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16th Aug 2018

If ever we have enjoyed what the weather men like to call a ‘barbecue summer’, then this has been the year.  Those who enjoy a burnt sausage have been in charcoal heaven for weeks, and it looks like we are in for some more un-British weather over the next couple of weeks as well.

Now as readers of this column will know, I’m no great fan of the outdoor grill; I love to eat outside, but I’ve never really understood why we choose to cook on a primitive and uncontrollable outdoor fire when most of us have a perfectly serviceable and fully-equipped kitchen just yards away indoors. 

But for once, the food is not the point.  Barbecues are an opportunity to get sociable, to invite people round to share a bite to eat and a drink, and most importantly of all, to interact on a face-to-face basis rather than via social media or text.

Sadly, as the summer starts to fade next month, most of us will retreat into our own little bubbles, and will forget the pleasure that sharing food can bring.  Research shows that the dinner party is in terminal decline, and that we are ever-more reluctant to feed our friends indoors, however willing we may be to do so outdoors when the sun is shining.

It’s easy to see why this is happening.  The very term ‘dinner party’ conjures up visions of 1970s naffness, snobbery and cooking as a means of showing off.  It’s a phrase which associated with the tedious and the bourgeois.

That’s a huge shame, and we need to get over this reverse snobbery and embrace once more the visceral pleasure of sharing our table.  If we must, let’s ditch the ‘dinner party’ tag, but as the darker evenings approach, it would be tragic if our prejudices about these words prevented us from enjoying what people in may countries rightly believe is the greatest pleasure of all – eating socially.

Perhaps it’s because we have reached the stage where we would rather stay in on our own with a box set; perhaps our reliance on social media has got us to the point where we are genuinely afraid of real social interaction; whatever the reason, we need to get over it, because as a nation we are sleepwalking towards a social and loneliness crisis, and eating together has a big part to play in solving that problem.

For once, it’s not about the food.  Whether it’s a formal dinner or a casual brunch, people come to your house to see you, not for your cooking.  I’ll happily spend a day in the kitchen preparing a complex dinner for guests because I’m a foodie, but I’m equally happy to eat bangers and mash, as long as it’s done in the company of friends and family.

Yes, of course I am delighted when guests ask for seconds, affirming my prowess in the kitchen.  But far more importantly when I have friends over for dinner is that there is conversation and laughter – that is the whole point.  And I can’t understand why that is regarded as snobbish and old-fashioned in some quarters.

So if you’re entertaining friends around the barbecue in the next couple of weeks, and enjoying their company, why not make a resolution: when the time comes to put the barbecue away for the winter, don’t let that be an excuse for putting an end to social eating until next summer. 

If you don’t want to call it a dinner party, that’s fine.  But let’s all make it a priority to gather round the table with friends and family during the winter months and eat together; it’s not something we should just be doing when the sun is shining.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.