley, Claire Foy, Liv McNeil, Dede Gardner and Judith Ivey of the film “Women Talking.”Credit…Jason Schmidt
From left: John David Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson of the play “The Piano Lesson.”Credit…Justin French

Yet at its best, a dinner party is an act of communion. It’s defined by generosity: Someone is feeding you; someone is inviting you to sit down with them. It’s a gesture of peacemaking, of intimacy, of trust. And it’s that spirit that animates this issue, in which we drop in on 12 dinner parties, each hosted by different artists or creative people, from Tokyo to New Orleans to London to Los Angeles. We wanted to know how people were gathering these days: What were they talking about (and not talking about)? What were they eating? What were they listening to? And while we didn’t explicitly ask anyone about Covid, the subject hovered over almost all of the interviews, sometimes in the form of relief, other times in unexpressed anxieties: What will this winter bring for all of us? Is the ability to gather a seasonal privilege only, or is it back for good? Any practiced host will tell you that a memorable dinner party requires some degree of unpredictability — and in this, our third consecutive unpredictable year, it’s perhaps helpful to remember that. Because if all memorable dinner parties share an element of the uncontrollable, they also share another quality: They are a chance to give thanks, to look around at the people with whom you spend your life and to remember that even complicated joy is still, in the end, joy.

Credit…Artwork by Andrew Kuo
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