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Posts Tagged ‘manners’

Holiday entertaining creates stress and chaos in many homes. Magazines offer tips to help with organizing menus, food shopping and seating arrangements. Turkey hotlines* answer cooking questions, butter and flour companies offer hotlines for baking questions and adult children around the country bombard parents with phone calls begging for recipes and advice.

After several decades of hosting an array of small to very large dinner parties, experience taught me that the mishaps and embarrassments live in the small details. Every guest loves a plateful of food, enjoys a simple place setting or centerpiece, and goes home happy as long as their tummy is full.

To make the holidays flow with ease I offer these simple last minute tips to spare you embarrassment. Keeping a list taped to the refrigerator or inside a kitchen cabinet serves as a reminder.

Assuming you thought about the menu and planned the food selections and market list about a month ago, you already know which items are already in the freezer.

The week of your holiday is the week to defrost some of those foods allowing about 3 days sitting in the refrigerator for large batches of soups or casseroles. Now is also the time, then, to plan and shop for the items that can be prepared a day or two prior to the holiday meal.

Thanksgiving Cake, circa 1980sIF YOU ARE SERVING A FROZEN TURKEY, REMEMBER TO DEFROST IT IN TIME TO COOK IT ON THE DAY OF YOUR EVENT!

Carefully read the label or phone the Butterball hotline (1-800-butterball) if you can’t figure out how long that bird will take to defrost in the refrigerator.

(While I hope and encourage you to buy a fresh free range, organic bird rather than a mass produced farm bird, we all have to do what is economically best for us. The Butterball hotline is still a reliable cooking resource that has helped many a confused cook no matter whose bird you bought.)

Begin by making a map to guide you through your pre-party tasks: a time line for food preparation, drag out and label your serving dishes and utensils (I actually label them with post-it notes), and check all your linens and/or paper goods to be sure things are clean, ironed and stocked for the number of guests.

This is also the time to plan the number of tables and chairs to accommodate invited guests as well as the strays who are left stranded or drop in unexpectedly. Make any necessary arrangements to borrow or rent more tables and chairs ahead of time.

If you plan to dine with candlelight, be sure to have matches or a lighter handy. Keep these out of the reach of small children or your tablecloth will burn like a bonfire as mine did one year.

Expensive floral centerpieces and/or decorations sometimes go unnoticed. Flowers tend to wilt if purchased too far in advance and can emit an unpleasant odor while dining.

(During one unfortunate dinner, my guests did not notice the foul odor until someone dared ask, “What is in this casserole?” in a demanding tone.)

Instead of flowers, keep things simple by filling a glass bowl with an assortment of winter squash or filling some large margarita glasses with fresh cranberries and mint sprigs. They add color to the table, stay within the holiday color scheme and make a delightful side dish the next day.

Buy several extra bottles of wine for drop in guests or the occasional guest who drinks their way through the dinner. Red wine does not require refrigeration thereby saving valuable refrigerator space. After the holiday, any leftover wine becomes a wonderful seasoning for sauces or marinades for family meals.

The leftover wine is also of particular use for a private binge, alone, after the guests leave. This applies especially after family or in-laws go home. Wine is also less expensive than liquor if you need to stay within a tight budget.

Leave small piles of extra napkins in strategic places around your living room, dining room or patio areas. Small snack plates help eliminate crumbs and dropped food too. Nothing is worse than finding an expensive, imported, aromatic cheese morphed as a blot, a forever stain, on your favorite throw pillow or sofa upholstery.

If you serve alcohol prior to the meal, offer your guests some salty snacks such as mixed nuts, cheese and crackers, or chips and salsa.

If you are serving appetizers, however, carbohydrates are best. This helps abate drunkenness before mealtime. The ruin of a dinner party requires only one guest to fall across the folding chairs you arranged with care.

If you are setting out candy dishes, be sure to have a receptacle for discarded wrappers. A simple basket lined with a paper holiday napkin works well and adds color.

Have an ample supply of trash bags for both the kitchen trash and smaller bathroom wastebaskets. Assign someone to periodically check the trash and take it out as it fills up.

If you forget this task, expect to find at least one guest traipsing around with toilet tissue on their shoe on your living room carpet.

The morning of your holiday meal, empty the dishwasher completely. Nothing can ruin the cleanup more than finding a full dishwasher at the end of the evening and having to wash everything by hand.

If you have a small kitchen and tend to store extra pans in your oven or broiler, remove them to a closet or garage. I stress this point; otherwise, your preheating oven will arm itself with any leftover grease or grimy residue from one pan and fill your home with an odious scent.

Remove any appliances such as stand mixers, toaster ovens or electric can openers to free more space on kitchen counters for food preparation or buffet serving.

Place these items in a safe and secure place so that they do not seem like discards for the Salvation Army. It is disheartening to find that a well-meaning, helpful guest placed those items on the curb with the trash. (Yes, it has happened.)

