Ellen Slaby has things to do. She is a director of marketing for a publisher, cares for her elderly parents, sits on a charity board and has season tickets for the Red Sox. Yet, she throws several dinner parties each month.
"People are afraid to have a dinner party because they think it has to be formal," says Slaby, of Brookline, Mass. "But your friends don't expect a gourmet meal. They just appreciate the chance to come over. A dinner party is one of the nicest things you can do for them."
The postwar bride's yoke, the formal dinner party of Jackie Kennedy days, was more taxing than relaxing. The hostess with the mostest spent days polishing silver flatware, starching linens and stuffing mushrooms.
Guidebooks like the "Good Housekeeping Hostess" dictated everything from the lighting ("must be so arranged as to throw nobody into a disagreeable or unbecoming shadow") to the dinner hour ("from half after 6 to 8 o'clock"). They decreed recipes that sent young brides in search of ingredients like clam bouillon and saddle of venison.
When artist Judy Chicago created her 1979 multimedia "The Dinner Party" (now housed at the Brooklyn Museum), she chose the dinner party as the setting because women were still the cooks and servers, not the participants, she writes in an email.
"Then the 1970s fondue craze changed things," recalls Susan Holland, a Brooklyn, N.Y., events planner. "That started the interactive, casual dinner." At the same time homebuilders deleted formal rooms and made the great room Party Central. "That brought the kitchen to the table," she says. "So the hostess was no longer behind a closed door. She could join the party."
Now, Holland offers tips for getting guests involved on her website, SusanHolland.com. "Make the centerpiece a collection of herbs they can put on their food," she says. "Put condiments in empty paint tubes from an arts-and-crafts store. For dessert, arrange the table with decorate-your-own cupcake ingredients."
Today's host does not have time to "be a Martha Stewart," says Holland. "But we can show our guests we care. It took me 10 minutes at my last party to arrange leaves I found outside for the center of the table, but it looked great."
Slaby is lucky, she says, because cooking is a skill that comes naturally to her, after growing up in a large family. Her recipes include tried-and-true chowders and pizzas, with the emphasis on make ahead. When guests ask what they can bring, Slaby suggests desserts.
Instead of a formal table setting, Slaby uses a set of white dishes she found at a dollar store and her reclaimed-wood tables.
"Casual" is easier when you live in the South, says Kimberly Sundt, a marketing consultant who moved her dinners outside when she moved to Atlanta. "A few times, men have shown up in sports jackets. My boyfriend — he's my co-host — told them to take them off and relax."
Unlike her mother's dinner parties, where Sundt was the silver-polisher, Sundt's parties are guest-centric. "It's all about making new friends," she says.
Friends know Los Angeles nonprofit executive Judith Deutsch for her themed dinner parties. At her hobo party, guests received hors d'oeuvres in bandannas tied to sticks. They fished their meals, already prepared, out of a trash can. ("It was clean and new," notes Deutsch.) Condiments traveled the table on an electric train.
For her pirate party, Deutsch bought inexpensive pirate plates, silverware and mugs. Dinner was fish stew and French bread. "You couldn't have dessert until you finished your pirate ship kit," Deutsch says.
As for dinner-party conversation, anything goes.
Well, almost anything. "Have you gained weight?" and "How come you're still single?" made Ron and Julie Malloy's ("It's Just a Dinner Party") Top 10 list of things to say to your guests "if you don't want them to ever speak to you again."
That was then, this is much more casual
Not my mother's dinner party is the rule-of-thumb now, while today's hosts strive to keep it casual and comfy.
Then: Written and mailed, with RSVP deadlines.
Now: Emailed or texted. What's an RSVP?
Response to guest's "May I bring something?" query
Then: No, thank you, dear.
Now: Heck, yeah.
Then: Jackie Kennedy.
Now: Ina Garten.
Then: Elaborate, multicourse.
Now: Simple, make as much as possible ahead of time.
Then: Formal, designed to impress.
Now: The centerpiece is whatever your garden yields today.
Then: Suits and ties for the men, dresses and heels for women.
Then: China, silver and crystal.
Now: Shabby-chic, mix and match — anything goes, as long as it can go in the dishwasher afterward.
Then: People you want to impress, like the boss and his wife. (Think Darrin and Samantha Stephens hosting the Tates)
Now: Your friends.
Then: Ironed and starched.
Now: Get real.