By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
The winter holidays barrel toward us. If we’re lucky, COVID might slink into the background. Sooner or later, a friend might invite you to dinner.
I’ve had several decades to observe dinner parties, both as a host and as a guest. Anyone can find plentiful advice about hosting, in books and magazines and on the internet. Very few sources tell people how to guest.
How to guest
When you receive that invitation from your friend, you of course ask, “Shall I bring something?”
In my case, the too immediate answer is likely to be “No.” I suspect that this friend understands the extent of my culinary expertise. But maybe she just wants to do everything herself, with no extra food to become bothersome leftovers. So I bring nothing, except maybe flowers or some treat she can enjoy later.
Or – and this is what I dread – she asks me to bring something specific: a salad, a dessert. I dread this because of my before-mentioned culinary expertise. How many ways can I embarrass myself? Also, to bring something specific, I must inquire about the dietary needs of other guests: gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, low-fat, vegetarian, acid-free, cholesterol-free, sugar-free, organic only, no raw vegetables. Et cetera. It can get complicated.
If she hesitates when I ask if I can bring something, I suggest something that I know I can make and that won’t be so much work that I might as well be giving the party myself. Homemade bread. That I can do.
By the way, any guest bringing homemade bread should slice it ahead of time and arrange the slices in a basket or bowl. Otherwise, the guest searches the kitchen for a cutting board, a breadknife, something to brush the crumbs into, and a container for the bread. Meanwhile, the hosts are doing their last-minute kitchen tasks, and the guest is In The Way.
I have witnessed some unfortunate guest behavior that I try not to repeat.
A guest says he’ll bring the soup for an informal meal of soup, salad, and sandwiches. He arrives with a big soup pot and two bags of groceries, ingredients for the soup. Then he commandeers the kitchen. He needs a frying pan, a cutting board, a couple of knives, a wooden spoon, a can opener, a garbage bag, and a few ingredients and seasonings he forgot to bring. Meanwhile, he is In The Way.
A guest says she’ll bring the squash for Thanksgiving dinner. She arrives half an hour before dinnertime with a couple of butternut squashes in her arms. Technically, she brought the squash. Technically, it requires half an hour just to peel one squash.
A guest thinks she’ll help by bringing a casserole unannounced. Not helpful. The oven and microwave space are already occupied. Her casserole is In The Way.
A guest brings appetizers, a salad, or whatever was agreed upon, but no serving plates, bowls, or spoons. Commotion ensues while the guest raids the kitchen in search of appropriate dishes and implements, most of which are probably already in use. The guest is In The Way.
Most guests understand proper behavior at the dinner table: share the food and the conversation, don’t argue with or insult other guests, comment on how delicious the food is.
After dinner, when the hosts begin to clear the table, a good guest asks if he or she may help. If they say no, don’t. They probably need some quiet time in the kitchen all alone, without any guests who are In The Way.