World's Worst Dinner Parties
November 27, 2012 1:17 PM   Subscribe

Examples of banquets/dinner parties gone horribly wrong?

I'm working on a story that revolves around a banquet for a professional organization, in which things completely fall apart. I'm talking total train wreck, the toast scene in Rachel Getting Married kind of gathering. I'm worried, however, that my imagination won't match real life, so I'm wondering if you have examples of awful conference dinners, wedding receptions, dinner parties, etc., so that I can take things at least as far.

Some more details about this story:
  • The protagonist styles himself as a bold, uncompromising truth-teller, but he walks a fine line between being bold and being obnoxious. Think Alceste from Le Misanthrope, for example.
  • The banquet will have 50 or so people; so a relatively intimate setting, but still somewhat formal.
  • It will likely end with the protagonist being escorted from the scene, his reputation diminished and his relationship with his girlfriend (also in attendance) in tatters.
  • And it will be narrated in the first person, so the reader should have some empathy for him. I'm aiming for a darkly comic tone with this.
I'm interested in hearing your experiences. I've never crowdsourced inspiration before, so I hope this works.
posted by Cash4Lead to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This was at a smaller gathering of relatives, but it may work for your purposes.

My cousin Diana, my cousin's daughter Christine, a few other cousins and various relatives were having dinner one night when we started to discuss Maria, Diana's mother (and my aunt), who had recently passed from advanced Alzheimer's disease. Our grandmother had also died of the same disease many years before.

When Mary was first diagnosed with the disease, she said lots of out-of-character things (as many Alzheimer's patients do). One of those things was about how rotten her (long-deceased) husband Ron (Diana's father and Christine's grandfather) was. Ron was a wonderful, good-natured and loving man, so this was totally different for soft-spoken Maria.

At any rate, Diana said that Maria kept going back to the idea that Ron was "crossing state lines with a naked woman in the back seat" and would attempt to call the police from the room she now had in Diana's house when she couldn't take care of herself.

I said, "Maybe Aunt Maria was remembering the time when Uncle Ron went to Vermont with that woman he was having an affair with, and Nana called the Vermont state trooper's office to haul him back home?"


My mother had told me this story, so I thought it was common knowledge among the family. Apparently, Mom knew about it because she was still living with Nana when Aunt Maria came over to their house, sobbing over what Uncle Ron had done. The state troopers actually returned Uncle Ron to my Nana, and he and Aunt Maria had a long, loving marriage after this.

However, my cousin and cousin's daughter (and the other relatives at the table) didn't know this had happened.

So in one fell swoop, I gave away a secret I shouldn't have, disillusioned my cousin and her daughter about Maria's and Ron's marriage, and made a bumbling ass out of myself in front of more distant cousins.

The next day, Christine said that she didn't know who looked more or her Mom.

(Luckily, a week after this, Diana sat down and had a long talk with my mother about the incident, and it shed a lot of light on what Maria's memories and thoughts were. She later thanked me for letting it slip, though I'll never think on that time without feeling like I want to sink into a hole in the ground.)
posted by xingcat at 1:38 PM on November 27, 2012 [37 favorites]

You might want to watch The Celebration for inspiration.
posted by donovan at 1:39 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't give you trainwreck territory, but I can tell you from personal experience that a surefire recipe for disaster is two giant open bars spanning the ends of each room... and a few very small tables of insubstantial food in the middle, particularly the kind of food that not everyone will eat. Think two tables of nothing but cheese and veggies and a central hot station with three hors d'oeuvre options, two of which are made with red meat and not particularly appetizing.

So EVERYONE gets wasted, most likely not realizing how quickly, and people are much more likely to make crazy comments.

One person in particular may spend the entire night telling you and all of your colleagues how he plans to go up to $SeniorOfficial and her (female) partner to say, "You're my favorite lezzie!" And then he will do it. And then he will spend the rest of the night lying in the bushes outside, only recognizable because he is 6'7".
posted by Madamina at 1:40 PM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh! Also, some genteel female higher-up should probably leave with her high heels tucked into her belt.
posted by Madamina at 1:41 PM on November 27, 2012

