Eating people

An occasion of sensual delight, a benchmark of civilised society - or when intimacies between partners are flung bitterly across a public table? A dinner party can bring out the best and worst in people. It defines our friends, preoccupations and taste in food, whether it be film folk gathering to exchange malice, or crusties debating the Newbury bypass. To begin, the novelist Joseph Connolly probes the marital fault lines of the middle class at supper. Illustrations by Ian Pollock Party animals From the smart political soiree to Birmingham couples eating Indian balti, we are what we eat
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It was, Barry supposed, a pleasant enough room if you like that sort of thing. It was two knocked into one, which seemed a mandatory "improvement" these days, along with double-glazing the brandy balloons and, Barry had once remarked with bitterness, lagging the Yorkshire terrier's bloody tartan coat. There was a sort of Second Empire flock paper contained within panels, and dripping crystal wall-lights seemed plentiful. The mantel was decent - debased neoclassical, but not without dignity - but the twinkling glass coals didn't help.

"Working hard?"

Barry shrugged. "You know. Same. Up and down."

"How is the world of publishing these days?"

"Oh, much the same. Not very exciting. Recession did bite. Bit better now."

"It's the same the world over," offered Gavin, to which Barry said that he expected so, because you never asked Gavin about his line of work because he'd never stop bloody telling you. He was in, Barry thought, "casings" - whatever in Christ's name they might be - and he earned a sodding fortune; that's all Barry knew, and it was far more than he cared to.

Moira and Susan came in then, and Gavin said "Ah!" very loudly and raised an arm in salutation, as if he had seen neither of them for several years.

"So sorry to have been rude," simpered Moira, putting a hand to her head in mock exhaustion and momentarily sagging at the knees. "Everything seems to be taking ages tonight."

"Don't you worry, my love," assured Gavin, talking more loudly now that there were four people in the room. "Sit yourself down, and let me get you something. Some of our very best Tio Pepe?"

"I can't stop, actually, Gavin. I just came to say hello."

"Hello," said Barry, thinking why the hell not?

Moira sort of smirked, because everyone knew that Barry was awful.

"A woman's work," said Gavin. "But you're not taking the lovely Susan from our midst, surely?"

"Oh, no. Susan's already been helping wonderfully. I don't know how I could have coped."

"I only got out the knives," said Susan.

"I couldn't have coped," insisted Moira, as she scuttled out. "It's been that sort of day. This morning we overslept, didn't we, Gavin? Because of the clock. It boiled the tea to nothing. Everyone hungry?"

Everyone said mmm, and starving, and Susan drank more gin.

"Not still on this macrobi-whatsname lark, are you, Susan?"

Susan shook her head, and squatted on a pouffe. Or was it a camel saddle.

"No. It got too expensive."

"Not good for you anyway, this health business. All this 'this is bad for you' and 'the other is bad for you' - breathing is bad for you, for God's sake, but what are you supposed to do? And as if you, of all people, have to look after your figure, Susan."

"Well, it's not really about that, actually."

"Always thought you were a shapely little thing," confided Gavin more loudly than ever, cocking his head at Barry. "Whoops! Shouldn't say that, should I, in present company. Jealous husband, all that."

Susan shot a glance at Barry, who hadn't been listening.

"Oh, Barry won't mind. Will you, love?"

Gavin smirked. "Nonsense. Barry'll know what I mean. Always been one for a trim ankle - hey, Barry?"

Barry said deadpan that he wasn't really an ankle man, and Gavin put his elbow on the mantel and a foot on the fender, and drank his drink when his laugh was over.

Moira flustered back, undoing a pinny that looked like a cut-down crinoline.

"You must be starving," she gushed, her eyes open with real concern. "Have a nut. It won't be long now."

"Susan was just saying that she's chucked this diet lark of hers," said Gavin.

"Well, I'm glad to hear it. As if you had to look after your figure, Susan."

"Particularly as I'm the one busy doing that!" blurted Gavin, and laughed. Moira made a gesture of dismissal and held her nose and laughed, for Gavin could be awful, too, but in a nice way, sometimes.

Barry was bored and hungry, and Gavin was going red from the fire and the whisky. Bloody Barry, he was thinking. Bloody passenger.

"Shall we hors d'oeuvres now?' suggested Moira, brightly. "You must all be starving."

