How to Win Your Next Dinner Party
Maybe you’re the shy type who freaks at the idea of striking up conversation at an intimate dinner with strangers; maybe you’ve been hiking the Appalachian trail for the past few months and need a refresher course on culture and current events; or maybe you’re just a food-obsessed book nerd who loves a good laugh. Well, APM’s Dinner Party Download can help. Hosted by public radio veterans Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, the podcast is essentially “public radio’s arts & leisure section,” a weekly round up of all things culture, from the latest books and music, to food facts, trendy cocktail recipes and tips for proper etiquette. This weekend, the radio show goes live at the Fitzgerald, featuring comedian Michael Ian Black, musicians Angel Olsen and Lizzo, author Marlon James and cocktails from the fabulous folks at Bittercube. Below, Gagliano and Newnam share their top tips for winning at your next dinner party, plus what to expect from the live show.
AndrewZimmern.com: The Dinner Party Download is brilliant. Where did the idea come from?
Rico Gagliano: You’re too kind. Well first off, we were both public radio guys—I worked as a reporter for “Marketplace,” Brendan was a producer—and we had similar tastes and interests in music, movies, food, all the arts-and-culture stuff. At first we tried to start a band together but we quickly realized we both wanted to be the frontman, so that wasn’t gonna work. So we figured we’d start some kind of arts-and-culture podcast on the side.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah—and the concept developed when we noticed a lot of the folks in our lives had become so busy with their careers and/or families that they couldn’t keep up with what was going on in culture. We seemed to be the guys they’d approach for new music suggestions, restaurant recommendations, that sort of thing. So we decided to create a show to shut them up. Kidding.
Rico: Kidding. But honestly I think Brendan literally said, at one point, “I just want a show where we talk about everything people ask us about at dinner parties.” And that immediately became our theme and gave us our structure: the show unfolds like a dinner party.
AZ.com: Why did you choose radio as your platform, instead of a web series or TV show?
Brendan: It honestly never occurred to us to do anything else!
Rico: We both had been working in public radio for years—before Marketplace I’d done work for “All Things Considered” and other shows, Brendan worked for “Fresh Air” for a while. We had the experience and access to equipment…
Brendan: Right—we love the form, and at the time there were very few examples of public radio shows that were maybe a little more youthful, a little sexier, and had fun with culture. We had a strong idea of what kind of radio show we wanted to hear… but that we weren’t hearing much of.
AZ.com: How do you stay up-to-date on all things culture? Your favorite news/media outlets?
Brendan: That’s a trade secret! No, we have our websites we go to—Vulture, Eater, Indiewire, Pitchfork, etc…. But we read the arts section in newspapers from the New York Times to the L.A. Times. Magazines like Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly. And at this point we have an editorial calendar we update every couple months that tells us what’s coming up—that helps us request books, or previews of films. But, honestly, we’d be doing a lot of this stuff even if we didn’t have a show.
Rico: Yeah, I’m a film school grad; I’d be watching movies and thinking way too hard about them anyway. Another thing that helps is the aforementioned stuff that gets sent to us now that we have a show. If we’re not aware of something happening out there, PR people make us aware of it.
AZ.com: Ways to break the ice at your next dinner party?
Brendan: Well, there’s the “meta” approach: say something like “Hi! I’m gonna start talking to you now, because I don’t know anyone else here. What brings you to this?” You gotta be careful with that one ‘cause if you say it wrong you can come off as a sad creep, though. It might also help to look up a few weird news stories before heading to the party. Look for the opportunity to drop them into a conversation and blow people’s minds.
Rico: We actually start every show with someone telling what we call an “icebreaker”—basically a joke, usually an exceedingly awful one. I like to think a bad joke is a good way to break the ice because it shows you’re willing to look silly, and you’re setting the bar low for anything that follows. Actually our latest icebreaker, from the author Heidi Julavitz, is both groan-inducing and kind of brilliant—she learned it from her Mom, who’s a grade school teacher:
AZ.com: Rules of etiquette everyone should follow at a dinner party?
Brendan: Every guest brings a bottle of wine. If you are invited, you are bringing a bottle of wine. Period. That’s a bottle per person…even if you’re not drinking. Trust us, someone will drink it, and there’s nothing worse than running out of wine.
Also: Ask questions and really listen to the answers. People are amazing—they’ve done things you’ll never do. Ask them about it.
Rico: And this an etiquette tip for people where I live, in L.A.: When you arrive at the party, don’t complain about how hard it was to find parking in the neighborhood. Basically how that comes across is: “You, host, have inconvenienced me terribly!” Your host does not control traffic patterns, and they probably can’t afford to build a garage that holds 15 cars.
AZ.com: Any topics of conversation that should be off limits at dinner?
Brendan: Yeah—but otherwise, No! I mean you should refrain from hate speech… but there’s no reason not to talk about “hate speech.” It seems like Americans are often too timid to talk about issues of any substance. That’s a shame. It deprives people of one of life’s finest pleasures—engaged dialogue and debate about the world. So, talk about whatever you want—just be respectful and remember the thing we said about listening.
Rico: Also be very careful if talk turns to the latest funny video you saw online. The temptation will be for someone to whip out a smartphone and find the video, and soon your dinner party is gonna be a video party. That can be fun; just understand that you’re headed into the YouTube hole, and once you’re in, you’re never coming out.