Maybe too simple to be interesting, but true: The folding table can collapse. It's not too bad if it splits down the middle, because most of the food will fall away from the guests. It's also not too bad if it happens gradually, so people have a chance to grab it before all the food falls out of the serving dishes.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:46 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the movie recommendation, donovan. And that story, xingcat--oof.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:51 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The times I've seen things go really badly in this kind of arena, there was some sort of self-betrayal, especially a revelation of snobbishness or bigotry. Treating serving people badly, obviously. Telling stories that make it clear-- or make it sound like-- you are prejudiced. I went to an academic dinner where someone told a long story about some OTHER dinner he'd been to where the hosts were, he claimed, really dumb. One of the supposed examples was that they had opened champagne to let it breathe. There was just a bunch of stuff like that, which made him come off worse than the people he was talking about. A friend sitting next to me thought the story also sounded anti-Semitic. I didn't get that sense in that one instance. But I did (at another party) hear a guy tell a story in which he kept mimicking a woman's voice. I think he was just trying to make her sound clueless, but I got the feeling from people's faces that they thought he was trying to do a funny Jewish accent.

Or there was the time a host spoke differently to the one black person in the room. Or started humming"Guantanamera" around his new (Latino but not Cuban) son-in-law. If I were writing this scene, I would have the person make one accidental slip and then keep digging themselves into a deeper hole while trying to make it better.

Or there was that great story AskMe about the nutty guest with the while wool shawl she wanted the host to pay for because it got burrs in it.
posted by BibiRose at 2:01 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's the shawl lady.
posted by BibiRose at 2:03 PM on November 27, 2012 [19 favorites]

And the recent update about the shawl lady's fiancé.
posted by Melismata at 2:13 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Gazpacho Soup
posted by athenasbanquet at 2:18 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that there was any lasting impact of this but it was pretty racy in the moment and kind of funny to look at in retrospect.... At my wedding, we had lots of people from far and wide as you do. My mom's longtime friend and colleague came with her daughter. They are both outgoing and beautiful. Apparently this friend was hitting on my older brother. He was sort of weirded out by this as he was, in turn, hitting on the daughter.

The best man was a childhood friend of my husband. My husband's little sister had maybe a bit of a crush on him. Apparently, there was high flirtation on her part. But, that was all for naught as he was really taken with my married matron of honor, also my childhood friend. She is really beautiful and was a couple years married by that point even though we were all pretty young. Unfortunately for him, while she was apparently open for something, she ended up back in a hotel room with my husband's lesbian cousin. Yep.

As the happy couple, we were blissfully unaware of all of this.
posted by amanda at 2:23 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this will help you because it's a period piece, but for me the first thing that comes to mind is the old movie Dinner At Eight which contains Billie Burke having one of the best "hostess freaking out" speeches in film. At least in my opinion! Plus, Jean Harlow as the uncouth bimbo wife of a Texan oil baron boor, Marie Dressler chewing up the scenery as an aging's a truly classic film.
posted by dnash at 2:27 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I came in here to direct you to the shawl lady, so if you didn't see it when it came around on askMe, it's a doozy!
posted by heyforfour at 2:41 PM on November 27, 2012

This is unexciting but it still irks me, ten years later. I had gone to a funeral (of a distant in-law I'd met only once; I'm not as heartless as this sounds) and afterwards we all went to a restaurant where it was arranged for us to eat lunch. The waiters were so slow, or the kitchen was so chaotic, that the people at one end of the room had eaten their meal and were on to dessert while those of us at the other end hadn't been served a single thing to eat yet and I was as hungry as only a nursing mother can get and grrr. Grrr. Grrrr!
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:46 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

BibiRose: self-betrayal is a great way to describe what I'm going for. Thanks.
posted by Cash4Lead at 3:05 PM on November 27, 2012

How about the time when the microbiology professor served freshly-caught high-end fish at a dinner for fellow faculty, and every single person went home with food poisoning?
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:06 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This best man wedding speech takes "embarrass the bride and groom" to all new heights. Mentions anal and swallowing, ends with mother of the bride taking the mike off him and tearing up his notes.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:13 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Let's not forget about the Cake Vandal!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:48 PM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I went to a party once (a wedding) where someone's uncle or cousin or something got really drunk and proceeded to complain loudly that the music was too modern and there was nothing for the older folks to dance to. This person could not be calmed down and then proceeded to escalate their complaints to basically everything that had been bothering them about various family members for the last 40 years or so. I then heard that this, um, incident also spilled over into the next morning. I thought this might be relevant since your protagonist is a "truth teller", it's not unlike those types to go overboard when provoked.
posted by bleep at 4:20 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Who amongst us hasn't committed Bushu-suru?
posted by Trivia Newton John at 4:53 PM on November 27, 2012

