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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Six Dinner Guests

September 5, 2018

A couple of decades ago I wrote a column that posed the question, “If you could have dinner with six people throughout all of history, who would you invite?” The column received a lot of response from readers as they sent in their list of six dinner guests.

My original list consisted of Paul McCartney, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Shelby Foote, and Willie Morris. That group would have definitely made for an interesting dinner, and lively, diverse conversation.

There are a lot of components that make a dinner interesting and entertaining. For me, the food comes first. But second to that is the company. A guest list can make, or break, a dinner. Conversation is key to a successful dinner. It takes a few inquisitive people to keep the conversation primed, and every great dinner needs guests with interesting and varied life experiences who are willing to share those with others.

Well-traveled storytellers with high exposure make the best dinner guests. A gifted storyteller with interesting life experiences keeps the conversation fluid. My uncle Dan Summitt was a world traveler and a great storyteller. He was a nuclear submarine captain with a wicked sense of humor and a sailor’s vocabulary. Whenever he came to town during my childhood I would get him to tell stories— usually the same stories over and over. He didn’t mind. He was a master. After years of prodding, I finally convinced him to write all of his stories down in book form. He did. “Tales of A Cold War Submariner” (Texas A&M University Press 2004) is a very interesting read, and full of the stories I loved hearing at the dinner table during his visits all those years. What the reader of that book won’t have is my Uncle Dan telling those stories in person.

Jerry Clower used to say, “I don’t tell funny stories, I tell stories, funny.” He, too, was a great storyteller. I was by myself eating at the Dinner Bell restaurant in McComb years ago, and Jerry Clower walked in for lunch. A few minutes after he sat down, he stood back up and announced to the entire dining room, “My momma always expected someone to say grace before a meal, and I always say grace before a meal. So, if y’all don’t mind, I’m gonna give the blessing.” He proceeded to deliver one of the most eloquent, sophisticated, and heartfelt pre-meal prayers I have ever heard. When he finished he said, “Now let’s eat. Haw!” and sat down at my table and told stories for the next 45 minutes while we ate lunch. Storytellers make or break meals. Twenty years later I’m still talking about it.

Back to the six dinner guests. It’s interesting to look back and see how my list has changed through the years. That original column was written almost two decades ago, and can be found in my first book, “A Southern Palate.” I play this game at seated dinners with friends, and over the years my list has changed a lot. There are a few historical characters that always show up, but others seem to weave in and out depending on my interests at the time. Musicians and writers have always dominated my lists.

They say that two things one never discusses at the dinner table are religion and politics. That’s not the case in my house, at least with family. We always talk religion and politics, but never in front of company. For the sake of this column, and my new list, I’ll leave out all political and religious figures throughout history.

There are several names that come to people’s minds automatically, but once one thinks through the entire meal they might not be the best choice. Napoleon would be an extremely interesting dinner guest, but I don’t speak French, and I’d have to waste one of my seats on an interpreter. The same goes for DaVinci and others.

As of today, my list in the six dinner guests’ game is: Louis Armstrong, George Harrison, Duke Ellington, Rick Bragg, David Sedaris, Cameron Crowe.

I love Louis Armstrong and he is considered the father of jazz by many. I would love a deep lesson in jazz history mixed in with New Orleans stories from his youth, and Chicago tales when he was just starting out and the genre was fresh.

I am a Beatles fanatic and John and Paul have ended up on my lists throughout the years. I gravitate towards Harrison these days for many reasons— he never had a throw-away song make a Beatles album (see: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), he was very cerebral, he could give a different perspective about what it was like during the Beatlemania days, but he also seemed to have the most grounded post-fab lifestyle, and a catalogue of great songs stacked up after the split.

Duke Ellington is the master. While I listen to, and appreciate, the hard bop jazz of the late 1950s jazz scene when Davis and Parker ruled the roost. I find myself, most often, gravitating towards Duke Ellington and Count Basie and their swing styles. Ellington was stylish, sophisticated, and uber talented. He would be a great addition to the dinner table conversation.

Rick Bragg is, not only the greatest living Southern writer, to my taste, he is the most talented living writer in the North, East, and West, too. All 21st century storytelling begins and ends with Rick Bragg. It’s real. It’s true. And I can identify with it more times than not.

I probably enjoy reading David Sedaris more than anyone I read these days. Before I found my voice I probably borrowed more from his (and Grizzard’s)— intentionally and unintentionally— than any other writer. It took a while to develop my own writing style and voice, but it finally began to show up around 10 years ago. My voice is the only one I possess, and it’s the only one I use these days. As I do with Bragg, I read Sedaris, and have the thought, “why didn’t I ever think of that” in every other paragraph.

Finally, Cameron Crowe is who I wanted to be in the 1970s. He’s a few years older than me, but I followed his early career through his articles in Rolling Stone. I was a subscriber at 12-years old, and 16-year old Crowe was already touring with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others. He wound up as a very successful movie director and is responsible for my favorite movie of all time “Almost Famous,” which was a loosely based autobiographical amalgamation of his early rock and roll journalism days. I would love to hear those stories at a dinner.

The hypothetical is fun to think about. But in the end, if this type thing were possible, I would just have a dinner for two— my dad and me. He passed away when I was six-years old, and I really have no recollection of him. I see photographs, and feel like I remember certain instances, but it’s probably just that I’ve just seen that photo so many times throughout the years that I’ve created a memory. There are no home movies or audio recordings. I don’t even know what his voice sounded like. I would give anything, seriously anything, to sit down with him at a dinner and talk about what I am doing now and what he thinks about how things have turned out in my life. I hope he’d be proud. I’d love for him to meet my wife and his two grandchildren. That would be the meal to end all meals. Period. End of discussion.

Who are your six dinner guests?

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