Chapter 14 in Emily Post’s famous book on etiquette is titled, “Formal Dinner.” And the first section under this heading is called “Not for the Novice to Attempt.” Post describes all sorts of ins and outs about table arranging, staff training, and menu preparing here, but truthfully, the point about the novice attempt feels the most salient for today.
Throughout her book, Post insists again and again the finest hosts use nothing but the most highly polished silver imaginable. Of course, we just read an interview with the reigning queen of American interior design, Bunny Williams, in which she let her audience in on a little tip: silver used on a daily basis requires almost no polish at all. We’d venture to guess people of our own generation aren’t even sure if their set of silverware is real silver or not. Some of us don’t even own more than a couple of mismatched pieces. If we were asked to throw a dinner we’d either A) make a reservation someplace fun or B) eat in our laps with paper and plastic. Our guests would probably have a fine time, but nothing about this presentation really has an air of generous hospitality about it. In an era when we feel guilty and ill at ease if we’ve taken more than 30 minutes to dine, it’s unlikely anyone would linger long enough for superficial laughter to turn into the deep and meaningful conversations that once developed over a meal.
To be clear, we’ve departed and are now reflecting more of a Bunny Williams attitude toward dinner parties than a Post attitude. The latter seemed fine with a 1920’s trend of speeding up meal service to a pace at which some 5-course meals could be gotten through in 30 minutes. She regarded the whole affair as an undertaking only possible with rigorous management. It seems doubtful Williams would feel the same, but she would definitely agree the act of hosting a great meal is something refined through lots of practice.
Even if one doesn’t care for the look of her work, Williams is such an interesting figure because she waited a very long time before launching a design firm under her own name; she worked 22 years for the esteemed firm of Parish-Hadley before venturing out on her own. Today’s generation is frantic to become famous immediately. We’d likely attempt a dinner party way out of our league, just like Post advised against. And we’d never think to work for someone else for decades before diving into our own thing head long. While this shows some admirable gumption, it also leads to a lack of knowing. Where Post wrote about how apparent failure would be to the novice dinner host or hostess years ago when people were accustomed to a different way of life, Williams likely worries the novice today can go through life completely oblivious to his or her shortcomings, because he or she has no means through which to experience the very best.
The lesson here is this: slow down and take time to learn how to live life well. It is possible today more than ever to move quickly through life, constantly striving to reach goals you are not ready to reach without developing the tools that will help you reach them easily when the time is right.
Peter & Alexander