New Canaanite Erin Hedley said she and her girlfriends organize dinner parties about twice each month.
"We survive on it," she said. "We get together for dinner as a group of friends, or sometimes with our husbands, and it's almost like our own special family."
The dinner party is making a resurgence in New Canaan, Hedley said.
"At a restaurant, you can't get up and move around," she said. "You're confined to talk to only the people seated directly next to you. At a dinner party, you can move around and you can be loud -- and we tend to get loud.
"A lot of political debates take place over dinner with friends, and in a restaurant there are many times when we get the evil eye because we're being too loud. We have a boisterous group of friends with very differing views. I wouldn't say it gets heated, but it gets interesting. People have to raise their hand almost to get a word in edgewise."
When the economy started to sour, many New Canaanites began turning to their own tables for meals on a more consistent basis, Hedley said.
"Friday night pizza nights where everyone gets together at a house and everyone pitches in for pizza have really come back into fashion," she said. "It costs a fortune -- about $150-- to go out to a nice dinner for two, and for that price you can do that for six or eight people at home. It's a low-key version of the dinner party, but I do think people are staying in more and doing things a bit more simpler."
For Hedley, the two key ingredients to any dinner party are fun and friends. Guests appreciate good food, she said, but a hostess' main course should be to ensure that everyone has a good time.
"When I was in my `30s, I was in that mode of super-mom, superwoman, formal Martha Stewart-style dinner," Hedley said. "Now that we're in our `40s, we've ditched the seating charts and stopped killing ourselves and making ourselves crazy over it. I think we got smarter in our older age."
For Pam Goodwin, the allure of the dinner party is that a hostess can prepare most of the food in advance of the start of the evening. The New Canaanite often hosts dinner parties for a clan of four to six couples, which includes Hedley and her husband.
Casual, last-minute dinners of take-out pizza followed by a round of The Newlywed Game are among the best remembered, she said.
Yet even the most polished presentations can invite surprises, she said.
One of Goodwin's parties led to an unforeseen crescendo when a stray candle flame set her evergreen table centerpiece on fire.
"It was quite a big mess, but nobody moved," she said. "They kept eating and chatting while I doused it with water."
Some of the her most comedic dinner parties didn't seem so at the time, Goodwin said. One party, inspired by her two year spree in Switzerland with her husband, did not transcend international lines as well as she had hoped.
"Raclette is a very fragrant cheese," she explained. "In Switzerland, people warm it up and pass it around the table at parties in the winter. It's a very Swiss thing to do. We thought it would be a fun thing to do with our friends in New Canaan, but I was horrified because when our guests walked into my house, the whole place smelled like feet -- like teenage boys' feet. The next day, everyone ran out and dry cleaned their clothes because they smelled like this very fragrant Swiss cheese.
"It was 10 years ago, and everyone still talks about it."
For Shawnee Knight, cooking is calculating. In the kitchen of her New Canaan home, she keeps a notepad filled with degrees, cook times and self-instructions for organizing a seamless dinner party.
"You have to do the math," Knight said. "You have to know if something takes 20 minutes to cook and something else takes 10 [minutes]. You have to figure that into your planning."
Knight, 33, hosts dinner parties every couple of months. Beneath a resplendent chandelier and beside a fireplace, her dinner table tightly fits 12 guests for a multi-course meal.
"Cooking relaxes me," said Knight, who said she has 12 years experience in dinner party planning. "I like to see people eating and having a good time. It's work, but it makes me happy."
Equipped with an industrial refrigerator and guinea pigs, also known as her husband and children to dine on her trial-run recipes, Knight makes from scratch all that she serves, except for the bread and wine.
"I don't like if I have someone cooking the food with me because you don't get to make sure it cooks exactly how you want it to," she said. "I usually don't end up wearing a dress to my dinners; I'll wear pants and I try to wear a sleeveless top because I'm in the kitchen a lot and I know I'm going to break a sweat. When we're eating, I pull plates and go in and check to see how things are going. Unless you hire a catering company, I don't think you can ever not be in the kitchen."
With a backyard garden of fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits and an ice cream maker to churn mixtures of icy sugar and milk into cream, her dishes, from salads to desserts, are stamped with a signature style. If she can't find the precise ingredient in her yard or in her cupboards, Knight is quick to food shop online rather than substitute ingredients -- that's a mistake she won't make twice.
"I've made bad food," she admits. "I substituted in something that they didn't have at the market and it was terrible. Everyone was polite and didn't say anything, but I knew it was terrible.
"For my husband's birthday dinner, I had a certain kind of meat flown in from a farm," she added. "It was a heritage Berkshire pork and you can't get that in town. Or sometimes a recipe calls for a certain pistachio oil and I'll drive to three stores and won't be able to find it, so I order online."
Before the start of a party, Knight sets the table, checks for smudges and presets place cards at each seat.
"Everyone comes to the table and they have no idea where to go, so I do the seating," Knight said. "I used to spend I lot of time thinking of who should sit where. I'd think, `If that person sits there are they going to be offended?' The rule is typically that the guest of honor sits to the right of the host, but I think people read too much into that. So, I've started seating people alphabetically by first name, alternating boy-girl and not next to your spouse."
Knight dresses her table differently depending on the season: peacock feathers, pumpkins or, more often, she accents the table with fresh-cut flowers in vases filled with 7-Up.
"There's something in there, the sugar or something, that keeps the fresher longer," she said of the soda.
She added, "I like to entertain. I just think it's fun. If I could somehow find that to be a job that didn't take me away on the weekends from my kids, I would do it."