The “Veddy” Formal Dinner Party: Some Harrowing Hints
“‘The ‘Veddy’ Formal Dinner Party’ is a satirical piece I wrote that was originally published in 1977 in Washington Dossier, the society magazine for the nation’s capital from 1975-1991 run by my wife and eldest son. Every page in the magazine reveals a different nuance of life during that era – revisiting this piece brought back a lot of fond memories. I couldn’t wait to share it with you and I hope you enjoy it.” -Warren Adler
And now we come to the litmus test of Washington society standing, the environment when real reputations are made or broken… The “veddy” formal dinner party.
If you blow this, all your dreams of grandeur, all those fantasies of power, all those grasping years of hunting for true glory, will come crashing down around your ears as if Samson himself had moved the pillars and you were left to rot among the dying Philistines.
The “veddy” formal dinner party is an event so rigidly choreographed and disciplined that one false move, the tiniest “faux pas” such as merely lifting the wrong fork will set you back so far you may never retrieve yourself, even if everything you do from then on will be absolutely correct.
There are two firm rules that you should adhere to if your expertise at these events is faulty. The first is to remain absolutely alert. If necessary take a nap before attendance. You will need all your faculties. Secondly, watch the hostess. She is the mastermind behind this entire event. Pray that she knows her onions. Assume that she does, then copy her. Do what she does. Watch her fingers. Pick up the utensils she picks up. Eat when she eats. Turn when she turns. When she sips, you sip. When she cuts her meat, you cut your meat. Do not get waylaid, no matter how interesting your partner’s conversation gets. Hope your peripheral vision is perfect.
Just in case you tend to short spans of concentration, let us take you through the ritual as if someone frightfully snobbish, a monitor, is standing over your shoulder. Let us assume that the invitation is correct and that you have replied correctly. You have circled the date. You have chosen your gown or formal dress suit and remembered to take it out of the cleaners.
If the invitation says come at eight, you have ten minutes of lead time only, depending on your rank. If you are a cabinet minister, fifteen minutes late is obligatory. There are only twelve of those so the chances are you are outranked before you depart.
Don’t be later than ten minutes. Your apologies will only earn you demerits. If you have not got a chauffeur, be sure you find parking early enough so that you and your companion can arrive together. A drop off could earn you a demerit. Always enter together. That way it will seem as if you have arrived by chauffeured limousine.
You will be greeted in the vestibule by a butler. He will show you the placement chart or wheel little cards placed around an imaginary table. Do not take the card from its rack. Do not groan or show any emotion when you learn who will be your dinner partner.
Even if you hate your dinner partner and the butler is not looking, do not change the arrangement. There are other place cards on the table. Suspend your animosities even if, by some accident, you are placed next to your wife’s lover or your husband’s mistress or your ex-wife. There can be no mortal enemies at dinner parties. Everybody must speak, even those who are not speaking.
If it is not raining and you are a woman, do not go to the ladies room for a touch up upon arrival. It implies insecurity. The objective is to appear totally secure and cool at all times. Perform your ablutions immediately before leaving for the party.
Always greet the hostess first, even if one of the guests is your long lost mother, the hostess is the star. She will be waiting to receive. A two cheeker is an appropriate greeting. Greet the host next. If you are a man do not even give him a one cheeker. The host will probably introduce you to all the guests. Don’t let your eyes wander looking for the bar. A waiter will pass drinks. Take only one and sip slowly. Remember that alertness counts. There will be enough wine served to float a battleship.
The pre-dinner cocktail is a half-hour sometimes 45 minutes. It is the time to be complimentary only. Everybody must feel beautiful, well turned out. The hostess will be showing off her best crystal glasses and china, and you will be obliged to show yourself off to your best advantage. If any of the guests are tacky and ugly, lie to them.
You are not before a congressional committee. Everyone should stroke everyone else. From your earlier peek at the chart, you should have remembered your dinner partners on your left and right. If you haven’t don’t run back downstairs to find out. Hope that your dinner partners recognize you. If both have forgotten, stay cool. You will find out soon enough.
