t’s 8 p.m. on a Friday night and my husband is cursing at a pot of pasta. A few feet away, perched on a sagging IKEA couch, my ex-roommate’s ex-lover is planning a backpacking trip with my high school theater camp buddy’s husband’s college friend. Behind them, a drag king comes in late from “genderqueer jiu jitsu” and hugs a 10th grade English teacher, returning her copy of The Body is Not an Apology. An ex-coworker from who-knows-how-many-jobs-ago is pouring more wine for the previously mentioned high school theater camp buddy while asking to join her blacksmithing class, while another ex-coworker is snuggled up in an armchair with an actor I once directed in a touring production of Romeo and Juliet. I am setting the table with my grandmother’s good silver and all is right with the world. Welcome to Frambly Dinner.
“Frambly” is the term we came up with to describe our family of chosen friends and the brambly way we all ended up entwined, but trust me, this shorthand is the only formality. I’ve been hosting this dinner party with my husband for nearly three years now, and what started as a “writers group” (guess how much writing we did?) has morphed into something I think many people, millennials especially, find as elusive as the rest of the American Dream: warm, reliable community.
My grandparents — all four of them — were friends for years before they got married and started having kids (two of which would eventually marry each other and have me). When you look at pictures of my mother’s Bat Mitzvah, my dad’s parents are there, dancing in the background. I remember one of my grandfathers giving me a hug at the other’s funeral and saying, “You lost a good friend, Kiddo,” which struck me as odd, even at 10 years old, since they had known each other far longer than I’d been alive. He was the one who had lost a good friend.
When I moved across the country after college graduation, I took many of my grandparents’ things with me — things that belonged in other kitchens, in other eras. Even though I knew almost no one in California, table service for 10 still felt like a necessity. It was a way of carrying their legacy with me, even though I didn’t yet know how to bring it to life. When I met a red-headed bartender who loved to cook as much as I did, I decided to stay. We cooked our favorite recipes for each other, and many of mine (the desserts, mostly) came out of inherited old cookbooks that were peppered with advice to the wife, the hostess, for whom every meal is an opportunity for social graces and tabletop diplomacy.
Now, if you ever happen to move to a new city and worry about making friends, I can promise you this: If you date a bartender, move in with a burlesque performer, and get a job at a Shakespeare theater, you will quite suddenly be surrounded by a wealth of interesting people. And if you feed those people regularly and well, you will sit down to dinner one day and notice that not only do you now have actual friends, but they feel a bit like family, too. And although this wild assembly of bohemian roustabouts is hardly the stuff of a Rockwell Thanksgiving, you might realize what I did: those pearls-in-the-kitchen Bettys from the cookbooks were on to something.
The friendships that buoyed my grandparents’ lives were founded at their synagogue. By the time my brother and I came along, they’d been known as “The Card Club” for several decades. The group was eight couples in total, that got together once a month and had dinner before the husbands played poker and the ladies played dominos. The hosting rotated from house to house, but both my mother and I have strong memories of ironing napkins, polishing the good silverware, and arranging trays of nuts and candies for when The Card Club was coming over.
But much as I admire The Card Club, I worry that it’s not a replicable model for modern friendships. In fact, millennials report feeling lonelier than older generations and, if the myriad essays on the topic are to be believed, making and keeping adult friendships hasn’t come as easily as many of us expected. Perhaps because an economy reliant on freelancing, gigs and side hustles doesn’t exactly encourage workplace friendships; or because we’re less likely than any previous generation to belong to a formal religious organization. And since we’re waiting longer to have kids, if we have them at all, we’re not making PTA alliances or bonding over a shared flask at the elementary school rendition of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” either.
To put it bluntly: No one is going to make our friendships for us. But if we’re as anxious, broke and lonely as the internet suggests, battling our imposter syndrome in increasingly tiny apartments (as the stats say we are), then maybe that’s exactly why we need to resurrect and reform an oft-forgotten social relic: the dinner party. It’s time to stop letting an antiquated idea of “the perfect host” get in the way of our ability to create space for our community and nurture lifelong friendships.
