When hosting a dinner party, Martha Stewart suggests starting to cook and prepare food at least a week in advance. You should have a theme, she says, and all the details of your party — every course of the meal, the decor, the cutlery — must match the theme.
Emily Post’s granddaughter, Lizzie Post, suggests sending out paper invitations in the mail, because email has too many ads. She also advises that if your apartment is too tiny, you should just rent another apartment for a day, Post told Elle Decor.
For people in 2019, these rules sound antiquated to the point of being absurd.
In 2012, New York Times writer Guy Trebay lamented that the dinner party was dead. “The seated dinner, with its minuet of invitation and acceptance, its formalities and protocols, its culinary and dietary challenges, its inherent requirements of guest and host alike is under threat, many say.”
He’s partly correct: The classic seated, multi-course, formal dinner party, with its china and linens, its cocktails and boeuf bourguignon, is dead. Most young adults today — specifically, millennials, who are in their mid-20s to late 30s by now — don’t have the money, time, or space for the types of elaborate dinner parties their parents and grandparents might have hosted decades ago. Dinner parties were once a way to show off your wealth and social status, but millennials hit by the Great Recession have neither.
That doesn’t mean dinner parties have become obsolete in 2019: They’ve just evolved. Millennials prioritize friendships, so they still value gathering with their friends and loved ones over food and drinks, but they’ve changed the playbook to adapt to our post-recession economy. That means formal dinners served on china with a roast and martinis have been replaced by having friends over to your apartment for chili night and White Claws. The cornbread might get a little burnt, some people might have to sit on the floor, but the important thing is getting together with friends and enjoying each other’s company — not stressing out about tablescapes and etiquette.
“I think the millennial dinner party now equates to casual but well thought out: good group of like-minded friends; easy-going cooking; BYO approach; on-point music on the record player in the background,” says Alisha Miranda, a 33-year-old writer in Philadelphia. “Most importantly, it’s about low-key chill vibes.”
Nikki Rappaport, a 32-year-old marketer in DC, agrees. “I don’t even know what a formal dinner party would entail for me and my friends,” she says. “To me ‘formal’ means, dishes prepared hours in advance, elegant plating and linens, multiple courses, and a clear divide between host and guest. My friends and I don’t really have the time — in planning or in hosting — to make our gatherings more formal. And honestly, it just doesn’t sound as fun.”
When it comes to cooking inspiration, Instagram-happy 30-somethings today don’t look to Julia Child or Martha Stewart — they look to Alison Roman, whose first cookbook Dining In was a hit in 2017, when some of the recipes went viral on Instagram. Roman’s forthcoming second cookbook, Nothing Fancy, focuses more specifically on recipes for dinner parties. But Roman is clear about her philosophy: “I have always been allergic to the word ‘entertaining,’ which to me implies there’s a show, something performative at best and inauthentic at worst,” she says. “But having people over? Well, that’s just making dinner, but you know, with more people. Unfussy food, unfussy vibes, and the permission to be imperfect.”
“To do that formal entertaining — that’s a lot of pressure. You’re performing, it’s an event. You have to do a lot of preparation, and you have to have the right kind of tools and the budget to pull it off,” Roman tells Vox. “But having people over can be as regular as you want it to be. No matter where you live, no matter how big your kitchen is, no matter your budget, you can definitely invite people into your home and share food with them. Nothing should prevent you from doing that.”
How dinner parties became a signifier of class, wealth, and sophistication
The dinner party isn’t a modern invention; it has ancient roots, going as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held massive feasts with dozens of guests. “People have gathered together over food for as long as we’ve been human, but what exactly that looks like has changed considerably depending when and where we look,” says Julia Skinner, a culinary historian and founder of Root Kitchens, a food history and fermentation organization, over email.
More recently, there was a shift toward dining rooms in the home for smaller, more intimate dinner parties — and they were also a sign of wealth: “The permanent dining room set as we know it didn’t appear until the Early Modern period. Dining sets gradually became smaller, as wealthy folks favored more intimate gatherings and as shifts in economics meant that the middling classes could also afford a home with a small room (rather than a great hall) dedicated to eating.”
