I went to a dinner party last week. Before anyone gets angry, I should clarify that the dinner party happened in my own kitchen. On FaceTime. With two other couples.
The party was originally among the dozens of things erased from our calendar when the pandemic hit; but a few days after sending out an email cancelling, the host sent another email reversing course.
For context — this was a dinner party we had all really been looking forward to. It was one where the kids weren’t invited, the menu had been planned, tested and set for weeks, and the evening would’ve kicked off with a martini. I’m pretty sure I audibly whooped when I got the second email, the gist of which was, “Screw coronavirus. We’re doing it anyway.”
Even if you aren’t mourning the loss of a planned dinner party, you need this too, possibly more than you even know. Despite being connected to friends via text messages, email and social media, sharing a meal with someone is restorative. It’s a fundamental part of human connection. Eating together with friends or family — even virtually — is wonderful. Here’s how you can do it while in quarantine.
Pick your guest list
And keep it small. Remember, this isn’t going to be like a regular dinner party. Unlike real life, there is no opportunity for side conversations or catching up with just one guest. Things might also be easier if everyone knows each other, allowing you to skip a potentially awkward start where you’re introducing yourselves. This shouldn’t feel like a Zoom meeting for work – it should be fun. Pick up to three couples (or four single friends) who you think will be able to keep conversation flowing even through the inevitable lulls. Our virtual dinner party included three couples. It took a few minutes to get everyone connected and we had a few stutter steps at the beginning, covering everyone’s work status and random coronavirus-related facts. Thereafter, conversation flowed smoothly.
If you’re the host, pick the meeting platform and send out those details as well, making sure it isn’t something that’s going to cut you off after a half-hour or be difficult for others to join. FaceTime, Whereby, Skype and WhatsApp are four reliable options. Also, be aware of time zone differences: dinner for us on Pacific time might be nightcap time for a friend on the East Coast.
Making a menu
A virtual dinner party is different than just getting together with friends virtually in that you are all experiencing the same thing — at least on some level.
The host of my dinner party had worked so hard on her menu that we decided to keep it as planned. She sent us the details complete with recipes so we could all cook the same dinner, and even dropped a bottle of the same wine and a bar of chocolate off on each of our porches the day before. Her plans included a charcuterie and cheese board with a martini, followed by “Overnight Focaccia, Tonight” and “Slow-Roasted Oregano Chicken with Buttered Tomatoes,” both from Alison Roman’s book “Nothing Fancy,” as well as roasted carrots with pistachios and chives. The after-dinner calvados was optional, and originally I was going to “bring” a pavlova with lemon curd. But after revisiting my recipe, something calling for six egg whites seemed a bit excessive, hence the chocolate bar courtesy of our kind host.
If planning a dinner party from soup to nuts isn’t your thing, pick a singular theme: Each person picks the recipe for a course or everyone cooks the same cuisine, makes a favorite childhood recipe or cooks from the same cookbook. Alternately, you could re-create a favorite television show (stay tuned in the coming weeks for our features staff’s in-house “Chopped” challenge that we’ll write about for your amusement). If cooking really, truly isn’t your group’s thing, consider all ordering takeout from your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Think of it as an opportunity to potentially introduce your dining companions to a new restaurant while supporting our local restaurateurs.
Breaking the ice
There are bound to be a few bumps — when was the last time we ever thought about having a virtual dinner party? However, there are fun ways to break the tension. Ask your guests to come armed with a piece of paper and a pencil. The game is to draw the person next to them (or possibly pick a person onscreen if everyone is solo) without looking down at the paper, with a 30-second time limit. It’s a low buy-in and the results are guaranteed to have you all laughing.
If all else fails — these are your friends. You know if you’re a storytelling group or one that will watch each other sing karaoke virtually. And if you get really desperate, tell each other your peach (one good thing) and your pit (one bad thing) from your days.
Outside of getting some face time with your family or friends, the best part about this is that you’re already home. When things wind down, hang up and crawl right into bed. The dishes can wait until tomorrow.