Monday, May 02, 2005


On Saturday night I hosted a Guess Who's Coming To Dinner dinner party. I know of a few churches that run them - a whole bunch of people put their names into a hat, then they're randomly allocated to someone's house for dinner. If you're a guest, you don't know where you're going until an hour before the aperitifs are served. If you're a host, you don't know who is coming until you open the front door and see, for example, Sidney Poitier (or in newer, less classy neighbourhoods, Ashton Kutcher).

In theory, these dinners are a marvellous opportunity to mix with people you'd never spend time with ordinarily. It's very easy to only socialise with people who are in the same stage of life as you; indeed, in churches it can become almost pathological. Getting married, having children or retiring is like being exiled to a foreign country, never to return on pain of death. It's refreshing to sit down to dinner with married couples, retirees, divorcees and teenagers to whom one is not related. It almost never happens in other avenues of life, and it provides you with all sorts of new perspectives on things.

In practice, I was a little disappointed when it transpired that all six of my guests were single people in their twenties and thirties, most of whom I knew reasonably well. Meh.

It was a bit of a struggle from the start, I must admit. As the guests were arriving I served some Sanbitter left over from the cocktail party. Many of the guests looked at them with suspicion, then when forced to accept one, scrutinised them further with eye, nose and whatever organ produces deep mistrust.

Guest: What does it taste like?

Me: It's sort of sweet and sort of bitter. It's hard to describe.

Guest: Hmmm... maybe I'll pass.

Me: Go on, just try it. It really grows on you.

Guest: But I do not recognise it, therefore it is POISON!

Okay, that last line was more of a subtext than an actual statement, but you get the vibe.

In true Australian tradition, the guests in a Guess Who's Coming To Dinner bring a course with them. A Malaysian girl brought tiny egg tarts with rum-infused custard, and I made two Thai curries (one beef, one tofu). However the other courses were a little underwhelming - apparently for a lot of my guests cooking is something that happens to other people. I was faintly annoyed that they hadn't gone to any effort, other than visiting a supermarket on the way to my house. Maybe my annoyance stemmed from the fact that I'd only, you know, rebuilt my dining table to accomodate them.

Allow me to explain. Taking a cue from a picture in one of my cookbooks, I'd bought a 2.4m x 1.2m sheet of 7mm plywood and laid it across my dining table, then screwed in some blocks of wood around the edge to lock it into place. Thus my six-seater table was expanded to seat, by my calculations, ten to twelve people.* To prevent it from looking too much like what it was (a big sheet of plywood lying on a dining table), I got a black paint marker and copied a couple of pages of text from a favourite novel around the edge. I figured that if conversation dried up, guests could just lift up their plate and get some inspiration from Peter Hoeg. Then I got every candlestick I own - brass, glass, wood, silver and iron, in all shapes and sizes - and put them in the middle, where they made a dramatic statement, seeming to rise up like a cluster of skyscrapers in the middle of a vast flat desert.

It looked pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. The only problem was that it made the food appear even more low-rent.

After dinner we adjourned to the living room, full of Thai and cheap icecream, to do what my sisters call "assuming the position"; that is, to lie on the couch and remonstrate with oneself for eating too much. I'd hoped that my guests would form conversations on their own. I telepathically projected "Don't make me get out the board games, people!" at them. But after one particularly horrific extended silence I realised I was going to have to do something, and it would have to be something that wouldn't tax our food-dulled wits.

So I went to the cupboard and dumped my entire collection of Zolo onto the living room rug. They stared at it, whispered queries to each other, and nudged a few pieces like chimpanzees warily investigating a documentary film crew that comes into their midst. Then within ten minutes they were conducting Zolo Smackdown tournaments with their creations. Another crisis averted by weird Californian designer toys.

So, was the dinner a failure or a success? Well, we all ate food, so by that reckoning, Mission Accomplished. My pretentious, artsy-fartsy social agendas were not fulfilled, so a bit of a let-down there. But at the end of the day, the most important role of the Saturday night dinner party was achieved:

Leftovers for lunch on Sunday. Insert Homer drool noise here.

*I'd originally been expecting nine people, but there were a couple of late cancellations due to illness.


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