x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The art of planning - and executing - a dinner party

Men don't understand the pleasure a woman gets out of hosting a gathering. 'Don't you want to show off our home and my excellent decorating skills?' I asked. 'Don't you want to use those silver serving spoons we got as a wedding present?'

A few months ago, I woke up with an epiphany. "It's about time," I thought to myself. "It's about time I organised and hosted my first grown-up dinner party."

I don't know what brought on the misguided belief that I was ready to subject friends to the outcomes of my rudimentary culinary skills. Perhaps it's because we finally found the perfect throw cushions for our living room couches, and I felt my home was now suitable for guests. Or perhaps it's because I managed at last to make a pot of broccoli soup that tasted more of broccoli than water, making me believe I am no longer an amateur cook learning the ropes. Maybe it's the recent purchase of cutlery, which meant that 12 people could gather around our table, rather than four adults using mismatched knives and forks.

Quickly, before I chickened out, I made a list of the couples we knew. I imagined a dinner party of even numbers, so couples was the way to go. The first order of business was a guest list.

There was my Indian colleague, married to a Chinese-American. Then there was my Jordanian friend whom I see perhaps once every two years at most, who is dating a Saudi Arabian. There was my other Jordanian friend, the one from high school, who lives mostly in Dubai, and who I insisted had to make it with her British fiancé. Then my Moroccan friend and her American husband, an Austrian friend and his French-speaking, Chinese wife from Mauritius and a Syrian-Russian friend with her Lebanese husband rounded off the guest list. If the United Colours of Benetton came calling, looking for new faces to launch an advertising campaign, we'd be all set: my Palestinian-Jordanian-Syrian self and my Lebanese-Pakistani husband led the pack.

So, step one was over and done with: a guest list of interesting, diverse people from all over the world, a microcosm of what it's really like in the UAE when people stop hanging out with their "own kind" and look further afield. Most did not know one another, but I wasn't concerned; all could hold a conversation, and what's a dinner party for if not simulating conversation?

This was, to say the least, the most ambitious of my undertakings, if only because I've never cooked for more than six at a time - and two of those six are always myself and Mr T. Simply considering a dinner party for 14 meant I had graduated to grown-up territory.

I began daydreaming of the ambience I would set, the playlist I would prepare to enhance the evening, the unscented candles I would light so no fragrance would overpower the food. A centrepiece might be a nice idea, and I jotted down "flowers" on a scrap of paper. I thought of everything but the food, which I decided I could worry about later.

Instead, it was about time to inform the host: Mr T.

"I think we should have our first, real dinner party," I said. "It'll be like those house parties you're always begging me to throw, but classier and grown-up. And there won't be any dancing."

He frowned. "So what will we do instead? Eat?"

"And talk," I assured him.

He paused, then uttered one of his usual Mr T-isms: "So why don't we go do that outside, at a buffet or restaurant? It's less work for us."

Men simply do not understand the pleasure a woman gets out of hosting a successful gathering. "Don't you want to show off our home, and my excellent decorating skills?" I asked him, ignoring his bemused expression. "Don't you want to use those silver serving spoons we got as a wedding present? And that salad bowl with the inlaid mother-of-pearl on its base? Don't you want to dazzle everyone with our hosting skills and have it turn into a tradition, so that our dinner parties are known far and wide, and everyone begins vying for an invitation like it's something elite and rare?"

I think he had stopped listening when I mentioned the serving spoons. He waited for me to finish before saying the exact same phrase I have heard my father repeat for years, every time my mother would plan to host a lunch and dinner and begin working on the menu: "Why don't we just find a good caterer - why do you want to tire yourself out? We'll just order the food."

Every time I suggest having people over for dinner, whether friends or family, Mr T's first response is to fetch the take-out menus and beg me to place an order rather than cook. My father would always do the same, hating the idea of my overworked mother adding more to her plate.

"I just don't understand the point of all that effort," Mr T said to me. "Planning, grocery shopping, prepping, chopping, frying, decorating - sometimes for days - when it would be cheaper to just order a big plate of grills and some mezze from the Lebanese shop," he tells me, every time. "We'd still be eating. And talking."

It's exactly that: he, like most men, just doesn't understand the pride that comes from creating a menu that is the perfect blend of harmonious dishes, with just the right amount of variety. Before every one of her lunch or dinner parties, and after spending ages staring at a piece of paper and jotting down ideas, my mother would always run her menus by me, checking to see if there's the right balance of chicken, meat, vegetables, rice, salads. She categorises them as appetisers, main dishes, side dishes. She plans which dish will go into which serving platter, and how it will be arranged on the dining room table. It is an art.

Except that coming up with a plan and a menu, I quickly discovered, is nothing at all like executing said plan and menu.

Needless to say, I backed out - and quickly. When I realised how much food this undertaking would call for, I lost my nerve. I was only at the planning stage, and look how much time that alone had taken up already. Instead, on my bucket list, just before "crash a wedding" and right after "ride on an elephant", I have added "host a dinner party for at least 14 people". This way, I'll always have something to look forward to.

• Hala Khalaf is the deputy Arts & Life editor at The National


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