Friday, September 7, 2007

Sound Off: What Is a "Good Host"?

My sister-in-law and her husband are coming to visit for a couple of days tomorrow, and I'm really trying not to panic about cleaning and making the house look perfect before their arrival.

Nick and I always do this: We have to scrub and organize and obsess for days before having houseguests or friends over for dinner -- not to mention feeling the need to cook something straight out of Gourmet magazine. The result is that we wind up stressed out and exhausted by the time our guests arrive, and then we're not very entertaining hosts.

Not too long ago, we realized that we were hardly ever inviting friends over because the whole thing was such a production. Then a friend (whose house, as comfortable and welcoming as it is, isn't likely to be featured in Metropolitan Home anytime soon) started having us over just for dessert, which was low-stress for her and fun for everyone.

We took a cue from her and invited her family over for Sunday breakfast -- somehow, scrambling eggs and toasting bagels seemed so much more doable than dinner for eight.

Then, newly emboldened by this idea of "casual hosting," I threw a dinner party for a bunch of girlfriends at which I served a simple salad topped with bits of cold chicken, along with some crusty bread. And I served it all on pretty melamine plates (which got lots of compliments) rather than whipping out the fancy china. Everyone seemed to appreciate the lighter fare and I was able to put together the salad earlier that afternoon and then actually relax and chat with my pals when they arrived.

Nick and I are also trying to remind ourselves that our house doesn't have to be immaculate in order for us to have people over. When we thought about it, we realized that we always feel so comfortable and relaxed at our dessert-serving friend's lived-in, sometimes messy house -- vs. sort of uncomfortable and unable to let down our hair in friends' and relatives' homes that are always spotless and perfectly styled.

Of course, changing our way of thinking about entertaining is a long process, and we're not quite there yet. But I think it's worth remembering that having a home -- even one with unhung art, a dining room full of our daughter's craft-project detritus, and a self-replenishing trail of cat litter on the floor -- that makes the people we care about feel welcomed and that's full of friends, loved ones, and laughter is so much more important than having a cold and empty showplace.

What do you think?

Post a comment and let me know -- and have a wonderful weekend!

(Photo: "Warmth," by flickr member gabo.)


Mrs. Blandings said...

Ina Garten built a career - and likely a fortune - capitalizing on this concept. If you don't own a Barefoot Contessa cookbook, grab one this weekend. It is the best way to entertain- everyone has more fun.

Elizabeth said...

Michael Chicarello and Dave Liberman also have some good things to say about easy entertaining. :)

I think its enjoyable to have a formal dinner, but I personally enjoy it even more to have an evening where people are really involved and really laid-back. I do like to have people in the kitchen with me. I like to strike a balance between make-ahead thigns that require minimal preparation at the time of the party, and sharing with others. I have a very open layout, as well, and when I'm putting food out, people inevitably end up in or near the kitchen with me, opening wine and beer, mixing drinks, grating parmesan, whatever. People (my friends anyway!) actually seem to like to help and see what's going on, and I like to share what's going on. I guess I don't really mind being onstage, but if you do, it's easy to have things laid out, or warming in the oven, before people arrive. You just have to look for those kinds of recipes.

I also like things served in what they were cooked in, or on a platter to pass. Plating is great, and can be beautiful, but is also not completely necessary to making food look tasty. It'd be nice to be an iron chef, but a mixed salad can look pretty at the height of summer, too.

Just remember, when you're obsessing over how you-just-vaccumed-how-can-there-already-be-doghair-everywhere, etc, that your friends live in their homes too, and are busy, and aren't there to experience a hotel-quality perfection. They're there to spend time with you, and share food with you, and that's what you can focus on. :)

katiedid said...

Um...deja vu. Did you post this before or am I just wacko? I love Barfoot Contessa too! Very easy and fast and make-ahead food that is so good! She is the Queen of relaxed entertaining.

Have a great visit! said... is the little bird?

Barb McMahon said...

It's definitely about the friends and the memories!

We've hosted dinner parties in the middle of construction projects. We just move everything aside and light a bunch of candles. No one's ever complained... and they keep coming back, so we must be doing something right!

nineteen toes said...

I kinda like the fact that our best friends know how special they are as they are always welcome at a moment's notice, no matter what state the house is in... They're the people we have the best times with anyway! said...

I love the idea of more casual entertaining. Dessert is a fabulous idea and so much more simple! And you're right, a house with unfinished projects or maybe a little messy, is still welcoming!

Anonymous said...

become known for something else.........

your cocktails
your animal party plates
playing beach ball inside

casacaudill said...

i have the bad habit of not having people over unless my house is spotless - which is never.

lindsey said...

actually, when i look through magazine articles about entertaining, i wonder who entertains in the way the pictures indicate. do people really put cute little name tags around a table that only seats eight? really? and the little gifts they say we should have - the cookie recipe tied to a cookie cutter, or the chocolates in a cloth bag, or a candle with a shell glued to it a wedding or a dinner party? i think most people would be confused about what they're supposed to do with the little knickknack on their plate. i don't know anyone who expects a present when they go to dinner. (maybe i'm just too middle class?)

my solution is that my everyday plates and silverware and glasses are chosen because they have design pizazz and i adore them, so when i break them out for guests, i'm perfectly satisfied. i make for guests recipes i've been meaning to try anyway, so there's no stressing or resentment about how many hours i've spent in the kitchen. and i clean my house to a reasonable level every saturday morning, so saturday night, which is the usual dinner night, it's already clean. and if we're having dinner on friday, well, i just clean off the surfaces, turn off most the lights, and light a lot of candles. candlelight hides a multitude of sins ( hair)!

great topic, though!

Bonnie said...

I only own one set of totally utilitarian dinnerware and silverware. I always make sure the house is spotless (If I never had company I wouldn't have the excuse to do it). I buy fresh flowers. Sometimes I make a big production out of dinner, but mostly because I am writing a cookbook, I make a bunch of recipes I have just perfected and then get everyone to have a little of everything and give me their feedback. All served with plenty of red and white wine and sometimes Saki.


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