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JOY OF COOKING

A meal-kit start up wants to take the terror out of throwing a dinner party—but that’s half the fun

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party_-_Google_Art_Project
Pierre-Auguste Renoir/Wikimedia commons
Renoir knew.
By Chase Purdy
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Another day, another meal kit service. But this one caught my eye.

For up to $300, Feastive promises to deliver to the front stoops of “busy New Yorkers” the ingredients needed to throw a dinner party, offering a range of meals mostly inspired by Asian cuisine.

Spend $260 to cook and serve ”Sukiyaki Sensations” for seven. Cough up $210 for a “Temaki Party: DIY Sushi Handrolls” or a throw-your-own “Bulgogi Slider Feast.”

The meal kit start-up justifies its own existence by laying out the central tenet that, “there are few things more heartwarming and intimate than a meal spent at home.”

Notice that Feastive uses the phrase “a meal spent at home.” It’s a subtle tweak to what most people actually talk about craving after too much takeout: “a home made meal.” Maybe that’s just a concession to reality. Perhaps a “home spent meal” really is the best we can ask for in these times. But make no mistake, if you use this service to cook a meal you will not be throwing a true dinner party. That’s because a true dinner party incorporates two elements that Feastive cannot—curation and the art of mishap.

Feastive highlights for us the stark contrast between sterile dinner-party-as-commodity versus the authentic experience you can only create yourself—fuck ups and frustrations included.

It’s about the journey a person takes to bring food to a table and an appreciation for how it got there.

The meal kit phenomenon is not new, and all the services share basically the same promise to consumers: convenience. No need to burden yourself with trips to the grocery store for spices, cuts of meat, or the perfect tomato. No need to figure out what the hell “dried fenugreek leaves” are or where to hunt them down.

Feastive’s creator, Debbie Soo, said she can appreciate the work that goes into a traditional dinner party, but argues “the experience isn’t necessarily disjointed because it comes in a meal kit.” As she put it, the main role of a dinner party is to physically get people around a single table and to use food as a connector.

Convenience is undoubtedly important, especially for busy people looking to learn the basics of the kitchen. But it’s a concept that’s antithetical to the dinner party, which shouldn’t be confused with a single meal or even a pot luck. It’s not even about the company eating the food.

What separates a dinner party from these other occasions is that it requires someone taking the time to curate an experience. It’s about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about the journey a person takes to bring food to a table and an appreciation for how it got there.

It’s okay to mess up.

That includes how the host chose to mix and match recipes and shop for ingredients. How they flirted with disaster, and performed improvisational flourish when applying heat and time to the kinetic (sometimes unwieldy) cooking process. It can even include assigning seats at the dinner table, a way to anticipate and toy with how conversations might unfold during the course of the meal.

Pulling together a dinner party is inexact, but that’s also why it’s amazing. It’s the cultural manifestation of culinary gift-giving, and sometimes the wrapping paper isn’t the prettiest. Still, it’s worth shielding that experience from the gauche guarantees floated to us by meal kit services, each promising to wrap in tight plastic packaging a shared experience that can be swiftly delivered in tidy cardboard boxes.

To be sure, there are economic and environmental cases to be made about the value and ethics of meal kits. This one is purely cultural—and personal.

It’s an argument made at the undeniable risk of sounding snobby, but then, it’s not as though dinner parties are so commonplace or routine. In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer is a kitchen neophyte who for the last two years has enjoyed using dinner parties as an incentive for learning how to cook. After several months, it became a creative outlet, even a minor passion. It’s something anyone curious about, or wanting to get back into, the kitchen should try.

Sometimes you learn—very last minute—that one of your guests is a vegan. Make it work! Sometimes you have to slip away for a moment to purchase extra wine. Don’t fret, it’s worth it. Always plan to sweat little details as guests arrive and begin conversing just outside the kitchen, the divine signal to pour an early glass of rosé. Do it.

Remember: It’s okay to mess up.

Other guidelines have been helpful along the way. Here are four cardinal rules I’ve used during my own meandering foray into this space:

  1. Always throw dinner parties on a Wednesday or Thursday. Don’t steal someone’s weekend. Besides, you want to give people something to talk about during the rest of their work week.
  2. Always assign seats. Anticipate how conversation will unfold by assessing the personalities of the people attending. Don’t be afraid to separate couples.
  3. Never host more than seven people. Actually, seven is the best number. For starters, it means there will be single people at the table. It’s also possible to squeeze that many people around the average table.
  4. Every person (including the host) must be meeting someone new. This is crucial.

Once you’re all together, just have fun. And talk about the food! People love to hear about why you chose the particular dishes, the lengths you went to find a spice, and the kitchen life hacks you discovered along the way.

More than anything, though, they’ll enjoy being part of the play—the denouement of an evening adventure that never promised perfection. That’s a story to dine in on– and one no pre-measured box of goods will ever be able to provide.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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