Remove any dirty sponges, scrubbers or water spotted soap dispensers from the sink and toss them out or store them in a cupboard below. Set out new sponges and scrubbers but leave them in the sink out of sight.

If your children’s bedrooms or your own appear untidy, don’t stress. Just shut the doors. Most guests are reluctant to open a closed bedroom door. This is particularly true if you hang a doorknob sign reading, “Baby Sleeping” or “Beware of Feral Animals.”

Be sure your bathroom sinks offer guests liquid soap. The mess from bar soap scum and the idea of sharing bar soap upsets some people. Set out a pile of disposable decorative paper towels rather than forcing your guests to share one or two cloth towels.

Leave facial tissues in easy sight for guests. Also, leave additional rolls of toilet paper available. A surefire party stopper is hearing a guest bellowing from the bathroom for some toilet paper. Be sure to have a clean wastebasket placed in plain sight for your guests.

The last task prior to your guests’ arrival: check the toilet to be sure the bowl is emptied of any waste materials, the seat and outer bowl are clean and the floor lacks any tell-tale signs of near misses. Leave the light on in the bathroom.

If anything burns, whether on the stove or in the oven, quickly pour a few drops of vanilla extract on the warm surface to mask the odor.

Turn on any mood lighting and music before the guests arrive. At this time, remove any Reminder Lists from the refrigerator door. Pour yourself a glass of wine or sparkling cider and enjoy your party.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

(*A wonderful hotline, for any time of year, is Chefsline, 1-800-977-1224. Also the Butterball hotline, 1-800-butterball or the website Butterball.com)

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PLEASE, DON’T BE A DIRTY MIKE

An invitation to share a holiday dinner in the comfort of someone’s home, compliments you as an invitee.  Whether your host is a family member or a friend, through the invitation to share conversation, food and festivities with you they extend hospitality.

As a guest, your host invites you to enter their personal space.  Mingling amongst their treasured possessions, sharing their family time, perhaps appearing in their photos and dining at their table requires trust on their part.

Following a few simple guidelines as a guest allows everyone some comfort.  Here is a short list of suggestions to help your holiday enjoyment.
Thanksgiving Cake, circa 1980s

Please RSVP
Your host probably expects more guests than just you.  A good host balances a table with place settings, or at least the proper number of folding chairs, so it is polite to phone or email your acceptance of an invitation.  If you choose to email, write more than just “Yep” in the text body.

Unexpected guests cause chaos for an organized host.  It means pulling another folding chair out from under the stairs and asking everyone to move down one seat to accommodate someone like Dirty Mike.  Then it turns disastrous when he sits on the tablecloth hem and spills the cranberry sauce on Uncle George.

Make no assumptions.  Just because you’re friendly with your host’s offspring, you are not invited for dinner unless you receive a written, postmarked invitation or personal phone call from the actual host.

Attire, Casual or Dressy?
If you are uncertain regarding the dress code, it is preferable to inquire, “Is this a casual dinner?” or “What will everyone be wearing?”  A simple phone call or email is easy.

Some families turn into the Kennedy clan on Thanksgiving and expect your participation in a rousing game of football with all their aunts, uncles and cousins.  In this case, wear athletic attire and bring deodorant.

If you are attending a more conservative dinner, appearing in sweatpants when everyone else is wearing church attire can be embarrassing.  The holidays are a time to dress according to your host’s preference whether your normal attire is scant clothing or you prefer Goth; it will not hurt to conform just once.  Someone’s Aunt Freda might throw a fit over your cleavage, hairy chest or black ragged sleeved attire.  This can ruin an otherwise happy event.

As a guest, be respectful enough to spare your host embarrassment as well.  When Dirty Mike showed up at our table wearing grass stained blue jeans, bare chest and bare feet, we all lost our appetites.  I keep extra button down shirts in the guest bathroom now.

Arrival Time
Please make every effort to leave home early.  If you encounter icy roads that cause the car to swerve to and fro, sluggish traffic that tries your patience or delays due to accidents or fallen trees along the way, remain calm.  Most hosts don’t enjoy greeting a grumpy traveler just before the appetizers are served.

Dirty Mike arrived via bicycle, entered without knocking, dripping from falling into a puddle and shouted, “G-dammed potholes!”  One guest dropped the appetizer plate of cheese spread on the clean floor.  This episode somewhat explained his lack of a shirt.

Arriving at the proper time is courteous.  Holiday meals, timed for perfection, suffer from overheating.  Tardiness sometimes results in a punishing culinary experience when served burned sweet potatoes as your portion.  Remember to bring Tums just in case you or someone else arrives late.

Gifts for the Host or Hostess
Good manners dictate that arriving with a little gift for your host/hostess is nice.  A simple gift of wine–in a bottle, not a box–or a box of chocolates (unless your host is diabetic) is a nice way to say thank you.

