Why hello there! Welcome to another installment of Entertaining Exchanges, this time with Neuroscientist & chef extraordinaire, Erin Coffey (you can see her Stone Berry Galette below). Erin spends her days in the lab at Penn and her nights with the Philadelphia Wind Symphony and baking some pure goodness. Read on to learn more about her struggle on whether she’d rather have Sherlock Holmes or Bill Nye The Science Guy as a guest at her next dinner party.
Zokos: Think back to the most recent dinner party that you hosted or attended. What was the best part of it?
Erin Coffey: My most recent party was a potluck birthday barbecue. My favorite part was the diversity of people that attended – I have friends that I’ve met through a variety of entirely unrelated groups and activities, so seeing who brought what sort of food and how they all interacted over dinner was a delight. It’s a funny thing – the character of the various attendees was really reflected in the dishes they contributed! That, and a potluck barbecue means that people are walking around, grabbing a burger here or a kebab there, and that it doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down event. Lots of opportunities for people to interact with each other.
Z: Explain how the most recent dinner party you threw was different than the first dinner party you ever threw. What has changed since you first started throwing dinner parties? Why?
EC: The first dinner party I can remember was a Mexican-themed dinner that my college roommate and I hosted the summer after our freshman year. It was fun, there were corn chips, and there were more than enough sombreros to go around – but it was a theme party, which comes attendant with certain challenges in terms of menu and decoration. It’s also a lot of hard work! So, while I still love a good theme – “brunch” is a favored one for me at the moment – I’ve since learned that having the right people makes the dinner party more memorable than having the perfect theme or setting. A friend recently commented that she likes coming to my gatherings because she always gets to know really interesting folks that she’d never have met otherwise. That, for me, is the perfect dinner party.
Z: What are the top two items – not ingredients- at your house that you find yourself using over and over at your dinner parties?
EC: First and foremost, my collection of vases, full of fresh-cut flowers – no question there! I briefly worked at a florist’s during high school, so I always make my own flower arrangements when I have guests. Flowers are like living sculpture, and I think a well-thought-out arrangement – particularly one with seasonal blooms and interesting colors – doesn’t have to be really big or dramatic to change the feel of a party.
Second – board games. I find that if the talking is slowing down but people have too much inertia to actually leave, some sort of activity can really get things moving. Even at the end of a long evening, there’s nothing like a heated round of Bananagrams or an equally heated (though perhaps less speedy) turn at Settlers of Catan!
Z: Where is your dream place to host a dinner party?
EC: Quiet New England beach, early fall, light breeze. I’d stick a polished driftwood table right in the sand, get some big, bright candles and sea glass to decorate the table, and serve some sort of seafood dish – maybe curried shrimp. Alternatively, elk or venison chili, a similar table but made out of roughly-cut logs, dressed with pine garlands and pinecones, and just on the edge of an alpine lake. In other words, find me a rustic shoreline, and I’m a happy camper (figuratively or literally, in this case).
Z: You can invite any four people to a dinner party – who are they?
EC: Hmm… tough question. My ideal table is profound, passionate, delightfully nerdy, and above all a barrel of fun – I tend to invite people that I think would find each other’s company enjoyable. So let’s go with Joy the Baker, for her excellent wit (and of couse, for the delicious baked goods); Fran Kranz, because I think he’d be a hoot and a half; Emma Thompson, because she’d have some great life perspectives; and Sherlock Holmes, the original popular scientist (particularly in the great detective’s current incarnation)! Unless it’s a murder mystery dinner party – in which case, I’d have to swap out Sherlock Holmes for Bill Nye. Holmes would be approximately zero percent fun at a murder mystery party. He’d either solve the case too quickly and point out all the holes in it or, if he were the murderer, he’d be so good at it that no one would ever guess!
Z: What’s your ideal number of people for a dinner party and why?
EC: Six is just few enough that the host doesn’t have to go too crazy making appetizers and entrées, but many enough that it’s quite reasonable to have a potluck-style dinner or to ask for contributions of food or beverage from attendees.