A dinner party should not be a recipe for social anxiety
The book club now has serious competition from the cook club. As amateur chefs try to outdo each other in the kitchen, dinner parties are no longer places of relaxation and banter. They are minefields of competitive cooking, precision timing and elaborate presentation.
The advent of the recession drove cook-book sales sky high. Instead of going out for dinner, people were staying at home on a Saturday night and cooking for friends.
But between cook books, cooking shows, cooking competitions and celebrity chefs, having a few pals for dinner took on a whole new meaning.
The dinner party went from throwing together a bowl of pasta to requiring a degree in nutrition, a Cordon Bleu 'Grand Diplome', an extensive knowledge of exotic spices and your own herb garden.
Inviting friends over for dinner used to be a fun event, where the emphasis was more on the guests and the quantity of wine poured rather than the flavour of the saffron that you had to re-mortgage your house to buy. I joined a cook club a few years ago to improve my very low standard of cooking. Three years on I have a folder stuffed with recipes, of which I have cooked two. However, I have made lovely new friends, had good fun at every meeting and picked up a few tips along the way.
But why does it all have to be so serious? Isn't the whole point of a gathering with friends to have fun and set the world to rights over a nice glass of wine and some food? Why should the food take over? Why should the cooking overshadow the company and the conversation?
Some people are very competitive about their cooking and like to outdo each other with more complex and fancier meals.
Programmes like Masterchef and Come Dine With Me have awakened the giant in many wannabe chefs.
And right alongside the knowledge of 'how to cook' we now have the 'easily available' produce, the explosion of food festivals, farmers' markets, food blogs, food exhibitions and live cooking demonstrations popping up every five minutes around the country.
A survey carried out in the UK found that people having dinner parties now spend an average of €120 on food and six-and-a-half hours in the kitchen in an effort to outdo friends and serve restaurant-quality food.
If I spent six-and-a-half hours preparing and cooking for a dinner party, by the time my guests arrived I'd be exhausted and fit for only one thing - bed.
I want to enjoy my dinner parties and join in the conversation instead of being chained to an oven with a stopwatch beside me.
Nigella Lawson once said she was inspired to write How to Eat after finding a friend weeping in the kitchen convinced the meal she was about to serve would be a disaster.
The 'Domestic Goddess' said people felt under so much pressure to impress that they couldn't just enjoy the experience of cooking and eating with each other.
Nigella is a woman after my own heart. But then, I'm not really a foodie. I do, however, know a lot of people who enjoy cooking. They find it cathartic and a great way to unwind. For them, trying a new recipe is a challenge they relish.
But we've all been to dinner parties where the hosts spend the entire night stuck in the kitchen, only appearing to serve their guests dinner and only actually sitting down after dessert is served - by which stage they are red-faced, exhausted and barely able to speak.
I'd much rather they served me pasta and sat down and joined in the fun and banter. I came to their house to see them, not their food.
Some serious cooks like to go into detail about the 'journey' from shopping basket to plate.
I recently sat through a very long discussion on whether borlotti beans were better in a chicken stew than chickpeas. I thought it was finally over - chickpeas won by the way - when someone mentioned butter beans. I was tempted to stick a fork in my eye at that point.
No one is suggesting that being served a delicious meal is not appreciated or welcomed. But do we have to have a blow-by-blow account of the sourcing, prepping, chopping and cooking?
Let's remember why we invited the people over to our houses - to catch up and have fun, not to give them an exhaustive account of every morsel they put into their mouths.
If you are a good cook and enjoy it, that's great, but if you are an average cook that should be fine too.
You shouldn't have to spend a fortune and an entire day slaving over a cooker just to impress people.
A warm and welcoming atmosphere and good company are as important as what's on the plate.