Come Dine With Me

Flavor with Salt, Pepper, and Sass

The concept is simple: gather a bunch of strangers, have each one host a dinner party, and then berate them each in turn for the mediocrity of the meal and the disappointing entertainment.

Of course, our version would be a little different.

I first caught an episode of the show while resting in a hotel room this summer in Wycombe, and I was captivated. The first episode I saw claimed to feature celebrities, but I didn’t recognize any of them so I assumed that in England, everyone is famous.

One of the guests happened to be a vegan, and though the other participants could respect that, they said, it seemed a little selfish to create an entirely vegan menu. This they revealed to a camera as they opened and read her menu the night before.

At least she was following protocol. When it’s your turn to host the dinner party, you must create a three-course menu and deliver it to the guests the day before the event. Hosts are also required to have a theme or some kind of entertainment, which can often result in a dress code, a fact that must be stated in the menu. When the other participants receive their menus, a cameraman captures their first reactions.

And they are hilariously snide.

“California roll,” scoffed one British woman, confused. “Well what is that?”

“A roll…as in a bread roll? That doesn’t seem sufficient for an appetizer, really.”

“Is it…is it just vegetables? Avocado…oh, I hate avocado. And crab! My word. This sounds absolutely disgusting. I do think I’ll have to eat something beforehand.”

“There’s no meat on this menu,” one particularly observant man stated rather bluntly. “Already she’s getting a low score.”

When they are done ridiculing the menu, guests dress up, procure a “favor,” and arrive at the host’s, hopefully to a neat tray of clean, tinkling glasses, all containing some pastel-colored cocktail. Upon entering the home, guests mingle – they are strangers, after all – and then get to know their hosts through all the acceptable social behavior: asking questions, telling anecdotes, complimenting the couch, going through an underwear drawer. This last one caught me by surprise, until I remembered that these people were British, and so perhaps it is absolutely normal for a strange Englishman to venture into a woman’s bedroom and sift through her lingerie. When in London, right?

It is also entirely possible that the British are using the show to teach a lesson about cleanliness and order, a moral that doesn’t seem too farfetched to me considering the meticulous nature of the English. I can picture the television producers huddled eagerly around a dustless, mirrored tabletop, clucking their tongues:

“Last month, we discussed the issue of the unprecedented rise in unorganized sock drawers outside of London. I say we pitch a new series that appears to be a cooking competition but actually is a way to penalize disorganization, because the host can lose points if his sock drawer is not in order! Top banana!”

Funnily enough, this isn’t too far off the mark. As the host slaves away in the kitchen, clattering pans and wiping flour from a sweaty cheek, the other guests are free to roam wherever they please and lambaste any minor detail that they find disagreeable.

“This room is just the perfect combination of modern and rustic – except for these parquet floors. Whatever was she thinking?”

“I myself enjoy a bit of carpeting in my bathroom, but this – is this tile? – why, it’s grotesque! Let’s have a peek in the shower, shall we? Oh, it’s appalling! Is that an eyelash in the drain? If this is the level of hygiene here, I’m afraid to think what’s in our food!”

To be fair, there have been a few instances where this type of reaction isn’t completely unsolicited. One episode of a couples version of the show featured a strapping, eccentric DIY pair whose main course involved rabbit trapped and skinned just in the backyard. While their focus had been on hunting, their home was in shambles, with bunches of wires protruding from the walls and unfinished ceilings and floors lurking around every corner.

“This doesn’t seem safe,” quaked one of the less bold guests, pointing at an exposed wire. “You didn’t think to cover these or…or clean the house before we arrived?”

“Well, no, I was outside all day, digging a hole in the backyard to cook potatoes.”

After the home is ridiculed, guests sit down to their meals. The host explains what s/he has prepared, usually some kind of much-loved family recipe that the host has perfected and genuinely enjoyed serving, and then they dig in. Viewers get a quick summary from the host, looking exhausted but excited:

“My great-great grandmother passed this recipe down before she died, and, well, my family and I have just taken great pleasure in building on it. It’s kind of a tradition, and, well, I hope they enjoy it. I know that we have two vegetarians, so I went ahead and changed the recipe for them to replace the meat with a very unique quinoa and squash that I traveled two hours to purchase, so, well, I do hope they enjoy it.”

Then the camera captures the faces of the guests, where most usually, they are extremely displeased.

“Her great-great grandmother passed this down? Should’ve taken it to the grave with her.”

“This tastes quite stale…did her grandmother actually cook this batch before she died?”

“This quinoa is rubbish. Clearly she thinks that vegetarians aren’t deserving of a good meal, but we’ll set her straight. I don’t think she is getting higher than a five tonight.”

In the episode featuring the woman who was a vegan, her guests did set her straight: the next menu was all meat items, and instead of given a supplementary meal, she was just given the side salad. Ouch.

Between meals, guests can chat or enjoy entertainment, the latter being the preferred method as chatting quickly becomes awkward. Entertainment can be anything from a dance lesson to an opera singer in the living room to a competition of some sort, a very meta kind of thing, a competition within a competition.

At the end of the night, guests are shuffled into cabs and sent on their way, and it is here in the backseat that they rate their evening on a scale of 1-10. Their rating is always a surprise to me. Guests consider all aspects of the night: the atmosphere, the meal, the entertainment. Then, they provide their score.

“It was a wonderful time,” sighed one guest. “The food was perfect, the entertainment was very original – I loved it! Yes, it was probably the best night we’ve had so far. I’ll give it a six.”

Then they do it again the next night.

The best part of all of this is that the entire episode is commentated by a very sassy, very critical man who has a go at every person in the show and every move they make. It’s hilarious.

Our version deviates a bit from this. We all know each other, we try not to be as cruel, and we don’t root through each other’s underwear drawers. We all pitched in 200 LE, drew names of pairs from an ashtray at the bar, and got started. But, like most things in life, it’s way easier said than done…

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