Everyone trooped out, turned sharp left, and filed into the dining-room. When Susan had been getting out the knives, she had thought she would love to stick one in Barry, and now she thought of it again. Barry just looked on, while Moira directed everyone to his place, each of which bore a little stand-up card saying "Barry", "Susan", "Mr" and "Mrs".

The table was sort of Sheraton, and the cloth was lacy white, and a pair of candelabra had six red candles between them. On top of the tablecloth, each place was set with a maroon laminated mat portraying the ritual extermination of pheasants in tasteful sepia. On top of this was a plate - white, gold rim, probably Sixties Rosenthal, Barry and Susan being not quite Coalport people - and this plate bore a folded triangle of Irish linen (a quite different affair from the napkin stuffed into the cut glass goblet), fanned out to look like a party hat. On top of the linen, Moira now placed a side-plate holding a paper doily and a bowl. At the bottom of the bowl were a couple of spoonfuls of brown, and it smelt of fish and cheese.

"Ah!" said Gavin. "This looks a change from those damn prawn cocktails and avocados that are all over the place now. Or ad-vocados, as the hoi polloi will have it."

"Looks lovely," Susan said .

Moira hoped everyone liked it.

By the time Gavin had begun his teeth-grating ritual of putting his infernal head just to one side and identifying the herbs, Barry had finished his. Moira had been right - he was starving - and there had been too little for him to decide even whether he liked it.

"Well, Barry liked it, anyway," said Moira through a smiling mouth, her eyes blazing jet and resentment. She flapped her napkin around and smoothed it over her knees.

"Mustn't get anything on this dress," she said.

Now Gavin was fiddling around with his damn wine stuff. He had a thermometer these days, which was designed to tell him whether or not the bottle was at the same temperature as the room in which it was standing. He was sticking out his bottom at the table, as he insisted upon opening wine in the most bizarre manner imaginable, always keeping the bottles on their side - or as near, he would tell you, as dammit.

"I'm eager for this little Chablis," he said.

He had even worked out a method whereby the Vinicool could rest at 45 degrees. The claret, of course, had been opened for the prerequisite two- and-a-quarter hours, and two bottles were laid in baskets made of tortured silver wire.

"Well," said Moira, collecting the bowls, doilies and side-plates on to a tray, "everyone seems to like escargots, anyway!"

'Oh, that was the escargots, was it?" said Barry. "Very good," he added. He did not want to peak too early.

"Shan't be a moment," said Moira. Struggling with the door, she said she could manage. Gavin said he must just pop next door to check the video, as he was taping a Spielberg which he found marvellous to unwind to. Barry and Susan were alone, as the sudden silence said.

"You are a bastard," hissed Susan.

"What the hell now?" said Barry, knowing.

"You know."

"Oh, shut up. Christ, I'm starving. It's nearly nine o'clock. I don't know why they didn't have us at 11.30 for midnight."

Moira was in the kitchen putting miniature chef's hats on the leg-ends of poussins. A piece of her hair had fallen forward and she hit it back with a spatula, wondering frankly why she bothered sometimes. If it wasn't for Susan, she wouldn't mind never having them over again; it always seemed such uphill work with Barry and Susan. She always felt on trial. And now the hollandaise wasn't thickening and the damn knife had fused. But the braised prosciutto was out of the microwave, the new potatoes looked lovely, and the marron puree would save the day. She could really have done with more surfaces.

"Moira, have you been tampering with the video?"

"Don't be silly, Gavin. You know I don't know how to work the thing."

"Well, somebody's been playing silly buggers. It's not taping. Damn film's nearly over now."

"They'll have it on again, dear. They're always repeating that sort of thing."

"That's hardly the point. I wanted to watch it after this dinner farce is over. Now I suppose they'll have to take the damn thing in."

"Gavin, please. I'm trying to prepare a meal."

Gavin's eyes shone with malevolence. "Oh, that's bloody typical, isn't it? My video can go to blazes!"

"It's not that, Gavin," pleaded Moira, who knew she mustn't look up or she'd cut herself.

"Well, just hurry up with it, that's all," growled Gavin. "Everybody's bloody starving in there."

Moira looked at him with wet eyes, and the front of her hair fell over her face, and she cut her finger.

"I'm being as quick as I can," she said. "If you could take in the gravy..."

"You take in the bloody gravy. I've got to do the wine."

Gavin went back into the dining room, and Barry and Susan stopped talking and looked away from each other.

"Everything all right?" beamed Gavin. "Food's just coming. Can I offer you a Bordeaux or a Chablis, Susan? It's poussin."