And then came the fancy silverware: “The Victorians added a lot of specialty tableware to their dinner parties, as part of the many, and often subtle, social norms that dictated who was part of the group — and who was not,” Skinner says. “Things like special lettuce and pickle forks, for example, as well as separate plates for every single possible food, specialty glassware, different spoons for every course.”
By the mid-century period, that era of housewives throwing glamorous dinner parties, the precedent had long been established. As the post-war economy boomed and the middle class grew, it became increasingly more common for people to entertain guests in their homes, and that period of prosperity brought with it “an expectation that the food will be pretty substantial and that it most likely will be served in courses,” Skinner said.
McMansion Hell blogger Kate Wagner also wrote about the American obsession with formal entertaining spaces and dining rooms in Curbed last year: “Elite houses, from the domus of a Pompeian politician to the Palace of Versailles, from Biltmore to McMansions in subdivisions named Biltmore, have always maintained a separation of formal and informal space. … One of the simplest reasons so many clamor for formal spaces is because they are a signifier of wealth and prestige, a sign of having ‘made it.’”
And for many, those beautiful dining rooms, and the elegant dinner parties that take place in them, are aspirational, Wagner writes: “We think our spaces will create the lives we want: If only we had a great room with an expansive deck, we could finally host big, sophisticated, straight-out-of-Mad Men parties.”
All of this is to say that as the dinner party evolved over modern history, the ability to throw a dinner party became a signifier of class status. Hosting a dinner party required having a home big enough to host gatherings and comfortably seat people at a dinner table, the money to supply guests with several courses of food and alcohol, the time to prepare elaborate meals, and the disposable income to furnish your home with sets of formal dinnerware, stemware, candles, table decor, and all the other trappings of formal dinner parties. Having a dinner party was a way to show off your extensive social connections, your wealth, your place in society. It was a sign of having good taste — which is ultimately all about class anxiety.
Post-recession millennials don’t have the money to buy big houses, fancy furniture, or china
Meanwhile, it would be an understatement to say that millennials have some financial anxiety.
Many of them graduated college during the Great Recession and entered the worst job market in 80 years. Three out of four millennials have some kind of debt, and a quarter of millennials have more than $30,000 in debt. A recent study found that millennials are more likely to be worse off financially than their parents’ generation.
Millennial home ownership is also at a record low, and they are increasingly living in tiny apartments instead of buying homes (seriously: more American households are renting than at any point since 1965). And the problem isn’t limited to just major cities like New York and LA — rents are rising all across the country, including smaller towns and cities.
The shift towards rentals and apartments over buying spacious single-family homes means very few millennials have the physical space for a 12-person reclaimed wood dining table, or room for a dinner table at all.
“No one I know has the space or the time to devote to what a formal dinner party entails,” says Elizabeth Gerberich, a 25-year-old living in Austin, Texas. “I don’t know anyone who owns a dining table that can comfortably fit more than three people at a time because no one I know has an apartment with an actual dining room.”
And aside from a sheer lack of square footage, millennials’ mounting debt and stagnating wages also mean they have less disposable income to spend on furnishing their homes with the accoutrements of fancy dinner parties of the past: dining room furniture, fancy china place settings, cloth napkins, crystal stemware, and fancy silver flatware.
In 2017, the Washington Post reported that Pottery Barn had suffered four consecutive quarters of declining sales — and the company had discovered that one major reason for its sluggish sales was that millennials’ tiny apartments were too small for Pottery Barn furniture. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that millennials were increasingly preferring to use paper towels at the dinner table instead of buying napkins.
In the New York Times, Guy Trebay noted that “Few … still see the point in accumulating china, silver and crystal at all. ... Prime real estate once allotted to the staples of the bridal registry at Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue flagship have now been supplanted by cases of leather accessories.”
Boomer parents also report having a hard time giving away their china to their millennial children, because they simply don’t want it. That lack of space once again plays a role here — they have less storage space to hold such heirlooms (have you ever seen a china cabinet like Mom’s in a 500 square foot apartment?), and they also move more often and don’t want to be weighed down by heavy furniture through every cross-country move.
