The Dinner Party: When Things Go Wrong

Illustrations by Clare Mallison


For every perfect feast with friends, there’s a disaster that calls for quick thinking.


Another friend invited a charming male acquaintance who drank too much and couldn’t drive home, so she packed him up and chauffeured him. The second time it happened, she made him walk. (The temperature was below zero.) If you notice a guest is loopy, stop serving wine once the food hits the table. Pass the rolls. Skip after-dinner cordials. Make coffee instead. Propose a postprandial walk. If they can’t drive, call Uber. Or ship the guest home with a sober driver. Worst case: Lend your couch with sheets, pillow, and toothbrush.


Food Poisoning
A friend of mine was proud of her spicy sweet-potato soup until midway through dinner, when a guest doubled over and was rushed to the hospital. The dish, doctors said, had triggered a gall bladder attack. The sick friend recovered. The hostess did not. Poisoning people is easy these days. Everyone is allergic to something. Shellfish. Gluten. Dairy. Life. A careful host inquires before planning the menu. If it’s a potluck, label dishes. Ask vegans to bring a side. Don’t be offended if people pick out the peppers. If guests wind up in the ER, send flowers.



Political Arguments
My octogenarian father-in-law likes to rile Democrats at the dinner table. “If you’re so pro-immigration,” he says with a grin, “you should invite a Somalian family to move in with you.” When conversations about politics go south, create a diversion. Have your spouse break in with travel stories from India. Ask the offender to pick out music from your dusty CD collection. Say in a loud voice, “Isn’t it nice how people from different ends of the political spectrum can sit around the table and break bread? That reminds me of the new Avengers movie…”



I was at the sink washing strawberries when a hockey-playing novelist asked his rival to step outside. It was an old feud over a woman and a job, or maybe over the use of the passive voice. “I’m not going to fight you,” the second writer said to the first. The storyteller in me was deeply disappointed. The brunt of the blame here belongs to the host. Just as the menu of a dinner party must be balanced, the guest list requires finesse. No exes. No enemies. No efforts to bury the hatchet with Jose Cuervo. If things get tense, send in a peacemaker. If that fails, shoo the pugilists outside to duke it out.



Sexual Overtures
When my lawyer friend was living in Moscow, she threw a dinner party for a rowdy cast of writers, actors, and intellectuals. A famous dissident got so soused, he crawled under the dinner table. A moment later, the hostess felt a warm, wet sensation on her leg. “At first I thought it was a dog, but then I realized he was licking my knees,” she says. Unwanted passes? Lecherous hugs? Crass innuendos? Delete the offender from future guest lists.