"Chablis, please, Gavin. Lovely."

Gavin poured it like a priest.

"Barry?"

"Claret, please, Gavin."

"Always were a claret man, hey, Barry. I'll be interested to hear your comments on this one."

Barry had thought he would. He just hadn't made up his mind whether or not to be nasty about it.

Moira wheeled in a bronze-brown hostess trolley, and everyone said "Ah!"

"Great," added Barry.

"What have you done to your finger?" asked Susan.

"About time," Gavin said.

"The Chablis is charming, Gavin."

"I thought you'd appreciate it, Susan. Crisp, isn't it? Delivers well on the swallow. Did you hear that, Moira? Susan is most impressed with the Chablis."

"Could everyone help themselves to vegetables," said Moira. "Barry's glass is empty, dear."

Gavin had only just begun rolling around his claret in a huge sommelier's snifter. He hadn't even taken that first, all-telling inhalation.

'To your liking, Barry?"

"It's fine," said Barry, looking him in the eye. "I was thirsty."

Gavin poured more, and, speaking more quietly than usual: "I'm cautiously pleased with it. In Johnson, it says it's going through a bit of a mute period."

That decided Barry.

"Well," he opined, drinking deep again, "keep it coming, and we'll all be paralytic in sympathy."

"Barry!" hushed Susan.

"It's all right, Susan," said Gavin.

"Let's all have a nice evening, shall we?" implored Moira.

This extract is from a new edition of 'Poor Souls' by Joseph Connolly, published on Monday by Faber & Faber, price pounds 5.99. His latest novel, 'This Is It', is also published by Faber & Faber on Monday, price pounds 8.99

The Politically Incorrect

Maggie knew how to give a dinner party. First, if one had a solid guest of honour, one could get away with serving cheap food. Secondly, if one had expensive decanters, one could get away with serving plonk. "Put pee in crystal, darling," she'd say. "They'll think it's Montrachet."

Nigel Fenton, who had just published Maastricht: The Infamy at his own expense, was about to swallow a morsel of over-poached salmon when a young man with an engaging smile leaned over his plate of three veg. Fenton braced himself.

"You've mentioned the plight of our fishermen," spoke the young man. "We all hate conspiracy theories. But..." Suddenly, his dark eyes lit up. "What I'd like to know is, who? Who's behind all this? There must be a group of people who..."

"Jeremy, I thought we'd agreed not to bring this up," Maggie interrupted.

"Well, I have some leaflets here," declared the young man, and actually pulled some crumpled sheets out of his pocket.

"Fine, Jeremy, you can hand them out after dinner. To those who didn't get them last time. Yes, Florence?"

"Nigel, do you know what their surnames are?"

The elderly woman contributed to good causes, but it took her a while to get words out.

"Whose surnames?'

"The people who are destroying our country. What are their surnames?"

"It's difficult to pinpoint any particular..."

"The surnames!" Florence's voice thundered unexpectedly.

Maggie had to interject again. "The list would be too long, Florence."

"Well, I have some leaflets..."

Alex Boot

Film People

They dine late - film folk pride themselves on keeping late hours - and prefer highly visual food: a starter of pear and Roquefort cheesecake, a main course of squid ink pasta with wild mushrooms, and tarte tatin. Dress: suit, trainers and deceptively expensive T-shirt for men; cleavage and lots of black for women. Smoking? Yes!

Topics of conversation: The future of the British film industry under Labour. Who's just moved to Hollywood. Real Talent versus the Casting Couch. Tarantino as Auteur. Seven: very good or very bad? The best cinemas for clarity of pictures and sound.

Typical lines: "I said I'll fax the script."

"He couldn't direct his own thumb up his own arsehole."

"London's never been caught, cinematically."

"I can make it for 20K plus deferments."

"Did you ever get paid for Leon the Pig Farmer?"

"I think I know an investor who might be interested in your project."

Katie Sampson

The Emigres

"English girls like Russians." Boris pulled back his sleeve to expose the gold Rolex.

"That's because all Englishmen are homosexuals." Unlike Boris, Alyosha had already been in London for two years.

Boris pointed over a crowd of heads to the far end of the over-furnished drawing room, where three young women were munching pieces of kielbasa. The hostess had ordered the food from a Polish caterer to please her Russian guests, who, predictably, found the stuff inedible. The crowd of SW3 residents also hated all those piroghi, but pretended otherwise.

"You see that one? The one with the big..."

