Lately, I've developed an addiction to Come Dine With Me, the cooking reality show that airs at various times on BBC Lifestyle. The show pits amateur chefs against each other, with each of its four contestants hosting a dinner party for their rivals, who then give point scores for things like presentation, taste and conversation. The truly mesmerising thing about the show is the level of catiness it inspires. It's a snarl of bickering, backstabbing and failed crème brûlée that very often ends in tears. It's fabulous.
Watching the show recently, it occurred to me that people seem to have stopped throwing dinner parties. Or maybe they've just stopped inviting me. Either way, I don't mind. Dinner parties are a terrible idea and always have been. For centuries, people have endured the tedium and humiliation of these things because they've been told that dinner parties are supposed to be fun. Well if they are, it's fun at the end of a gun barrel. Be interesting. Be witty. Eat. Enjoy. And don't do what that guy on Come Dine With Me did a few nights back, text someone between courses, which will get you eviscerated.
The immediate problem with dinner parties lies in the fact that most people do not know how to cook. This is why guests often end up with mozzarella-tomato starters, followed by a plate of something stew-related, toddler-level cuisine that people still manage to get wrong. We have all experienced the moment when a platter of mushroomy slop clatters on to the table before us - the diligent avoidance of eye contact from the host, the harrumphed appreciation from the assembled guests.
It's hard to say what's worse: the bubbling bourguignon or the forced march across the conversational tundra that lies ahead. The food, no matter how bad, is a blessing of sorts. In the right hands, slop-related conversation can be dragged out for as long as 20 minutes: "How did you get the mushrooms to be so chewy!" After this, though, you're on your own. There will be books you've never read, politicians you've never heard of, double entendres you just don't get. You'll get by for a while making statements that creep along the edges of the subject matter ("Yes, well, socialism has always been a zero-sum game") but eventually you'll be exposed as the dullard that you are.
Finally, in an act of utter desperation, you'll blurt out something you hoped would sound irreverent and witty but which ends up being rude and hurtful.And this, of course, is what ends up happening on Come Dine With Me. It's hilarious when you're watching it on TV, but hideous when you happen to be the blurter. I think this explains the success of the show. It allows us to watch these events unfold, a plate of fish fingers perched on our knees, and really enjoy the fact that we're not there.