AZ.com: Your worst dinner party disaster?
Brendan: I was once at a dinner party at a friend’s house. Everyone was eating hors d’oeuvres, drinking wine, having a fine time for an hour or so… when I realized that I didn’t smell anything cooking. So I ventured into the kitchen to see what was what, and sitting on a chopping block is a huge beef rib roast—raw! This beast was going to take three to four hours to cook and it was already closing in on 9pm.
It turned out that my friend Dean (a dinner party novice) had misread the recipe and thought it would only take forty five minutes. So we start phoning around, trying to find take out. Now this was in Prague back in the ‘90s, so there wasn’t exactly a pizza place on every corner. We ended up finding a cafe that agreed to help, and we ordered twenty portions of their chicken tortellini. Two hours later we were all on the floor eating out of styrofoam clamshells laughing like crazy.
Rico: Something we pretty much agree on: really the least important part of a dinner party is the quality of the food.
AZ.com: What’s the best joke you’ve heard recently?
Rico: Oh no, I already told my favorite.
Brendan: Cokie Roberts told us a great one this week, but you’ll have to come to our live show in Minneapolis to hear it.
Rico: We’re either playing her joke, or one we taped with Caroll Spinney, the voice of Oscar the Grouch. One way or another we’re launching the show with a public broadcaster telling a joke, dammit.
AZ.com: What can we expect from the live show?
Brendan: Michael Ian Black has been on our radio show a couple of times and is always hysterical. Marlon James is one of the best writers in America—he actually read us an excerpt from his novel last year that ended up on our “Best of 2014” episode. Angel Olsen’s voice gives goosebumps. Lizzo is an explosion of energy, and one of our favorite musical discoveries of the last while—Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney brought her to our attention; Lizzo’s been opening for them this year. Add that to cocktails, jokes and two nervous hosts and you’ve got yourself a fine Saturday night!
Rico: Also, when possible, we like adding visual elements to the stage show. It actually ends up biting us in the butt later because we end up with stuff that wouldn’t make any sense on the radio, but we try to give the live audience something you can only fully experience in the theater.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
Rico: Smoked salmon… Cheese, tortillas and Salsa for quesadillas… anchovies for putting on pizza… and a bag of English peas. You stir them into some sautéed onion and prosciutto, sprinkle with salt and pepper—amazing. But really what happens is my girlfriend comes over with her own ingredients, adds them to whatever I’ve got and cooks us amazing things while I make martinis. Oh yeah—also in the fridge: a bottle of dry vermouth. I only use a drop so it will be there forever.
Brendan: Well, we’re here all week to work on the show, so I spent my weekend eating everything in my refrigerator. What’s left? All p’s – pickles, parmesan, prosciutto and prosecco. Did I mention I’m a bachelor?
About the Hosts of The Dinner Party Download
BRENDAN FRANCIS NEWNAM has been winning dinner parties since first taking a seat at the kid’s table at his family’s holiday gatherings. Granted, by then he was in his twenties and had graduated from Rutgers at the top of his class while the rest of his tablemates were toddlers, but, still, a victory is a victory, even if you make a five year old cry. A long time foodie, during the height of America’s cupcake craze, Brendan sought refuge in Europe, where he wrote and edited travel guides, music reviews and celebrity profiles for various websites and magazines, including Vice and Blackbook, and delivered lectures on the ontology of the gin martini. But even la dolce vita gets old, and he returned to America to embark on a career in law. But after earning a JD and spending a summer fighting for prosecutorial reform in Bulgaria, he was seduced by public radio’s siren call. (Or maybe that was the sound of corduroy rubbing?) Before launching The Dinner Party Download, he produced and reported for national public radio shows including Marketplace, Marketplace Money, Fresh Air, and Weekend America, and, in his spare time, created and produced Audiovant, one of the first music interview podcasts. Though he now has a stable income and is chipping away at his law school debt, Brendan continues to freelance for various outlets, including Dwell, Modern Farmer, Saveur, and CNN.com, where, in 2011, he penned a series of travel tales called “The State I’m In.” Brendan is also a past Knight Media Fellow, and lest you think he has a face for radio, the national fashion website Racked named him a “style icon,” and that’s without even knowing about his tattoo of the word “tattoo.”
RICO GAGLIANO has worked in public radio for over a decade. His pieces have been heard on All Things Considered, Weekend America, The Savvy Traveler and other series, but he was best known as a reporter on Marketplace, for which he filed stories from England, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, India, South Korea and across the good ol’ USA. He also penned and performed many of the show’s “Marketplace Players” comedy sketches. Prior to radio, Rico worked as a TV writer on shows for MTV, ABC, Fox Family and The Cartoon Network… and as a freelance print reporter for LA Weekly, the Village Voice, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and others. He continues to contribute pieces to Dwell magazine. Rico co-created, performed and wrote for the circuslike L.A. sketch comedy troupe The Ministry Of Unknown Science, which at various times required him to drop his pants on stage, stand fully clothed in frigid ocean waves for half an hour, and stand way too close to the explosion caused by detonating a sex doll filled with propane. The troupe had a top-10 video podcast on iTunes and filmed pilots for Spike TV and the SyFy Network. Rico holds an MFA from the American Film Institute. He’s been a fan of dinner parties since childhood, when it meant he got to eat in his parents’ bedroom and watch TV all night while the grownups sat around in the dining room getting wine-tipsy.