When you run out of compliments, the weather is appropriate for conversation. Save the choice morsels for the dinner itself (you will need every conversational resource you can muster. You will be trapped with your partner for nearly two hours.) Don’t try to bridge this gap by calling your hostess in advance to find out who will be your dinner partner. That will finish you before you start and you might be uninvited.
Getting to the dinner table will not be intimidating if you watch the hostess. She will announce the beginning of the party by walking to the dining room on the arm of the ranking guest. Follow her casually. Hopefully, you can find your place without putting on your glasses, but that is highly unlikely no matter how much you remember about the seating plan. Ladies are seated first. The gentlemen stand until all the ladies are seated. This is the easiest part of the ritual if you can tell the men from the women.
Now comes the hard part: identifying all those forks and spoons and glasses arranged like soldiers around the center plate. The napkin will be simple. There is only one of those. Some of the utensils will appear quite strange. It’s not like a table setting at a restaurant, and the chances are unless you’ve been secretly practicing it will not be the kind of table setting at your usual home meals.
Knowing forks is the most critical piece of information at this juncture. This is because the fork will be the kick-off utensil. When in doubt, watch the hostess. If she’s an amateur the entire dinner will be a disaster, and you may lose brownie points because of guilt by association, a familiar Washington malady.
Start the conversation with the person on your right. Turn when your hostess turns to the person on her left. The hardest part is making conversation. There could be a spill-over of the compliments. When in doubt or at a loss for words, name drop shamelessly and hope that your partner might know some of the names you drop. You can then gossip about third parties by transferring the compliments to them.
There are of course certain dos and don’ts on conversation. At a diplomatic party, watch out for human rights. If you are Jewish at an Arab dinner avoid religion. If you are a democrat at a republican dinner avoid politics. If you are a white at an African-American dinner avoid race. Sex is fine, but avoid mixing it with either the fish or the meat dishes. Movies are good as last resorts before name dropping. If you are dissatisfied with the president do not attack him, attack his press secretary or even Bert Lance. They are used to it. If you like the president and supported him in the election, slip in “Jimmy” occasionally when referring to him.
Do not tell off-color jokes. Time your anecdotes. If they run over two minutes shorten them. Avoid body contact with your partner especially under the table. Save any seduction sequence for a cocktail party.
The easiest place to become thoroughly bombed is at a formal dinner party. The wine never stops coming and it comes in every color. Chassagne-Montrachet with the opening seafood course. An old Madeira with the soup, Meursault with the fish. A fine Chateau or a Burgundy with the meat course and vegetables, Dom Perignon with dessert. Every sip will be quickly replaced.
Since you will be so busy watching the hostess, finding things to say to your partner, searching for the right fork or spoon, eating between conversations, worrying about slighting the dinner partner on either side by forgetting to divide your time, being nervous at the prospect of being called upon to make a toast, you will sometimes forget that the wine is still coming and wonder why your glass never empties.
This could have a domino effect, especially on your kidneys. It will not be easy to remove yourself from the table while the dinner is progressing. Even a full bladder could be interpreted as a flaw.
If you have not paced yourself, you can be either drunk or exhausted by the time dessert rolls around. But if you have arrived at this point with success you had better clear your head. Dessert can ruin you.
Before it is served you will be confronted by an odd little dish, it will be filled with liquid floating with a piece of lemon. It will be served on a plate and under the little bowl will be a doily.
Do not drink this liquid, even if it looks appetizing. Hostesses can be testing your mettle. Repeat: Do not drink. It is a finger bowl. But once you have hurdled that obstacle, another will immediately confront you. This is because you must now remove the finger bowl from the plate. That is the easy part. The problem is the doily. You see, the plate where this doily sits will quickly be used for some mushy variety of dessert, generally a mousse. Since you must serve it yourself from the waiter’s serving plate you can easily smear it all over the doily. Such a ”faux pas” is worthy of a flunking grade on its own. You must remove the doily from the plate with the finger bowl.
Some people have been observed placing the dessert in the finger bowl thinking it is some kind of sauce. Normally they die of mortification right at the dinner table.
