How to throw a Nora Ephron-inspired dinner party
When I threw my first dinner party I was absolutely certain that things had to be perfect, and if they ended up as less than ideal, there was a hundred percent chance the party, myself, and everyone else involved would burn to the ground. By “things” I mean, of course, the way the napkins were folded and how each purposefully mismatched place setting coordinated with the other. My friends were coming over—the same friends who had seen literal garbage scattered around my apartment—and instead of focusing on enjoying their company I had been overcome by a strong and sudden urge to be the Martha Stewart of my generation.
I had read tips on how to throw the “perfect” dinner party from great entertainers. I’m talking about women seemingly capable of cobbling together beautiful, authentic table settings from a stack of scavenged twigs and a basket of artisanal heirloom tomatoes. I was desperate to prove I could be one of them.
Yet as the evening wore on, and I tried to force perfection to squeeze itself through the half-eaten remains of the burnt flatbread appetizer and my endless, anxiously slurped glugs of wine, the more things fell apart. Well, they didn’t fall apart per-se as much as everyone seemed to stiffen just like they do at the movies when the inevitable scene where the car gets stuck halfway over a cliff happens, and everyone watches as it teeters over the edge on the verge of collapse.
Eventually I realized the key to a great dinner party is to forget about the minutiae details and enjoy yourself. I know everyone says this, but after they say it they always seem to follow this innocent advice with a series of extremely stressful do’s and don’ts about when to take the leg of lamb out of the oven and how you absolutely have to whisk the whipped cream by hand if you even want to have friends by the end of the night.
The late and great Nora Ephron is one of the only shining examples of a legendary entertainer whose advice doesn’t follow this nauseating pattern. Ephron, among being an award winning screenwriter and novelist, was known for her famous dinner parties where she would congregate her A-listers like Meg Ryan, Steve Martin and Meryl Streep around steaming piles of food—which always consisted of four courses, never three—smack dab in the middle of a round table, and encourage everyone to dig in. While her endlessly poignant writing about women, feminism, gender politics, and success can be seen as the more important substance of her career, her straightforward advice on having guests for dinner continues to stand out to me.
Nora Ephron loved food and entertaining, and often let the two topics permeate her work. Her breakthrough novel Heartburn features food writer and notably good cook Rachel Samsat as its heroin. Julie and Julia is a two hour-long meditation on the work of legendary chef Julia Child. And, when Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally in what has arguably become Ephron’s most remembered scene, she does so at Katz’s Delicatessen in front of a smoked meat sandwich. Food punctuated the pages of Ephron’s work—much like she believed butter should liberally dot mashed potatoes, and we loved her for it.
But it’s when Ephron allows herself to speak frankly about food and entertaining that that she becomes the friend you always wished you had, sitting across from you at the dinner table with a glass of wine, candidly sharing her secrets.
With Thanksgiving and the holiday season fast approaching, I think we could all stand to enlist some of the wisdom and gumption Ephron brought to her dinner soirees onto our own. Nora Ephron never spoke about throwing a dinner party with nerves or uncertainty. She always knew exactly how things should be and wasn’t afraid to tell it to you straight. Here is what she said:
You should try to relax about having people over. I have friends who are nervous hostesses, and it just contaminates the entire mood of the evening. They are always rushing from the room to check things and have a wild look in their eyes when they return from the kitchen.
This can literally be so easy
Try to make things easy for yourself. Don’t overreach. Don’t ever cook a meal that has more than one complicated item on the menu. Try to plan menus where most things can be done in advance and where all you have to do is reheat the main dish and cook the pasta (or potatoes or rice) just before dinner.
Don’t kiss guests on both cheeks. It’s phony.
Put the cookbook down.
There is an awful lot of mumbo-jumbo in cookbooks that completely terrifies you—cookbook writers always insisting that you must serve everything right away and that you can’t possibly reheat things—but with the possible exception of mashed potatoes, most everything you cook can be kept warm for a while without any serious consequences. And even mashed potatoes can sit covered with foil in a 300-degree oven for a while without losing a whole lot.
Don’t let roast beef or an intimidating leg of lamb control you. Be the creator of your own destiny.
I almost never serve anything like roast beef or leg of lamb for a large number of people, because there’s no way that the meat won’t be cold by the time you serve everyone. And roast beef is just not as good when it’s cold.
Anything that has a giant lead-up to it rarely lives up to its expectations. This includes presidents, the main course, etc.
The main course always disappoints.
Fish is boring.
Fish — I’m sorry to say this but it’s true — is no fun. People like to play with their food, and it’s virtually impossible to play with fish. If you must have fish, order it at a restaurant.
You don’t have to cook it all, or cook any of it, if you don’t want to.
I am also a big believer in buying delicious things that you are either truthful about (because if people love what they’re eating, they have a huge amount of respect for you for simply finding good food) or of course, passing them off as something you made.
The fact that you can’t afford waitstaff is actually a good thing.
It is never fun if people in monkey suits serve dinner by going around the table and passing the food. This is why I always just put the food out on a table and let everyone help themselves.
It is absolutely essential to have a round table.
It is absolutely essential to have a round table. If you have people to dinner and make good food and then put your guests at a long rectangular table where people can’t hear what’s going on at the other end of the table and are pretty much trapped talking to the person on either side of themselves… well, what is the point?
Seating plans will help avoid the awkward and inevitable “Where should we all sit?” conversation.
People like to have a seating plan. They get very nervous when there isn’t one. This doesn’t mean you have to have place cards (although place cards are nice, especially if you use odd things to make them out of, like postcards or something), but it does mean you should have a plan.
The Rule of Four will save you.
I believe in the Rule of Four. Most dinners consist of three things—a meat or fish, a starch, and a vegetable. I think you must always have a fourth—applesauce, or cornsticks, or chutney, or biscuits, or tiny little baked apples, or monkey bread.
Don’t forget why you wanted to throw a dinner party in the first place.
Your hope always is that your guests will go back for seconds and won’t have any trouble staying late and making you believe it was worth it to go to the trouble to have them in your home.
Remember to be true to yourself and do things your own way. But, we should probably all listen to Nora anyway.
Not that you should pay any attention to these rules of mine; you have to find your own way to entertain. But even if you’re just serving spaghetti and a salad, I’d try to do something with bread—with garlic or rosemary or oregano—to give the meal just a little extra taste.
[Image via Universal pictures]