Millennials value friendships, and love entertaining — just don’t call it that
Despite the lack of space, money, and formality, today’s 20- and 30-somethings still love to entertain — they just would never call it “entertaining.” They’re not having formal dinner parties to show off their wealth or their class status — because they don’t have any. But millennials deeply value friendships and social connections, and they prioritize getting together with friends.
A 2012 Wharton study found that millennials rank friendship as one of the greatest determinants of success in life, second only to health. And it makes sense: As millennials are increasingly delaying marriage and children, their relationships with friends play a more important role in their lives. It was millennials, after all, who popularized Friendsgiving, the tradition of hosting a casual Thanksgiving dinner with friends.
Gerberich says that for her, dinner parties are usually potluck style sitting around someone’s coffee table. “When my friends and I gather for dinner, we all make food and bring it to someone’s apartment where we sit around the coffee table — either on the couch, the floor or a variety of chairs — to eat,” she says. “Usually the person hosting makes the main dish and others bring sides and drinks. None of us regularly make food for more than one or two people, so when we gather for dinner, we’re often making dishes like chili or empanadas that we wouldn’t make just for ourselves.”
Caitlin Zinsser, a 37-year-old human resources professional in the Chicago suburbs, says that her friends dub their informal gatherings “Crappy Dinner Parties,” or CDPs for short. Many of her friends have children, and lack the time to spend hours preparing formal meals. “Our house is never perfectly clean, and our good friends don’t care. They help themselves to beverages since they know where everything is in the kitchen,” she says. “We take turns preparing and cooking our dishes together while others play with the kids. It’s chaotic, but so much less stressful. As working parents, it’s hard to make time for friends — so these dinner provide a monthly opportunity to see our dearest ones without worrying about childcare, the expense of a meal’s worth of extra groceries, and tons of cleanup — everyone pitches in.”
The millennial version of a dinner party is more likely to involve cheap beer or spiked seltzer than hand-shaken martinis, and simple, easy-to-cook food like sheet pan chicken or instant pot tacos, with an assortment of snacks picked up at the Whole Foods antipasto bar — olives, cheeses, hummus, chips, dips. It’s not about impressing or keeping up with the Joneses by serving coq au vin and fussing over cocktails all night — it’s about keeping it simple and low-stress, making do with what you have, and enjoying the company of the friends you love.
Rappaport also observes that formal dinner parties, for millennials, “seem like too much of a hassle (and would stress me out!) and [are] not the point of why I want to have dinner with my friends — which is to have some quality time together, make some good food, try new things like a new cocktail or recipe, create a fun night together, and not be so stressful or create a giant mess at home that I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Roman describes this dinner party philosophy well in the introduction to Nothing Fancy, which comes out on October 22; for millennials, it’s the exact antithesis of the aspirational mindset Wagner described in Curbed that led to the rise of formal entertaining spaces in homes. “This is not about living an aspirational life; it’s about living an attainable one,” Roman says.
Roman tells Vox: “Cooking for people is really a kind gesture. And it speaks volumes about your priorities and what you care about and how you want to spend your time,” she says. “And it doesn’t have to be a thing that causes you anxiety or stress. It should be a thing that promotes wellbeing, and love and joy, and a state of relaxation. It shouldn’t make you feel inadequate, worrying about, oh, is my apartment nice enough? Do I have matching silverware? Am I gonna fuck up this rib roast? It should be like — no, I’m doing a nice thing for people that I like, and they’re coming over and I’m feeding them and that’s enough.”
A big part of the new dinner party mindset is embracing the messiness of real life, and abandoning perfectionism, she added. Mistakes happen, and that’s okay. “I’ve had people over where I’ve burnt something so bad that you couldn’t eat it so I ordered pizza. I’ve invited more people over than I could feed and then we had to basically eat like, garlic bread for dinner, which is delicious. You just gotta make do with what you have, and have a really good time doing it.”
“Because remember why you’re there: you’re there to have fun with people that you love and that you care about. And as soon as you lose sight of that, it’s negating the purpose of having people over to begin with.”
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