Adam Gopnik is in Philly tonight giving a lecture, presumably about his new book on food and France. And I have to babysit while Julie picks up a friend from the airport, so I can’t go! Grrr. I heard an engaging interview with him on the local public radio station today (listen to the MP3 here), in which he discussed discovering over the course of his research that Elizabeth Pennell, a fantastically interesting 19th century gourmand and proto-feminist of whom he became enamored, was a raging anti-Semite. Gopnik, who is Jewish, explained how this made him think about how this new information made him feel about this writer he’d come to admire. Among his reflections: the realization that as much as we’d like to believe that all conflicts can be solved, or at least set aside, around the dinner table, over food and wine, some things can’t be.
Gopnik and the host talked for a short while about the sort of person one couldn’t eat with, though as I recall, didn’t settle on a hard and fast rule, other than Nazis (of course). Which is as it should be. One of the most generous hostesses I’ve ever dined with was a bona fide American communist, though apparently not a registered one — something I didn’t learn until after the dinner. We argued briefly over human rights in the Soviet Union (this was during the Gorbachev years) before dropping the subject quickly. I was appalled by her opinion, as she was by mine. Still, it was a lovely evening, and I’m glad I went, though I might not have done so had I known ahead of time about her views. Aside from some hard and obvious examples (Nazis, child molesters), I find it hard to imagine not being willing to at least sit down with someone and have a meal. I’m one of those conservatives who loves people individually even as I find humankind on the whole to be pretty hard to take. I can enjoy dinner with anybody who has a sense of humor, especially about himself, and who loves to eat.
(Side note: You know what men don’t like? When women eat daintily, or pick at their food. It’s incredibly attractive when women eat lustily. Don’t order the salad, girl; get you a steak!)
Anyway, this radio conversation turned into a discussion about one’s ideal dinner party. Whom would you invite? Let me suggest two separate lists. Here are the rules:
1. Each list must have six people (you and your significant other will be seven and eight), and all your guests must be somewhat well-known. Not celebrities, necessarily (though they may be), but should be public people.
2. List One must be people who are dead.
3. List Two must be people who are alive.
The trick is trying to put together a list of people who would actually talk to each other pleasantly. Too many big talkers, disaster. This is hard to do with the Dead List. Plus, you can’t just pick out people you’d love to meet. I didn’t put Flannery O’Connor on my Dead list, because even though I would want to have dinner with her more than just about anybody else I can think of, I suspect she would be too shy to speak up in a group. I’d love to dine with Soren Kierkegaard, but he would probably request boiled fish and refuse the wine. No fun!
Remember, the object here is not to list the six well-known people you would most like to meet. The object is to list the six well-known, or somewhat well-known, people you would like to host at a grand dinner party. Below the jump, my lists. I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow. Please share your lists in the comments thread.
LIST ONE: The Dead.
1. Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist.
2. Walker Percy, American novelist.
3. P.G. Wodehouse, English novelist.
4. A.J. Liebling, gourmand and writer.
5. Dame Rebecca West, English writer.
6. Julia Child.
LIST TWO: The Living.
1. Adam Gopnik, naturellement.
2. Anthony Lane, New Yorker film critic.
3. Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio Journal.
4. Alan Jacobs, perfesser and bon vivant.
5. Roger Scruton, philosopher
6. Tom Wolfe, novelist.