Gifts such as potpourri, floral air fresheners or incense, commonly used to mask foul odors, seldom warrant appreciation.  Likewise, a discarded floral centerpiece from a dumpster behind a hotel where Dirty Mike found it go unappreciated also.

Keep a Sense of Humor: Seating Arrangements
Some families use place cards to indicate your position at the table.  Keep calm if you find yourself seated next to Grandpa Fillmore who removes his dentures to sip his soup.  Whispering, “Who is the geezer?” to his wife causes stress for your dining companions.  Focus on your own plate and try to start a conversation with the person seated on the other side of you.

One caveat, however, do not discuss religion or politics unless you enjoy a good food fight.  Find an engaging topic to keep the conversation going.  Some thoughts might be: “Tell me your life story,” or “Do you have children?” or the ever popular “What’s your favorite TV show?”  Most people can speak for hours on one of these subjects.

Be grateful for open seating, if you are fortunate to have it, where you can choose your tablemates and maybe secure an end seat that allows for withdrawal from the table with ease.

Food: The Most Difficult Part of Being a Good Guest
If your host is considerate, they will inform you beforehand if the dinner is not a traditional one.  No one is happy when confronted with a Coconut Tofu Imitation Turkey without warning.

That said; mind your manners no matter what unidentifiable morsel passes before you.  Shouting out, “What the hell is THAT?” as Dirty Mike did, is not nice.

If you are a vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, keep Kosher or observe Halal, or possess any food related restrictions, try to let your host know well in advance.  Most Thanksgiving dinners offer a variety of foods so your limitation, unless dire, means eating whatever you can and smiling at the rest of the spread.

It is rude, without a doubt, to make comments such as, “Are those marshmallows?  Eww, I hate those,” or “My mother would never serve that,” or “That looks disgusting.  What is it?”

Additionally, do not scream, “You people are eating a dead bird” just because you belong to PETA or have some aversion to cooked animals.  You knew darn well your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner included a roasted turkey.  Moreover, for goodness sakes, don’t pet the dog during dinner as Dirty Mike did chanting, “I hope you aren’t next.”

Bring a small cooler with you containing the foods you can eat and, if necessary, explain you are on a restricted diet. If you lack the courage to do this, then eat your own food on the ride home.

Table Etiquette
Announcing your religious preference, paganism, Wiccan belief, or atheism during Grace or Mealtime Prayer upsets your fellow guests.  If you maintain a different belief, politely make your own observance, or not, in quiet.  Smiling is preferred behavior—not laughing aloud.

For a Buffet Meal, use a serving utensil to place a modest amount of each food on your plate.  Return the serving utensil to the bowl or platter.  Do not set it down on the tablecloth.  Do not, under any circumstances, use your fingers to grab slices of meat or steamed broccoli.  Lastly, when in line for the buffet, do not use a serving utensil to taste the food before choosing to place it on your plate.
(Yes, Dirty Mike strikes again.)

For a served meal, as your prepared plate is placed in front of you smile pleasantly.  Eat whatever you like and then make a modest mess on your plate and cover the uneaten portions with either a leaf of lettuce or even a mound of mashed potatoes.

Now, if the dinner is family style, do not stretch across the table to grab the sweet potatoes while exclaiming, “These are mine!  I love them!”  It is preferable to ask someone, “Could you please pass the sweet potatoes.  They look delicious.”

Try to keep a napkin in your lap. Do not use the tablecloth hem to mop your face, hands or a spill in your lap as Dirty Mike did.  Wait your turn for the passing foods, place a modest amount on your plate and pass the dish along to the person beside you.

Excessive behavior of any sort is to be avoided.
Talking too loudly or telling several lewd jokes in rapid succession, stuffing your mouth as full as you can, talking with a stuffed mouth, and drinking from the wine bottle is excessive behavior.

(Do I need to mention Dirty Mike again?)

If you are a drinker, use a glass and expect someone else to drive you home.

End of Meal
When dinner concludes, it is considerate to offer to help clear the table.  At least take your own dish to the kitchen.  Do not say, “Hey, can we get rid of this mess?” and then proceed lick your fingers or pick your teeth with a fork as Dirty Mike did.

Lighting a cigar or cigarette in the dining area, while everyone still lingers is prohibited even if you ask, “Hey you guys don’t mind, do you?” or “Does any one else wanna cig?”  Unless your host also smokes and drops their ashes on the dining room carpet, you should not do this either.

A polite and welcomed offer is an offer to help clear the buffet, wipe a counter, take the trash out, wrap leftovers or to drive Dirty Mike home quickly while insisting his bicycle will fit in the back end of your car.

Be sure to conclude your visit with a smile and say “Thank You” to your hosts.

(Dirty Mike was an actual dinner guest.  His name was not changed for this article.)

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