Life | Of Uncooked Garlic And Accented French

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Of Uncooked Garlic And Accented French
Text by Madhu Jain
Published: Volume 18, Issue 12, December, 2010

Social gatherings ought to be occasions for friends, colleagues or family to break bread together, chat, relax – have fun. Alas, many a party is turning into a competitive arena, discovers Madhu Jain

Funny, I can’t remember when we last had a party at home. Well, you see there was the drawn-out summer when much of New Delhi went into hibernation mode. That is when Delhiites are not travelling overseas or in cooler climes in India. Then came the monsoon that went on and on: we even had a little moat in front of our gate because the driveway had sunk. Barely had the blue skies returned and the Commonwealth Games were upon us.

But I prevaricate. The real reason why just the thought of throwing a party sends a frisson down my back is the last dinner party we hosted. It was last winter. The disaster came in the avatar of a ‘good’ friend known to be a chef par excellence. Her table is exquisite, as is her meticulously put together home – where everything is elegance personified. You see aesthetics is a religion with her. And, she is a fundamentalist.

Things started out on a good note that evening. The corn and mushroom vol-au-vents had gone down well, as did the homemade boursin and Melba toast. But as soon as dinner was served I noticed her stiffen. She took one bite of the lightly spiced roasted chicken, turned up her nose, put down her fork and turned to me: “The garlic is uncooked….” Adding insult to injury that was already hurting by then, she turned to my husband and told him to stop opening a bottle of wine. “Why waste good wine on this food!” her voice trailed off.

Actually, the good chef’s nose that night was not quite up to snuff, well, sniff if that were a word. What she presumed to be unfinished garlic was roasted fennel seeds: there was no garlic. But, that’s not the point of this anecdote. Nor is the rudeness of the gastronomical snob that night.

Social gatherings, I would have thought, ought to be occasions for friends, colleagues or family to break bread together, chat, relax – have fun. Alas, many a party is turning into a competitive arena. Keeping up with the Jones or Jains, as the case might be, can be mighty nightmare-inducing, like Judgment Day.

Poor hosts. Just look at all the battlefronts opening up. Cuisine (more likely the most coveted caterer); décor (have known people who have redone their interiors just before a party); guest list (a celebrity or two, at least a chota peg Royal, a token intellectual who’s hogging the edit pages of a national daily, perhaps the politician du jour and a business tycoon).

When the art mart is on an upswing, bestseller artists add buzz to socialite evenings: they also make good conversation pieces. As soon as S H Raza (the octogenarian painter whose prices are going stratospheric) descends from Paris the society mavens and collectors of Mumbai and Delhi compete to throw parties for him.

And then there’s the alcohol. No longer is it about single malts or aged whisky. The wine you serve has to be sufficiently aged and from a French vineyard with cachet and history. Even more important, the name has to roll off your tongue and past your puckered lips as if French were your native tongue.

As for conversation? Well, it is optional, especially in the big dos. A wit once described a cocktail party as “a gathering held to enable 40 people to talk about themselves at the same time”.
What conversation?

Discernible trend
What makes a good party? Just before I got down to writing this column I called a few of my friends to ask them what they thought. I was quite taken aback when a gregarious, party-hopping friend told me that she was done with cocktails and large parties. For her, and as it turned out for many of the other people I spoke to, the ideal party was a small, casual sit-down dinner.

The most important ingredient for them was not the food or the cool-quotient of the assembled guests, but the conversation. Weariness with socialising seems to set in, even amongst the chatterati and those who are normally regular props at diplomatic soirées. They have had enough of evenings where the sole purpose is to see-and-be-seen, perhaps show off a new ensemble of baubles or a freshly sculpted body and redefined, skillfully morphed face.

Says my effervescent, wise friend: “Perhaps we are all ageing, maturing. What’s the point of going to a party with a 100 people floating round and nobody introduces you? We end up talking to the two or three people we know. We might just as well meet for lunch.”

She now prefers to sit round a table with six or eight people who have been introduced to each other. “This way we can talk. We don’t have to discuss politics or gossip. Why can’t we talk about family, children, life and things that really matter to us?”

So, conversation is back on the agenda. Possibly ideas, rather the exchange of ideas, has also become sexy. A discernible trend is friends regularly gathering in each others’ homes to mix gastronomical pleasures with those of the more intellectual or cultural kind.

Some gather to watch a movie, followed by dinner where both the film and the culinary fare will be chewed over. Others meet over a meal to discuss a book or listen to music. It’s food for thought.

Perhaps these spontaneous salons (in the real world) mirror the discussion groups on Facebook and other serious-chatting forums on the internet.

Party swirl
Meanwhile, the incurable party-goers carry on as if life were one big carnival. Actually, make that party. You party at the drop of a hat: some vague jewellery store or restaurant opening, any or every fashion show, the vernissage of an art exhibition of a powerful bureaucrat’s second cousin, some Pappu-Shappu’s birthday bash, some do at the home of the third secretary of a diplomatic mission of a country with a population not much more than that of South Delhi or Sobo.

Age may wither the veteran socialites – male and female – a bit but it does not stop them jumping headlong into the party swirl. The addicted, those prone to Page 3 posturing night after night, don’t even mind sharing newsprint with those who have to pay for the ‘privilege’.
You party, therefore you exist.

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