I once went to a birthday party held in a private room at a fancy restaurant that ended with the entire party being taken to the emergency room with carbon monoxide poisoning.
posted by Brody's chum at 4:55 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

The crazy shawl incident was my dinner party. Let me know if you want me to forward you all the emails :)
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:35 PM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Idea, not anecdote: have the protagonist accept an award on someone else's behalf, so he can dig a hole for himself and also ruin another character's reputation at the same time. "So-and-so can't be here tonight, but he/she wanted me to blah, blah, blah."
posted by wwartorff at 5:43 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back in my waitress days, the restaurant had a back room/bar that various groups could use for little or no charge - as long as people ordered food or drinks. This room was completely closed off from the restaurant by a swing door so it could be quite private.

One afternoon a month, this ladies' social club (like junior league or garden club?) would come in and have sandwiches, iced tea or light fare while they went over business. The bar guy (Dave) always scheduled to work that day and made really good tips.

Then one afternoon, there was screaming and dishware breaking and all sort of fuss going on during the meeting. As it turns out one of the club ladies was sleeping with another club ladies' husband and Cheated On Lady either knew before she got there or figured it out.

See, the reason Dave made such great tips from that meeting is that the "iced tea" some of the ladies got was actually Long Island Ice Tea and that afternoon the Cheated On Lady got totally drunk and lost it. That was not the last time the club met there but once management drew the line on serving them alcohol, they went elsewhere.
posted by jaimystery at 5:49 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm detecting a common thread in these anecdotes: excess boozing and secret keeping. Not a surprise, but worth remembering. Thanks!
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:31 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not exactly what you're describing, but check out Big Night.
posted by perryfugue at 10:16 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If fictional examples are ok, there's The Office, with both Dinner Party in Season 4, and Jim's wedding rehearsal dinner toast (and Michael's attempt at a save) in Niagara in season 6.
posted by brentajones at 10:40 PM on November 27, 2012

I was at a wedding where literally within 5 minutes of the ceremony ending, with waiters handing out glasses of red or white wine, a friend of the groom spilt a glass of red wine down the front of the bridal gown. (Accident, but...)

Accidental spills, food fights, public arguments over private issues and snafu's in the kitchen are what I would use.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:09 AM on November 28, 2012

Oh if only there was easy anonymous posting... Anyway, some fairly tame but true stories!

I mentioned to a friend that my relative's art wasn't OK but not really my thing. I invited this friend to a family gathering. My grandmother said, "So, friend, did anaelith tell you about the famous artist we have in the family?" Friend: "Oh, yes, she mentioned that the art wasn't very good."

I went on a diet and lost a lot of weight, yay! At Christmas last year, everyone commented about how nice I looked. My grandfather then loudly said, "Yes, can you believe she used to weigh TWO HUNDRED POUNDS?" (Literally. He said that.)

At Thanksgiving this year I had a really great job offer. I told my grandparents all the details ahead of time but planned to play it low key in front of everyone else. What I wasn't expecting was my grandfather (again, what is with this?) to come out of left field and whip out the formal offer letter and hand it directly to (of all people) my relative who is underemployed and was just passed over for a promotion! I actually jumped up and pulled it away from him, but I think it was too late.

(Oh, I should point out that all of the people involved were completely sober during all of these. So you don't necessarily need lots of alcohol, as long as the people involved are awkward enough... Also, nothing mentioned was exactly secret, just the details were kind of personal.)

For some other media representations of this, try the film Bridesmaids or episode 5.22 of The Big Bang Theory (The Stag Convergence).
posted by anaelith at 5:15 AM on November 28, 2012

The dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold would probably fit the bill. There is no one single person who digs themselves a hole, but the host, who is seeking to have the perfect party to impress the woman of his dreams, sees one disaster after another slowly occur in front of him.
posted by Hactar at 8:09 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I came here to recommend A Civil Campaign too! (Though I would argue that Miles digs himself in pretty deep when Ekaterin finds out what's behind the whole garden thing...)

Added bonus: it's hilarious.
posted by kalimac at 9:00 AM on November 28, 2012

kalimac: " Added bonus: it's hilarious."

Spelled utterly cringe-inducing omigod I can't stop reading somebody put him out of his misery please?

Outstanding scene.
posted by Lexica at 10:39 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If we're talking about old AskMe threads, the destroyed chai spice butter birthday cake gives me nightmares.

