It's a strange custom, all right.
1. Go to the store and spent a large wad on viands, wine, sweets, candles. Oh, and olives. Got to have olives.
(In days of yore, more or less the same thing: Snare rabbit; dig up potatoes; chop wood for stove.)
2. Spend the entire day rinsing, dicing, marinating, sauteeing, and baking.
3. Chance to go into downstairs bathroom; gasp. Run get broom and Comet cleanser.
4. Just after dark, make sure outdoor lights are on (insurance), switch on Pandora, put match to candles.
5. Wait to see headlights in your driveway or dog to start barking madly, whichever comes first, or simultaneously.
6. Four hours later, so tired you'd gladly fall into bed still wearing your shoes and earrings, embark on an hour and a half of continuous wineglass washing, pot scrubbing, spill wiping. Vow never to do this again. The next day, start remembering only the great things, and go get calendar to find next open Friday night.
The custom is the dinner party. How long has it been going on? How long have we been craving this admixture of preparations and anticipation, work and giving, chatter and smiles, laughter and consumption, together? Friends in the kitchen: there is nothing so deeply desired at times, and nothing so deep.
There is something in the dinner party that is both highly refined--codified, even, from the moment of entry with proffered bottle in outstretched hand at the same moment as the happy greeting, through the hour of cheese and crackers (and olives), to the first forkful and the praise--and stone primitive. It's huddling around the fire and the roasted bits of torn rodent inside the cave, washed in eons of bathwater until it comes out smelling of candlewax and chevre, martinis and chocolate mousse.
After a while I start to itch if I haven't given one, or gone to one, in some time: last weekend was a scratch-fest. On Friday, at my house; on Saturday, at others'. Of course, this means dual dinner parties both nights, as there are children aplenty. You cook first for them (Friday night, nachos; Saturday, pasta), then put them in front of a movie, where they will be held rapt so the grownups can finally move to the table, sit down and refill the wineglass. We talk, talk, talk--about what? It doesn't matter. It's connection. We are as hungry for it as for the food (menu: mixed seafood; red potatoes roasted with rosemary; spinach with feta, washed down with sparkling wine, to toast a friend who will have a solo show of art in New York next month). Some of these friends are seen only at dinner parties, so dinner parties there must be.
(Nelly, too, partied down. Or shall I say up: near the end of the evening, she figured out how to get on top of the breakfast-room table. Which is where the kids had left their many plates of half-eaten cake. Nelly was now grazing, very much like a cow or horse, moving from plate to plate. This means that forever after, I must be vigilant about pushing the chair all the way up to the table, so as not to give her a stepladder to Nirvana. Do you think I will be able to remember? Your vote counts. Well, at least she made this brilliant advance in her knowledge base after the cake had been served, rather than before.)
Every element of the ritual we have long called "dinner party" stands for something. It's like a church service. The giving of time, and trouble; the receiving of hors d'oeuvres. The hellos and goodbyes, and something in between: humanness, elemental. We state our needs outright. I need sustenance. I need you. I don't know--do you crave this too?