Food Republic, a food culture destination for men, recently asked me to impart some etiquette and entertaining guidelines for the upcoming holidays. I was referred to as a “lady friend”–a title alone which was was worth the assignment. New moniker aside, I truly had fun dispensing advice on everything from stocking your bar with the right glassware and what to pour in those highball or birdbath glasses.
Following are select posts:
Know Your Glassware
How to Seat Guests
Good Guest Basics
Today’s very good question comes from a very funny comedian friend of mine. I’m sure he smoothed over this situation with lots of humor, but I’ve added a few ideas too per his request.
Q: My old friends P & T live in upstate New York in a big house in the Catskills. They gave me and my fiance an open invitation to visit anytime to get a break from the city. My good friends G & D had also been wanting to leave the city, so I asked P if we could bring them along.
It was a great trip and we all got along––but there was a small hiccup. On Saturday afternoon G (who has restaurant experience as a sous chef) insisted upon handling the shopping and cooking dinner on Saturday night as a thank you to P & T. While well intentioned, I could sense that P didn’t like being strong armed by G and essentially booted out of her own kitchen. She relented graciously and let her guest cook. Thoughts? Advice for the next time this happens? Good ways to handle this?
A: I try to tread lightly when first navigating in someone else’s kitchen. For some this territory is more personal than the bedroom. You know the type: they bristle as you search their drawers, tense up at your technique and can be absolutely pushed over the brink when the dishwasher is loaded the “wrong” way. For as generous as my mom is, she was the “everyone out of my kitchen” type cook. With three kids underfoot I can’t blame her for staking claim to at least one area of the house, and because of this I have sympathy for P.
However, I also applaud G’s efforts to make a big show of appreciation for P’s generosity. Perhaps next time G could still cook, but make a meal that is less the main event than dinner. Ease in with breakfast, brunch or a generous cocktail hour spread (complete with cocktails that only a bartender with a vest and waxed moustache seems to build). For very low-impact kitchen use, offer to pack a creative picnic lunch (and gift a multipurpose market basket like the one shown above) for a group hike or day trip.
Or, avoid your host’s kitchen entirely by showing up with a few things you made at home. A coffee cake, nuts, granola or some other treat that can be enjoyed during the weekend by everyone. It’s a guaranteed way to impress without the mess or power struggle.
Today’s topic is brought to you by my former colleague, friend and generous host, Audra. It was a very good reminder to me that a comfortable guest is the best one of all. Thank you A!
Q: Guests usually want to help with dishes after meals, but I really prefer that they relax and that I do dishes myself. I just think that guests shouldn’t have to “earn their keep” via chores. I know it’s a natural impulse for people to want to help (and I do offer when I am a guest, but I guess I don’t push it and just try to do small things like keep my room/space tidy, wash glasses as I use them, etc).
This weekend’s guest must have asked me 50 times in two days if she could help with something. I finally had her do little things like carry the dishes to the kitchen and assured her that she didn’t owe me anything. But I sensed a bit of awkwardness in our clash of philosophies. All the offering is gracious and I appreciate the gesture, but still I don’t give in. Is that ok?
A: Perfectly ok. Whether staying for dinner or overnight, guests should follow their host’s lead. As you mentioned, it’s really the gesture that is most appreciated. So your guest is right to ask how they can help (and always should), but yes, after the 49th time, they need to take you at your word.
This question is a very necessary reminder for me, because I think I’m this guest––the one who feels unappreciative if I’m not elbows deep in a sink of dishes. My brother-in-law is the same way. Now it’s practically a game between the two of us as to who can sneak in a speed dish washing round after a dinner.
However, I am also a host like you in that I’d prefer guests to linger in the glow of the dinner aftermath and help by, say, finishing that bottle of wine we just opened. Moments around the table with our favorite people are always fleeting, so hosts and guests alike should both relax and enjoy. The dishes can wait.
If you expect hotel service, stay in one.
A friend of mine had a long-term guest crashing with her. It should be obvious when relying on the kindness of others that said guest (no matter the length of stay) should offer to pitch in around the house. Pick up groceries. Grab a bottle of wine. Do some dishes. Or, at the very least, make the overture to contribute.
Not this three-weeks-and-counting roomie. Instead, one morning as he hunted and pecked for dates online his host tidied up around him (as he sat at her computer). “Oh, this guy loves dogs too. Perfect, right?” he called out. “Um, excuse me, but can you move your leg so I vacuum under that table,” she replied. This went on and on until her house was clean and her patience cleaned out.
Ps&Qs takeaway: if you demand room service, pay for a hotel. The cost of a friendship is worth more than what you’ll ever spend on a room. And hosts, you’re not running a hotel (if it starts to feel that way, put a limit on a stay) it’s ok to make some requests of your guests too.
Ok, the holidays are over. Anyone need to vent about guest-visits-gone-wrong? GHG is listening, spill it.
The practice of leaving shoes at the door when entering a home is one of the many Japanese customs that clicked with me. I especially liked it when house slippers were presented in exchange for my shoes. At a ryokan in Kyoto designated toilet slippers were even provided. Kinda brilliant.
I asked a Japanese friend about this, but she couldn’t explain what she considered merely a habit of daily life. So, I put a curious gaijin (my cousin Tommy who lives and works in Tokyo) on the case.
The reason for ditching shoes at the door is largely practical. Traditional Japanese living happens close to the floor. You dine at low tables without chairs and sleep on futon mattresses rolled out on the tatami mat floors. Bare feet, socks or slippers keep living spaces cleaner and save on tatami wear and tear.
There is also the symbolic. In every Japanese house is an area called the genkan, where you take off your shoes. This area literally separates the inside and the outside of the home. Removing shoes in the genkan could be seen as a gesture for letting down your social guard before entering the home where you can be more comfortable with the family and friends inside.
For the most part our house is now a shoe free zone. Friends and family seem comfortable with the rule. But we make it optional for new guests, and we always make an exception when we have bigger groups over. It was an easy and practical change to make. In New York, where garbage blossoms at the curbs, we’re all too aware of the crud we drag underfoot. Plus, with a baby in the mix we spend a lot of time on the floor these days.
Aside from the benefit of cleaning up a bit less, it’s been noted that reduced germs from dirty shoes can result in fewer colds. I’ll go with it. In a nod to Japanese hospitality, I even bought a bunch of slippers for people to shuffle around in–but really, people just prefer to be slipper free too.
So what’s your policy: shoes on or off?
The holiday couch surfing season is upon us, so time to revisit some guidelines. It’s really generous when someone opens up their guest room (or pull-out couch) to you, but determine the length of your stay ahead of time. And hosts, understand your own limits. Stick to them without feeling guilty––it’s for the good of the relationship.
As I found when visiting my sister-in-law’s welcoming family in Italy, these boundaries differ greatly. For the Italians, no visit is too long. And when I suggested staying in a hotel for a few nights to give the family a break, they read this as a commentary on their hospitality. Do they not like our cooking? Are the beds uncomfortable? Hardly, I could have hung around there for weeks on end.
But, an extended stay isn’t the norm for space-conscious Americans. Especially those of us living in cramped quarters. With that in mind, I generally follow a three day rule. And, as Benjamin Franklin bluntly stated, “Fish and visitors smell after three days”. In other words, don’t spoil a lovely visit by overstaying your welcome. Unless, of course, you happen to be in Italy.