Serendipity Dinners started because I was frustrated at never being able to coordinate a dinner party with my friends and associates. Every time I tried to get a plan together, I came up against a vast weight of social inertia. People seemed interested, but getting everyone's schedules to align was impossible.
It also occured to me that perhaps people just didn't want
to have dinner with me and were too polite to say so.
Eventually, in frustration, I said something to the effect of, "Look, I'm having a dinner party. It will be lovely. In fact, tell you what, I will have a whole
month of dinner parties. Pick one that's convenient and come. You can come to any of them, and hey, you only need to give me, say, 24 hours' notice. No pressure, no expectations, no need to worry about turning down a specific invitation. If you want to come, lovely, and if you don't, no harm done."
Given that I've had 40 people to dinner in the last month, and had requests for this year's timetable starting back in September, people clearly do
want to have dinner with me. Perhaps the simple truth is that they baulk at being tied down to a social obligation - having to be at a certain place by a certain time for a certain duration. It's much easier at a freeform party, where you can slip in and slip out, or even fail to show up, without making a lot of difference to the hosts.
Once the idea of assigning the guest list to Fate was settled, the other aspects of the dinners - the new recipes, the refusal to allow contributions, the secrecy about the menu and the identity of other guests - grew out of that. The gimmick became this interplay of luck, surprise and crowdsourcing: a social experiment as well as a social occasion. This sense of social experimentation has come more to the fore recently, at least in my mind. And as all experiments need to produce findings, here are some of the ones I've made in between crushing pistachios, whisking eggs and pouring sauvignon blanc.
10 Lessons Learnt From Three Years of Serendipity Dinners
1. I'm aware that it forces me to relinquish my usual control freakdom... in the most control freaky way possible. Will there be too many people? Or too few? Will they all get along? Well, it's out of my hands. All I can do is set the table, prepare the food and hope for the best. It's perversely liberating.
2. I like the challenge of creating or generating a scenario in which people enjoy good food and convivial surroundings. It's not simply a matter of being able to show off, or forcing people to like me. I've discovered that I genuinely like being hospitable.
3. People are often confronted by the structure of the Serendipity Dinner. They can be uncomfortable not being able to contribute, not knowing who else is coming, or not knowing what is on the menu. They ask, "Is it okay if..." or "Are you sure I can't..." or "But which one do you want
me to come to?", as if they can't handle the dynamics of the arrangements. In fact one woman at my office has literally boycotted
the dinners because she can't handle the sense of social obligation it places on her.
4. People also struggle with the one rule of Serendipity Dinners: you must email me more than 24 hours before the dinner telling me that you're coming. They tell me in person, or they text me, or they tell me over the phone, or they say, "I can't make it this week, but I might
be able to make it next week"... and then never clarify that into an actual intention.
5. Most people don't seem to do the whole Dinner Party thing any more. They do casual barbecues, or bring-a-plate potlucks, or invite you over to watch a movie and incidentally feed you at the same time. I guess that dinner parties are just too much hassle and require too much thought and planning, and who, other than pretentious people like me, wants to be bothered with that? Apparently the dinner party really is being abandoned, according to no less an authority than the New York Times
. Which leads us to...
6. After thirteen dinners over three years, the number of reciprocal
dinner party invitations I've received is... zero. This isn't a
complaint - just an interesting realisation.
7. I'm gratified when people take the concept and run with it; when they
take me at my word when I say "Come as often as you want! Bring nothing!
Just enjoy it!" and do precisely that. It means that they trust me,
rather than feeling that it's all some sort of subtle social trap.
8. Cooking for 12 takes three times longer than cooking for 4. You'd think there'd be economies of scale, but there aren't.
9. I find that I tend to expend all of my dinner party energy for the year on Serendipity Dinners, meaning that I don't cook the great recipes I discover ever again. This is frustrating. I mean, Serendipity Dinners accounted for nearly 10% of the Fridays this year, so I guess that's a fair contribution to my social calendar, but I'd still like to use the recipes more.
10. Single bed sheets are a useful and inexpensive alternative to table cloths.