A Look At Life: Dinner Parties

13th April 2012

Cooking Up A Storm

Heather Harris

What did she cook?…

Forget all the allegations of political bribery and influence, when I heard that Samantha Cameron had to entertain wealthy party funders, the menu was my main concern. After all, it’s bad enough having the boss round for dinner, but when the guests have all paid a few squillion pounds, can you really get away with a decent chilli, followed by something with custard and a suitably smelly cheese board?

It’s not as if her husband was around to help either. Speaking as someone married to a man for whom the words ‘catering’ refer to a van on the A1, I know the horror that is single-handed entertaining.

Imagine the scene… “What do you mean you’ve been away sorting out Syria? We’ve run out of sparkling water, there’s no paper in the upstairs loo and they’ll be here in five minutes”.

Of course what Sam Cam should have done is take a leaf (and a wipe-down vinyl recipe card) out of the opposition’s book. According to recent news reports, Labour duo Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper have been ‘serving up lasagne to over 30 allies’ – that’s a lot of cheese to grate and an awfully big dish – in an effort to curry favour in the advent of a possible leadership battle.

Ironically, according to The Guardian, this very same pasta dish was ‘the staple diet of Cameron and the Notting Hill set when they plotted their way to power last decade’. So why didn't it grace the Downing Street table when the party donors were in town?

The trouble is that today entertaining chez nous is a tricky affair: just like that most frustrating of dress codes, 'smart-casual', it doesn't quite know whether it's a la carte or set menu. Before the 90s restaurant boom, we were all cooking and eating at home in separate dining rooms, off wedding present china on Habitat tablecloths. The guests dressed to impress, and the hostess served a range of rich dishes gleaned from Fanny Cradock and sidekick Johnnie.

Then, suddenly, going out became the new staying in and we were all booking tables for ten in the local Italian. Also, the words ‘let’s knock through’ marked a surge in the profits of B&Q et al, as we all went open plan. Dining room tables were replaced by nifty breakfast bars and rustic oak rectangles in the middle of our kitchen-cum-diner.

But, just as society decided that our lives should be free from the constraints of interior walls, the major supermarkets launched posh ready meals. Coq Au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon and Lamb Shank with Rosemary all came in prick and ping cartons, and prep time was slashed from an entire Saturday to 30 seconds on full power.

Desserts even sat on supermarket shelves in their own individual ceramic dishes, and salads arrived in pre-washed bags complete with croutons and a sachet of dressing. Now all we had to do was hide the incriminating packaging – in three separate recycling bins – which proved not so easy with no dividing wall to hide behind.

Some of us adopted a policy of honesty and no shame, quoting the ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ philosophy of 70s author Shirley Conran. Others went frugal, citing the Lehman Brothers and Fred The Shred for their inability to afford ready meals or produce anything more extravagant than Spag Bol with an extra glug of house red.

And so the ‘kitchen supper’ was born. This new social invitation demands that guests dress down and bring cans rather than Chablis; table cloths are a no-no and ideally guests should sit surrounded by a pile of Lego in one corner of the room and a large pungent Labrador in the other. At the height of ‘lasagne-gate’ it was even reported that Ed and Yvette had invited their children to entertain the guests.

The reason that the Camerons’ nights of shame at Number Ten created such a political storm was that they reinforced every stereotype ever made about the Tories. While the rest of us struggle at the end of a busy day to find matching cutlery, let alone polish it, and watch more cookery programmes than ever but never get past the ‘marinade overnight’ request, our Prime Minister was clearly out to impress…

His guests were evidently far too valuable to risk a ‘kitchen supper’ or Tescos Finest. Whatever your political leanings, this is what got our leader into hot water… if he’d just added a boil in the bag ready meal for four, he might have got away with it.

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