And other real life examples, I can't help but think of the time President Bush (Sr.) barfed on the Prime Minister of Japan.
posted by Addlepated at 11:04 PM on November 28, 2012

The mortifying truth teller in my story doesn't have the same personality as yours--not obnoxious or outspoken, but rather mild-mannered and shy--but the incident might provide you with some fodder anyway.

At a wedding I attended, one of the toasts by an attendant in the wedding party was basically a long, tipsy, heartrending expression of unrequited love for one half of the married couple. It started out quite sweetly, describing how the speechmaker and the newlywed had become friends all those years ago, and then eventually became maudlin and confessional. Yikes.

It's the kind of speech you just don't expect at a wedding. I was seriously afraid I was going to burst into nervous, inappropriate laughter, and I also wanted to hide under the table.

Oh, but we all still clapped at the end. As you do.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:41 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, our school's Silent Auction courted disaster last night.

Our gentrifying school hosted our first stand-alone Silent Auction fundraiser, and licensed our gym and hired a jazz musician to perform. We tried to make things as elegant as possible, and with parents who are floral designers and restauranteurs, we had great food donated and fabulous decorations. Gift certificates, baskets of merchandise and other donations from local businesses lined black and white (plastic) clothed tables along the walls, illuminated with twinkle lights. It was our first event like this, and a major switch-up from the spring BBQ/Fun Fair model.

Members of the community were invited to attend, even if they weren't parents in the school. At some point an hour or so in, four men who were maybe not quite as nicely dressed as most attendees came in, bought quite a few beers and kept to themselves. They were not all that obtrusive, but something seemed off. We only had the license for two hours, so everyone was cut off at nine. We didn't worry that anyone was going to get too drunk, and our professional bartenders were careful in serving.

When the strangers left, one of them grabbed an item off the table. Of all things: the Elmo piñata filled with candy that had been donated by the Bulk Barn. Value $25.

One of the fathers decided to follow them out. In the ensuing back-and-forth, there were all sorts of catcalls and insults flying about "Babies wanting their toys" and remarks about "the Elmo Situation" and such. Then more dads joined in the jeering, starting to follow the drunken Elmo thieves down the street.

A couple of Parent Council moms had go out to persuade their husbands that we didn't need them to be heroes, and to please not to have a street brawl ruining months of work and the possibility of future fundraisers after our first such event. We needed no valiant attempts, and the guys who stole Elmo had certainly spent his worth on beer - and so the fathers stepped aside and reluctantly let the rascals carry their trophy away.
posted by peagood at 12:01 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh! How could I forget? (Paging jacquilynne.)

I was a member of an MMORPG community that sponsored a few (awesome) meetups in various cool locations. We all traipsed down to Key West one December and enjoyed a long weekend of fun times, which included several preplanned activities (boat cruise, private party) that we'd paid significant money for ahead of time.

In general, we had an amazing time, but several issues cropped up, which may or may not fit into your narrative.

Online interaction can be very different from in-person (o rly). This is especially the case with the kinds of people who play MMORPGs. Also, it was open to pretty much anyone who played the game, so we had a) people with virtually nothing in common and b) people with longstanding rivalries that had spilled into real life.

My crew was basically older MeFite types: intellectual, holding their liquor, and with little patience for imbecilic shenanigans. Also incredibly snobby about such things, naturally. Meanwhile, another crew was taking phoned-in orders from their captain (at home in, like, Alaska) to get up in people's shit and mess with them in any way they could. And then there was a significant contingent of (literal) pasty-faced homeschooled basement dwellers.

And THEN a small group of people we'd never really heard of in-game, at least 30 years older than most of the others, monopolized the party entertainment by singing the most blindingly dirty songs we'd ever heard (and that was saying something) and spent the afterparty swimming naked in the very small pool.

But the thing that nearly derailed the whole event actually came from the organizer. He was a Burner (Burning Man), and during some of his wanderings around the island, he'd run into a bunch of fellow Burners and invited them to the party. They showed up in the middle of their Santa Crawl, having ingested various substances and dressed in elf outfits with assless chaps. As you know, Bob, chaps are by definition assless. Anyways.

And these guys were actually not a bad sort... eventually... but for the delicate social newts who had paid hundreds of dollars to party AWAY from such hoodlums, it was all too much, and we nearly had to do a manhunt for a couple people who literally ran off into the night in horror. And, again, how do you complain when the person who made all this craziness happen (and was loving every minute) was the guy who put it together?

The Aristocrats!
posted by Madamina at 12:56 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

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