Ralph Gardner Jr: A Shaker Dinner Party

Apr 7, 2018

These are times that test men’s, and even more so, women’s souls, especially when it comes to dinner parties. The mark of a decent dinner party with resourceful guests is one where the name of our Commander-In-Chief (I can already hear the indignation, not to mention the indigestion, rising) isn’t mentioned for at least half an hour.

Actually, I’ve been pleasantly surprised lately that at the gatherings I’ve been privileged to attend the President’s name is avoided for long stretches of the evening. 

I suspect it’s a conscious decision on the part of guests and hosts alike. The omission is a political statement in its own right. It’s the appreciation that where once nobility was set by example from the top, now it starts at the grassroots, among all of us who continue to believe, quoting a familiar document, that certain truths are self-evident.

However, avoiding the elephant in the room, or is it an 800-pound gorilla, or a 300-pound charlatan, even in the halcyon days of yore (say 2015) scintillating dinner party conversation was a rare and precious commodity.

You’d typically talk to the person on your left or right, or directly across the table, about, in no particular order, mutual friends, gossip, the weather, mutual friends, and more gossip.

You get the idea. The caliber of conversation left something to be desired.

I won’t blame it on myself or the people I find myself seated beside. Or a lack of depth. Or intellectual curiosity. Or the average person’s skill at storytelling. Even though all of those may be contributing factors.

But more than anything else the problem is a structural one. Once you have more than four or, max, six guests seated around or along a table it’s hard to hear much of anything above the din. 

Fortunately, there’s a simple remedy. 

I’m not sure I knew it’s name, or even that it had one, until it was uttered by Brenda Adams, the executive director of Columbia County Habitat for Humanity, who happened to be seated beside me. 

The event was a dinner thrown by the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon to discuss ways to extend Shaker values to the community in general, and to talk about food insecurity in particular. It was held at the home of Sheldon Evans and Martha McMaster and had the added benefit of being a brief drive from our home along uncongested country roads.

Ms. Adams referred to “Jeffersonian dinners.” So I did some minimal research and discovered that the construct was created by Thomas Jefferson to foster discourse, understanding and ultimately compromise among political rivals.

However, this was accomplished not by knocking heads or making the biggest, best deals ever but by discussing ideas and discovering a shared humanity. Wine also helped. “My measure is a perfectly sober three or four glasses at dinner,” Jefferson wrote in a letter, “and not a drop at any other time. But of those three or four glasses I am very fond.”

He actually said the last part in French, possibly under the influence.

Here are some of the rules for throwing a Jefferson dinner party. It involves eight to fourteen guests and a single topic. It can really be about anything. The point is simply to get the conversation flowing. 

At our dinner we started by going around the table and having people introduce themselves and sharing a bit of their own biographies and something about their experience with food insecurity, either in their own lives or through encounters with others.

Paul Cassidy, the Shaker Museum’s board chair, had emailed us in advance and asked us to be prepared to speak for a few minutes on the topic and to share a moment that may have helped form our thinking on the subject.  

At a previous Shaker Museum gathering, Mr. Cassidy said, the topic was feminism. 

What struck me was how much I learned about my fellow guests and their backgrounds, even though few, frankly, had experienced food insecurity in their own lives. 

But that wasn’t what most mattered. The point, again, was to foster community and perhaps lay the groundwork for future action. 

A recent study by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation found that one in ten Columbia County residents lives in poverty and 13% are food insecure. A third of them are seniors and children.

That means they don’t have enough affordable, nutritious food to eat. And the problem has been compounded by the fact that the number of food stores in the county has shrunk by 20% over the last decade. And many of those at greatest risk lack transportation to get to the stores that remain.

My suspicion is that those disturbing statistics would be replicated in other counties around the state and across the country. 

The irony, of course, is that the Hudson Valley is a veritable breadbasket. But much of its grass fed beef or organic produce goes to weekenders or tourists or heads to farmers markets in New York City. 

Also, that our discussion about what we can do to help alleviate the situation was conducted over an excellent salmon dinner supplied by Talbott and Arding, the estimable Hudson, NY provisioners and caterers.

But my hunch is that when Thomas Jefferson held his dinners -- the guest list included the likes of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison -- they weren’t worried about where their next meal was coming from either. 

The point, besides sharing an engaging evening and enjoying the fruits of President Jefferson’s well-stocked wine cellar, was to debate ideas and in so doing explore ways that more of their fellow citizens could share in the nation’s bounty.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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