The dinner party is dead. Hoorah! A survey of 12,000 people in Britain over the past three years has discovered that middle-class people eat out more and entertain far less than they did in 1975. The only people bothering to invite anyone around to eat these days are professional singletons. Once you're married or have kids, forget it.
Researchers at Manchester University discovered that there has been a huge drop in the hours each year we spend in other people's houses, along with the amount of time each week we spend entertaining at home. Life's too short, it seems to bother putting together coq au vin, rustling up Jamie Oliver's foolproof fish pie, or whisking up meringues to impress your friends. We might buy Nigella, Nigel and Gary's books by the crate and read them in bed but we don't use them for any practical purpose. They are handbooks to a world we like to visit and ogle, salivating over the gorgeous glistening pictures. However, we don't want to make loads of pots and pans dirty or have to load the dishwasher at midnight.
Dining out means your culinary skills are not going to be judged and found wanting - and you can blame someone else for everything from the fussy décor to the soggy chips to the surly service. And when you walk out of a restaurant, you leave behind the mucky plates, the half-empty glasses, the tidying up.
Of course, there are two kinds of eating out. The thousands of people in Britain subsisting on the minimum wage, travelling miles to work on public transport, dine out too. But these are just refuelling pit stops on the way home from work, not occasions that deliver any social kudos. Conversation is kept to the minimum. For working-class people, cheap meals of dubious nutritional value are consumed on the run, in fast-food joints with zero atmosphere, glaring lighting, to the accompaniment of bland background music, served by spotty teenagers wearing name badges. The social divide gets wider by the year.
I must have spent months of my life cooking for the now redundant, arcane social event formally known as a dinner party, before which I would rush around the house tidying up, laying the table, lighting the candles, shoving stuffing into chickens, peeling potatoes and steaming spinach. Nowadays, I hardly ever cook for friends - for a start getting six people to agree to arrive on the same day, at the same time, takes the diary skills of six of Prezza's minions. Second, I'm knackered. By the time I've bought the food, carried it home, read the recipe, discovered I haven't got fresh ginger, rushed out again and then found the dishwasher has broken, I need two Nurofen Plus and a lie-down in a dark room - not three hours of sparkling conversation about films I haven't yet seen or books I haven't read. So far this year I have come up with a grand total of four dinners for other people - and I've got back a hell of a lot of quality time, which has been far better spent.
I'm not a bad cook - but I only want to cook for myself. I'm not on a special diet. I'm not going to leave my fish because it's got bones. I'm not going to pick at my meat because it's too rare. On the other hand, how I love sitting in a restaurant with a friend - and a good waiter choosing my wine, encouraging me to eat the dish of the day, try something new!
That's why Antony Worrall Thompson's racist outburst about service in Britain being "shit" is so crass. AWT decided to single out eastern Europeans for his bizarre rant, claiming they haven't got the requisite skills or the necessary command of English to work in our restaurants. If the Poles decided to leave Britain, everyday life would grind to a halt. They work hard, generally possess far better qualifications than Brits of similar age, and are unfailingly pleasant. To add insult to injury, AWT's suggestion that we abolish the pitiful minimum wage to make waiters work harder was ludicrous. You can't find a Brit who wants to be a waiter at any price - and have you tried to live on less than £6 an hour before tax? I hope that his staff walk out in protest and he has to work a 12-hour shift for a couple of weeks - just for the tips.
Gadgets? I would rather have friends, thanks
If we don't want to invite anyone round to dinner, could it be because we are too busy playing with gadgets? Consumer spending has hit a new high - an astonishing £1 trillion - and when it comes to our homes, that money isn't going on practical things such as cookers, fridges and washing machines, but on fun purchases such as DVD players, flat-screen televisions, computers and stereos.
The amount of cash spent on everyday items - food, clothes, essential toiletries and cleaning materials - has actually decreased in favour of the things that make us feel good after a long day at work - flowers, hair and beauty products, designer lighting, gadgets such as satellite navigation systems and holidays.
But is all this spending really buying us happiness? Surely time spent talking to other people over a meal or a glass of wine, is preferable to the solitary pleasure of computer games or lying in a darkened room watching a DVD alone? As the world's news gets more bleak, we seem intent on building nests where we can feel cosy and secure. And we don't want any visitors round to mess things up, thanks very much.
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As farmers struggle to make ends meet - less than half of the claims received under the Single Payment Scheme have been paid by Defra - their new minister, David Miliband, admits he doesn't actually own a pair of Wellingtons, and tells Radio 4's 'Farming Today': 'I'm not going to say, "Look at me, look at how soily my shoes are..." Farmers simply needed to know that here is someone we can do business with.' A picture of Miliband standing ill at ease in a field, coupled with his waffling performance on the 'Today' programme, does nothing to convince me that farmers can feel their futures are in safe hands. Miliband could start by speaking plain English. How many farmers would you ever hear using an effete word like 'soily'?
Radio head: Tuning in to 'The Archers' might help, David
Miliband could start by tuning in to 'The Archers', which is going through a particularly fine patch at the moment. I can't miss the outcome of the miserable vet Alistair's gambling addiction - he's now run up debts of £100,000, knobbled a racehorse, and is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Tom Archer took his fast-food van to a pop festival (the only one I've ever heard that was completely silent!) only to have it sprayed with 'Meat is murder' by the local militant veggies. I can hardly bear the excitement...Reuse content