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Hospitality & Its Discontents

Keys to the kingdom for playing a noble-- and tension-free--host or hostess.


The dinner party, in literature, in the movies, and on TV does not enjoy a good press. Penelope's dinner party ended rather badly at Odysseus' tardy arrival; and, from Trollope on, novels have set scenes of social strain, arriviste anxiety, upper-class upsmanship, and generational discord at the dinner party table. William Dean Howells' Rise of Silas Lapham has a crucial dinner party scene that manages to be all that and more.

In the exemplary dinner party movie Dinner at Eight, the plot revolves around the revelatory tragi-comic dinner party, with every anxiety writ melodramtically large--suicide, bankruptcy, marital trauma, youthful romance, and nouveau riche gauchery gloriously explode.

Writ small, there's the classic Burns & Allen TV episode, where the usually self-assured Gracie, faced with throwing a formal dinner party, seeks etiquette advice from the caterer. Gracie, confused by the multiplicity of forks, is informed that the rule is simple: The guests will use whatever fork the hostess uses. Gracie recovers her usual aplomb in time to observe that this seems horribly unsanitary.

We, of course, don't have the etiquette problems of either Penelope or Gracie nor the servant problems of the hostess in Dinner At Eight. But dinner parties, or the euphemistic "having some people over," are still not tension-free zones. Why?

Well, hosting is a responsibility. You are to feed people and make them happy. Hosting is a form of showing off: your house, your cooking, your hospitality. Hosting discharges a debt or creates one.

And there are rituals to be observed. Not so much about forks, but verbal rituals certainly. The host deprecates the cooking, the guests praise it. The host demurs, but not too much. "The food was delicious" deserves a "thank you" or a "well, it was OK" or maybe even "next time I'll cook the onions more," but never "actually, it was terrible." For that response means, "Chef knows it was terrible, you ignorant glutton."

The host is permitted to brag about an ingredient ("We found these wonderful pressed fish roe ... ") but not about her cleverness in acquiring it. Thus: "We found these wonderful pressed fish roe in this small fishing village by pure luck."

But, of course, we know these rituals; they're mostly unconscious and run on auto-pilot. What doesn't run on auto-pilot is shifting from our daily cooking routine to that which is suitable for guests. The greater the size of that shift, the more room for anxiety. As far as I can tell, all the advice-giving about dinner parties, in newspaper food sections and magazines boils down to minimizing that gap. And gaps can be squeezed from either end. You can hone your daily cooking skills or you can tamp down your ambitious dinner party menu. Talking about the latter is more manageable, so let's go there:

· Buy the sausages, don't make them.

· If you're making stuffed pasta, don't do anything else.

· Have only one course involve any last minute cooking.

· Make stews. The day before.

· You know that beautiful recipe in Chef Very Famous' cookbook? Read the recipe all the way through. Count the pots and pans involved and multiply by 12. Add up all the minutes per step. Double that. Add the two numbers. If greater than 132, pick a different recipe.

· Have someone bring dessert.

· Buy dessert.

· Another really important rule is to never do a recipe, for company, for the first time.

Ah, forgive me reader, for I have sinned. Many times. I can't stick to these rules, or at least not all of them. The little competitive cooking imp that dwells in my brain says, hey, what's the point of all these cookbooks if you're not going to use them? You've done that damn lamb shank recipe 300 times--let's see what Chef BigDealInNapa wants to do with duck.

My solution is a mixed strategy. First, own up to what you're doing, so you can admit that you like exhausting yourself at the stove all day (if you do). Second, follow some of the rules above. Third, get lucky by having a partner who will yell at you about going overboard.

And then, of course, there's the solution of the collaborative dinner--potluck and all its variants. We're part of a four-household group that rotates a once-a-month Pasta Friday. One course per couple, with the host doing the pasta dish. This works pretty well, even when I decide that "pasta" really means "starchy dish," so that it's really OK if I do risotto. Creeping ambition.

So I don't really stick to the rules very often. But I figure if I, unlike Odysseus, stick to the primary rule of hospitality I'll be fine. So I never ever kill my guests. l

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