Having reached this point without a hitch, you are probably thinking you have weathered all problems. Forget it. There are minefields ahead. First, there is the champagne. It will be served with the dessert. But watch out. It is strictly for the toasts. Others will argue that point. Don’t listen. Save it for the toasts. Do not fake it. If you are a teetotaling Muslim or a member of AA, lift your water glass. People will understand. If you are not one of these, lift your champagne glass and drink from it. Remember you are always under scrutiny.
Getting through the toasts will provide many anxious moments. Sometimes everyone at the table must make a toast. It is catching, like a virus. After you finish your dessert you will hear a light bell-like tinkle. It is the sound of silver on crystal. It is not the host showing off the fidelity of these articles, nor is it a signal to depart the table. It is merely an attention getter. The toasts are about to begin.
The methodology of toasts is quite rigid. The host will toast the guest of honor if there is one or the entire assembly or the country, or God, if he is so disposed. He will, of course, be complimentary, especially to the assembled guests who will be characterized as beautiful, especially the women, brilliant, especially the men, and warm, compassionate, friendly, all those things you secretly think about yourself. Don’t get carried away; “the devil” himself will come off as God’s equal in goodness.
The problem is in the response. If a country is mentioned, the ranking member of the government must rise and offer his own compliments. If any of the guests are mentioned by name, they too must rise but after the ranking government official. If the host’s toast is to the guest of honor, he or she must rise in response.
At diplomatic dinner parties, heads of state are woven into the toasts. You could easily find yourself toasting ldi Amin or Menachem Begin even if you are an Arab. Or King Hussein if you are Jewish or the Turkish prime minister if you are Greek. Do it. Nobody cares. Love everybody.
There will be much standing and raising of glasses. Your problem will occur when you are expected to make a toast. Especially if you are totally unprepared or drunk and up to now are hiding it well. Or you have indigestion. You cannot get away with it. People will notice the absence of your toast.
If you can manage to get your tongue loose, these simple pointers will stand you in good stead. By the time you rise, every conceivable subject will be covered except the chef and the parents of the host and hostess. This is absolutely safe ground. People will think you are clever, certainly unique. After all, without parents where would the host or hostess be, and without a chef the whole evening would not have occurred in the first place. Even if an outside caterer is used and you have seen his truck in the back driveway, make believe you haven’t.
After the toasts, the host and hostess will lead you to a sitting room for coffee and after-dinner drinks. There is still a great deal of confusion about the proper way to handle this. Before women’s lib, it was perfectly appropriate to separate the men from the women, the women to freshen up and have coffee with the hostess, the men to stay at the table for brandy and cigars with the host.
If you have what the movement calls a “raised awareness,” you will be torn no matter your gender. It would be a shame to have gone this far and ruined everything by making a political stand. There is only one way to finesse this. Start with the group of your own sex, then “freshen up,” drifting back to the group formed by the opposite sex. If you are a woman, do not smoke a cigar. Eccentricities are fine except at dinner parties, where what is outside the norm is considered tacky.
There is one more admonition. If you have retained your alertness through all this, and it is most unlikely, the timing of your departure is crucial. If you leave before the honored guest, no matter how pressed for time, you have probably cancelled your next invitation. Equally terrible would be to stay too long. Be deft. Watch your footwork and never stay beyond one hour after dinner. Even that might be too much, depending on your perception of the stamina of your host and hostess who will undoubtedly escort you to the door.
You may repeat the two cheeker with the hostess and the host if you are a woman. If you are a man, you may be tempted to give the host a two cheeker. You, by then, will be ecstatic that you have made it through the night and sincerely wish to show your affection. Don’t.
Leave with your companion. Walk slowly to the old Volks parked behind the big Mercedes a few blocks away and speed merrily home. Do not yell for joy until you have gotten out of your host’s neighborhood. If you have been perfect you will have reason to celebrate. If you have not been do not get depressed. You were probably a last minute choice anyway.
For a closer look check out The Washington Dossier Diaries available here.