It is much easier to accept an invitation to dinner than to receive guests at your own table.To accept an invitation to dinner may or may not be pleasant but, in any case, it is only a question of passing pleasantly, or unpleasantly, an hour or two.
On the other hand, to invite relations, friends or business contacts to a meal is a most complicated business. You must, according to Brillat-Savarin's formula, be responsible for their entire happiness whilst they are under your roof.
But the guest's happiness is a matter of infinite complexity. It depends on the host himself, on his humor, his health, his business interests, his pastimes, the character of his wife, his education, his appetite, his attitude toward his neighbor at table, his artistic sense, his inclination to mischief, his good nature, and so on and so forth. So it is really not worth worrying too much, or the problem of inviting guests to dinner would become insoluble.
First of all, there are three kinds of guests: 1. Those one is fond of. 2. Those with whom one is obliged to mix. 3. Those whom one detests.
For these three very different occasions one would prepare, respectively, an excellent dinner, a banal meal, or nothing at all, since in the latter case one would buy something ready cooked.
To prepare a dinner for a friend is to put into the cooking pot all one's affection and good will, all one's gaiety and zest, so that after three hours' cooking a waft of happiness escapes from beneath the lid.
A dinner prepared for a business contact is meant to impress him and to "pay back" hospitality. Horrible expression!
For mypart, I have never "paid back" a dinner. The people who invite me are richer than I am. They would find my table too modest, and they don't come, because they are not invited.
Those whom I do invite like my savory casserole and they don't pay me back because they prefer to return and enjoy it another time.
To make a dinner for people one can't bear is to try and keep up with the Jones's, as you say in English. Whatever you do, you are bound to be criticized, so it is better to buy ready cooked food and let the supplier be criticized instead.
Having established these facts, let us begin.
For a successful dinner there should never be more than eight at table. One should prepare only one good dish. This should be preceded and followed by some little thing, then cheese and a sweet course if you are in France or pudding and cheese if you are in England. Finally dessert, good coffee, and a glass of cognac or natural spirits.
For the dinner to be really good the host must feel a glow of inward joy during the whole of the week which precedes it. He must await with impatience the day of the party. He must ask himself every day what he can do to improve it, even if it is only a question of a simple pot-au-feu.
Whatever such a host offers to his guests, I am sure that it will be good, because he will have enjoyed the anticipation of it for a week beforehand and he will feel this same joy for a week afterwards in his pleasure at having charmed his guests.