"Yeah, I can see her - don't point. Why?"

"I said to her, 'Bebby, you like a mooovie star. You like Sophia Loren.' And she smiled."

"That doesn't necessarily mean anything. Here in London, girls smile just for the hell of it."

"Not like that." Boris didn't know London, but he did know girls. "I'll talk to her. How do you say in English, 'I am totally and truly enchanted with you'?"

"You say, 'You've got everything, shagbag - let's do it behind the bike shed.'"

"What does that mean? Literally?"

"Untranslatable. Roughly, it means, 'You're a fascinating young lady, and I shan't have a moment's rest until I see you again."

"You're not pulling a fast one on me? Again?"

"As God is my witness."

"So how does that go again? 'Yoov gawt everysink...'"

"C'est servi," announced the hostess, for some reason in French. The party was a success.

Alex Boot

The Trustafarians

Rich, young Bohemians with trust funds (but you'd never know it) gravitate to top-floor flats in Ladbroke Grove and Holland Park - West Eleven. They wear Nicole Farhi and Patrick Cox, leather trousers (both sexes), Stussi hats and Puma trainers. Their friends are exotic, and include Cuban dissidents, record producers, Manhattan trendies, local drug dealers, and socially well-connected novelists, such as Amis and Self, immersed in the "Notting Hill Experience".

They talk of friends opening restaurants and clubs, battles with parents over settling down, whether it's cool to do heroin, and who has sold out to go and work in the City. They holiday in Indonesia and Vietnam, use the Lambton Health Club, and on Fridays and Saturdays the men check out the public schoolgirls, back for the weekend, at 3 Green Street in Mayfair.

Ambiance: Mixture of New York kitsch (such as plastic Day-Glo salad bowls) and ethnic Conran Shop. Food: Thai or West Indian. Drink: Thai beer.

Typical lines: "I've just bought a customised jeep for the Paris to Dakar race."

"Tom Dixon's asked me to style his next party at the Cobden Working Men's Club."

"I've got good contacts in the Rajasthan antiques trade."

Katie Sampson

The Foodies

A mews house in Notting Hill Gate, bought by food writer Raviella because the location allows her to pop out to Books for Cooks to consult a recipe and get back just as the maccheroncini are becoming al dente.

Tonight, R is hosting a small dinner party to celebrate the publication of her friend Hilary's new book about Egyptian pulse cookery, A Foul Foray. For the past 40 minutes she has been putting the finishing touches to her main course, leaving Hilary with fellow cookery writer Chantal and her banker husband Donald.

Hilary And, of course, I had the most dreadful fights with the publishers over the title.

Chantal How ridiculous.

Donald Absolutely. I know stacks of people who've had a foul time in Egypt.

Hilary (coldly) It's pronounced "fool".

Chantal The Egyptian national dish, darling. Brown beans, olive oil, cumin...

Hilary (sharply) No cumin. This is precisely why I wrote the book.

(Enter Raviella, bright red in the face, carrying a large Le Creuset dish.)

Raviella Dinner... is served.

Chantal Mmm, fenugreek.

Hilary Ras el hanout.

Donald Shepherd's pie.

Raviella It's a Liberian recipe. Ologrumbo. Did you see Josceline's piece on...?

Hilary Marco?

Raviella Tony Worrall T? He was saying how absolutely the last great undiscovered cuisine is North African.

Hilary Oh, he's so right.

Donald But Liberia's in central Africa.

Chantal Oh, Donald, don't be so... so Delia.

(Much laughter)

Donald You doing any telly to push your book, Hilary?

Hilary Well, Channel 4 want me to do something.

Chantal Oh, who with?

Hilary (hesitates) Keith.

Donald Floyd?

Hilary (small voice) Chegwin.

(Silence)

All Rav, this ologrumbo is sensational...

Christopher Middleton

New Age Travellers

They are currently parading their body piercings, Celtic tattoos, armbands and second-hand Doc Martens in the protesters' camp at Newbury. Dinner, cooked over a bonfire, is vegetarian or vegan: grains, pulses, pancakes and "gack", or sweet, chocolaty junk food. They drink cider or home-brew, and smoke "rollies". Acceptable guests include dogs on strings, illegal rave organisers, the Mutoid Waste Company and the Freedom Network, which campaigns on behalf of those affected by the Criminal Justice Bill.

