An abridged version of this essay ran in Fort Wayne Magazine (May 2023)
When my husband and I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, more than ten years ago, we knew only the people he had met in the job-interview process. We set out to make friends with a simple strategy: the dinner party.
Since we did not know anyone, we mostly invited “strangers.” For years we played the new-to-town card, which can truly embolden you to put yourself out there. “What is the worst that can happen?” I would think with a shrug…They will say, “No thanks,” and we will invite someone else. With that in mind, we extended invitations to people we had heard on local radio, to people who did interesting work in the community, to families we met at the park, etc.
Inviting someone over, especially if you do not know them well, is social risk. You’re putting yourself out there. To our delight, we found that the vast majority were quite happy to accept the invitation, and we have since shared many meals in good company.
Moreover, it has been a great strategy for feeling less anonymous in a new city, and for making Fort Wayne feel like home. And while making friends in adulthood is a bit like panning for gold, over time we have increased our network of acquaintances, which is what building community is all about. And, yes, we have forged a few important friendships.
Beyond that, the design/planning of dinner parties has become an energizing creative outlet. Over a decade later, we have learned a lot about the art of hosting at-home—from small dinners to larger gatherings of various sorts. The biggest insight, menu-planning tips aside, is that people are craving connection. At a time when US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic, and less than half of Americans regularly socialize with friends in person, it seems to me that there is a lot more than “just a meal” that can result from gathering around the table. Here’s a bit more about what I have learned…
- There is no exact formula to a guest list. For a seated dinner, we include up to twelve people, including a mix of families/couples/singles. We sometimes try to group people by interest or background, and sometimes leave it to chance. Typically, at least half of the group knows at least someone in the room, but in our early years we often had a full table of “strangers,” and it worked out fine!
- When it comes to hosting, you do you. If you are hosting, find what works for you, and own it. I love pulling out all the stops, but I admire hosts who are more “chill” and ask for help preparing a barefoot, outdoor meal grill-side. I have a friend who is the queen of the cheeseboard, and another is the queen of the potluck. Things are so casual nowadays that the host sets the rules, and the best meal is one that is authentic and does not cause the host stress.
- Forget about entertaining to impress. When you set out to impress someone, you put yourself at a higher position and push them down. That may have been the norm for hosts decades ago, but today it can be off-putting. I think it is important to reframe the purpose of a gathering as a chance to share space, and show you care. If I go out of my way to set a table with flowers and place cards and printed menus, I do it because it brings me joy, and it is my way of showing someone I care. I am going for that, “You did all this for me?” kind of reaction.
- Balance formality with whimsy. Few things scare adult Americans more than a place setting with multiple glasses and forks. There is something about the sight of a fish fork that provokes the same cold sweats as a math test. To temper the formality, a little whimsy goes a long way. A place card standing guard on a cut radish, or a “Reserved for Fred” sign on a cake that is obviously meant to be shared, can bring some levity to the table…and help people loosen up.
- Make a little effort, and you are an instant hero. We love cooking, and I am a very self-aware snob when it comes to most prepared foods. Yes, you can buy the box/can/frozen version of most foods, but nothing beats homemade. I realize I may be the exception and, in the words of the venerable Ina Garten, “Store-bought is fine.” I get it. But if you take care to wash and chop an amazing salad—no cooking required—someone at the table just may cry with joy. Food has that power.
- The menu does not matter. Take this with a grain of salt, pun intended, coming from someone who reads recipes for fun…Whether you serve a showstopper dish, comfort food, or something simply “assembled,” any menu can make for a really special gathering. That said, I always ask guests “Which foods to avoid?” to learn about allergies and aversions. And I typically include a dish that has special meaning to us—such as a childhood favorite—so the menu also doubles as a conversation-starter.
- Guesting is a skill. Guests have tremendous power to shape an event, and a skill the best guests have is noticing. Noticing when I am busy wiping a snotty nose and the doorbell rings. Reading the room when they share a strong opinion about a hot topic—which we encourage, by the way. Most importantly, the best guests are fully present and appreciative. They put their phones away and send a thank you note or text afterwards.
- Perfect is not possible. At every event, something goes wrong. A spill, an oven mitt fire, a crumbly wine cork, a tantrum (I mentioned the kids). Somehow in our memory the mishaps become more prominent, and years later, that is the good stuff that we laugh about!
- It is not a chemistry lab. And I do not mean the cooking. Bringing people together is unpredictable. Even if you have a lot in common, it does not mean that you will hit it off. Some of our guests reciprocate with invites to dinners or (more commonly) other gatherings they host, but most do not. And admittedly, sometimes the conversation is dull (my strategy: cue the DeBrand, our local chocolatier). But at least you filled the house with memories and the fridge with leftovers, right?
- It feels good to connect. I studied linguistics in graduate school and as part of the program took a few classes on conversation analysis. We looked at things like turn taking in conversations and what happens when two people are speaking at the same time—is it considered an interruption, or does it energize the discussion? Research tells us that “micro-friendships,” brief exchanges with people you connect with in passing, have a huge impact on our mental health. A good conversation, where you feel heard and seen, is good as gold. Even the best chocolate cake cannot compete.
With that, buon appetito!
About the author: Sonia Checchia is an Indiana-based communications consultant and shares tips for elevating the at-home party on Instagram @SoniaMChecchia