When asked what brought me to California, I often quip that moving across the country for no reason seemed like the kind of thing one should do in their twenties, but the truth is, I was grieving. The price paid for such a close loving family (my dad’s parents lived two miles in one direction, my mom’s two miles in the other) was that after burying six people in ten years, there wasn’t a street I could drive down or a place I could go that didn’t remind me of someone I had lost. I had grown up with a minimum of 13 people around my grandmother’s table for Shabbat Dinner every Friday night, and I didn’t have any faith at the time that I would ever feel that same sense of joy and peace as those nights brought.
The first few times hosting were stressful. I worried that the food wasn’t good enough. I worried that the apartment wasn’t big enough. I worried that my goal of being a good host wasn’t feminist enough. The first time felt like I was playing dress up in someone else’s heels, but this weekly time set aside for sharing food with friends is something I now cherish beyond measure, and I slowly realized that the feeling I was missing from Shabbat dinners and that I envied from The Card Club nights was something I could create for myself, but not by myself. So I invited people in. And even if it sounds cheesy, I want to invite you in too. I want to invite you to create your own Frambly Dinner, and I’ve outlined my best tips below to help get you started. You don’t need matching napkins or a spotless house or even a dining room. All you need is a few people you’d like to spend more time with, and a willingness to invite them in.
Just Try It Out
You don’t have to commit to hosting a weekly or even monthly dinner party. Just try one and see how it goes. Think of it less like a “dinner party” and more like just having some friends over. If you can get over this first fear, everything will come easier.
If You Plan It, They Will Come
I work three jobs and so does my husband. But Friday nights are sacrosanct. The beauty of hosting regularly is that we never have to worry about when we’re going to make time to see our friends. Celebrating birthdays, promotions, holidays, etc., are all simple and genuine: just add a toast or a cake. No one has to stress about FOMO because if you miss it this week, there’s always next week. But I’ve found that the people who value this like we do continue to block out their Fridays for the Frambly.
You Don’t Need a Table
Our apartment features one room to serve as kitchen, living room and dining room. It’s not big. Most of the time, we set out platters of food on the kitchen counter and everyone helps themselves to a plate before perching on the couch, armchairs, footstools or on pillows around the coffee table. If you wait until you have a proper dining room table to try your hand at hosting, you will miss out on years of friendship.
Keep It Simple
Give a half hour window for when folks should arrive and then forget about the clock. Serve everything family style. Pad your menu with lots of veggies — they’re inexpensive, colorful and hardly anyone is allergic. Don’t let the last minute cancellation or additional guest ruffle your feathers. Don’t make a seating chart. Don’t plan dessert if you don’t want to — you can always just offer tea or send someone to the corner store for Ben and Jerry’s.
Let People Help
Ask them to bring drinks, or something to contribute to a cheese plate in case dinner is a bit late. Or to pick up some cookies on their way over. Let them come early and help cook if they want. Let them tackle some the dishes. Let them pitch in. Remember, you’re building a family, not running a restaurant.
Just Clean the Bathroom
You can fake everything else and no one cares anyway.
But here’s the biggest secret:
It’s Not Actually About the Food
I’m a good cook. My husband is incredible. But what I’m reminded of on nights when we tell the Frambly that we just can’t handle the cooking that Friday and we all pitch in for some pizza instead, is that the food is just the excuse for getting together. The real nourishment comes from knowing that there is a time and a place where we will be welcomed and loved no matter what. And carving that space out in this world is the true art of hosting.
Molly Conway is a playwright and writer living in Oakland, California. You can follow her on Instagram @moxiequinn for periodic updates about her garden and Frambly Dinner. She has yet to finish a cup of tea while it is still hot.
Illustrations by Alec Doherty.