Conversation is dogged. They are preoccupied by the job seekers' allowance, animal experimentation, harassment from local vigilantes and the police ("Babylon"), education for travelling children, cures for head lice, and local supporters who possess baths. They discuss how to treat the clergy who have joined the campaign, and should Greenpeace have admitted the Brent Spar miscalculation?

Typical lines: "Who's dealing with the compost toilets?"

"The Asylum Seekers squat in Stoke Newington needs volunteers."

"How about some Raki channelling?"

Katie Sampson

The Brummies

A Friday night ritual: an Indian balti house in Birmingham. Two couples, late thirties, dressed smartly but casually. They use occasional words of local dialect, like "blartin" (crying), "mardy" (moody) and "tarraarabit" (goodbye), and discuss the eternal debate of Birmingham City versus Aston Villa, disparaged as "Ice Vanilla" (anyone can lick 'em). Also, the perennially parlous state of the Bull Ring. Sir Simon Rattle - adored, adopted son - and his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra ("Luv-lay"). And, of course, where to get the best balti.

But there is one topic guaranteed to make all Brummies choke on their pint of Ansells. It is the image of sneering Londoners deriding the distinctive Brummie twang. They say, when the media want someone to be an idiot, they first make him a Brummie, like boring Barry in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, or Jason in The Archers. And there's that Prudential ad, with the gormless bloke whom the woman wants to leave, and all he keeps saying is, "I want to 'ave a baby" - they made him a Brummie, too.

"A hundred years ago we were the manufacturing capital of the world. We didn't give a kipper what people thought. Now, I dunno... Any road up, how's yer balti?"

"Bostin', our kid."

Lesley Gerard

Advertising Folk

"Great paster," said Kevin. Praising the food in the MD's house was a career move for a suit.

"Love Italian clarets," echoed Bernie. He really loved the pasta, too. It was nice and soft.

"I noticed," smiled the MD. "All creatives get pissed at lunch time."

Bernie's ponytail shook. "You joking. We're too busy to get pissed. Kevin, he don't miss many lunches. Keeps The Jolly in business."

He was referring to the pub where Kevin occasionally ate, against his better judgement. If he worked in Soho, he wouldn't go anywhere near a place like that. It had no class; they didn't even serve Australian chardonnays. But he had to land in bloody Lambeth, for his sins.

"Go to civilisation." The MD was still one of the boys. "Cab it to Kettner's in ten minutes. Flash some plastic, charge it to IMS..."

"I wish. No fat in the IMS account. Not after Bernie buggered up their trade show."

"I'm an art director, mate. I don't do trade shows."

"Fine. Then eat at The Jolly."

"What kind of suit are you? You have the TV job open, innit? Stick it on that."

"You've already stuck ten cabs and five lunches on the TV job number. What's the matter? Run out of suppliers you could squeeze?"

"Tell you what, I'll pay for me own cab - you eat at The Jolly. Sell 'em an ad while you're at it. 'Eat at The Jolly Sportsman. Ten million bluebottles can't be wrong.'"

"Dessert, boys? Real zabaglione..."

Alex Boot

The Cavalry Officers' Dinner

Regimental dinners - formal, male-only affairs involving 50 to 60 officers - are held roughly once a month. Mess kit is the order of dress, the cavalry's consisting of black trousers with a red stripe, "mess wellingtons" (highly polished shoes with spurs), and a high-collared jacket in either blue or red, with much gold braid, costing up to pounds 2,000, with a white, gold-embroidered bib worn underneath.

Junior officers are present at 7.30pm to welcome guests: it's a "heinous" crime to allow them to wander unaccompanied. Seating is in order of rank and etiquette is strictly observed, any breach resulting in the mess disciplinarian "bottling" the offender by summoning an extra bottle of wine and adding it to his bill.

Officers pay for themselves and their guests, at pounds 30 a head. The food is distinctly English: watercress soup, Beef Wellington, spotted dick or bread-and-butter pudding. After the meal, the commanding officer conducts everyone into the dining room for coffee - which is when the "jovialities" or "mess games" begin. These sometimes include "dwarf throwing": chucking around the smaller members of the regiment.

Topics of conversation include: the role of STABS (Stupid Territorial Army Bastards); news on who is "heading out", or resigning from the Army; tales of "on the park" (repairing tanks) and "on the square" (doing drill); the Irish Troubles ("Bang goes my summer's leave, then").

References to Blackadder Goes Forth feature heavily, as in "tackle out" (naked), and a Baldrick (idiot).

Katie Sampson

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