I was invited to dinner as part of a celebration between my department and a well-known computer company for the select few – that followed an evening lecture given by one of their top guys and a drinks reception. We arrived late at an elegant french restaurant that had lots of cornered areas, filled with happy smiling faces, all bathed in a glowing, warm atmosphere. But instead of taking our places in this convivial painting we were escorted upstairs to the top floor to our very own private dining room.
Admittedly, it was beautifully decorated with tasteful artwork, candles, flowers, light and mirrors but it was quiet, bright and stark in comparison. Moreover, the room was dominated by a massive round table perfectly laid out for a party of 15. Someone had taken a huge amount of care arranging the napkins so that the understated menus were discreetly nested in them – ready to glance at without necessarily taking hold of. Nice touch, I thought.
I put my bag to to the side of the room and awkwardly stood behind a chair facing in – waiting for the signal from the boss to be able to sit down. After I sat down I looked around and saw you could see everyone’s face but you could only talk to your nearest neighbour. The table was too big to talk across to anyone else – shouting was not the order of the day. It was not a wedding reception. But strangely, one could vaguely make out what others were talking about even though you could not hear them. Well at least when they looked your way and you saw them talking in a certain way you knew they were talking about you. But as eye contact could not be made they did not know you were looking at them looking at you. A panoptic paradox.
So I spent most of the meal talking with the chap on my left. He was in the business of smart cities and coop-etition – a neologism that the computer, energy, architecture and infrastructure industries have all latched onto as they try to work together while still all trying to make money wiring and interconnecting us ever more into the 21st century.
The starters arrived and I had ordered melon soup. A brightly filled plate was placed in front of me, looking like a dessert – ice-cold, very sweet, bright pink, water-melon froth with a blob of lime green, basil ice-cream floating in the middle. I looked around the table and saw no one else had ordered it. Big mistake. Made worse by being reminded of the transformer colour combo sweets from my first day at the new job. It did not taste of the real thing and my head and stomach got very confused by having pudding first.
Time ticked on. It was creeping towards 11 when the true desserts were eaten and the coffees served. I looked up to my boss to let him know I wanted to leave in order to get the last train home but he was a million miles away on the other side of the table. So I had to get up, say my farewell to my dining companion, walk half the way around the room, and tap the boss on the shoulder to be excused.
A few months ago I was captivated by the formal stately dinner the queen was laying on for President Obama when he was over visiting – it was being televised live and I happened upon it while channel hopping. Not sure why I was so transfixed; maybe because it was live it made for compelling faux pas viewing. The tables, again, were beautifully laid out, but the guests were even more separated by individual fans of fine glassware and silverware.
Is it possible for formal dinners to be less stilted? Maybe the answer lies in the seating rather than the detail to plating. The one exception that I have enjoyed – is high table at King’s College, Cambridge where much merriment and laughter can be seen and heard filling the cavernous high ceilinged dining room. And there everyone dresses up and sits very closely together at one long wooden table – facilitating all sorts of kitty-corner conversations.