Thanksgiving Hostess Etiquette

Just when you're thinking of crawling out the window to avoid your own soiree, Tamara Reynolds, coauthor of Forking Fantastic!, answers all of your "How did I get myself into this mess" questions.
friends in the kitchen at a party
Andrew McLeod

MC: How do I gracefully say thanks but no thanks to Liz's offer to bring her Cheesy Tuna Cornflake Surprise?

TR: Just say, "Oh, Liz, that sounds so great, but because this isn't a potluck, maybe we can get together (next week? Soon? On a cold day in hell?) and have that. I will bring the wine!" At least you'll have the wine to look forward to.

MC: Everyone's arrived, but there's still an hour to go before the grub's ready. How can I prevent the natives from getting restless?

TR: Have a Scooby snack set out to nibble on. It can be anything, from radishes with butter and salt to dip them in—that's an old-school French one—to veggies or chips and dip. It doesn't have to be fancy. I was recently in Normandy visiting my aunt and uncle who are in their 70s. For cocktail hour, they served superexpensive champagne and Old El Paso salsa and chips. A Scooby snack is the same everywhere.

MC: I just found two people napping in the den and one in my bed—under the sheets. How can I get guests to leave short of saying, "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here"?

TR: Start collecting glasses that people aren't drinking out of. Let the music die out, and above all, stop opening bottles. Every time a cork comes out, you're telling guests, "Oh, you have another half-hour."

MC: What's your secret hosting weapon?

TR: If everyone pitches in to hire a dishwasher, for $50 to $100, it'll be the best money ever spent. You can hire a teenager or busboys from a local diner. Knowing that you can sit down and enjoy your party while someone else tidies up is worth a million bucks.

MC: The yams went over like gangbusters—so much so, you ran out before the other end of the table could get some. Now what?

TR: Ask the people closest to you to transfer a little bit of theirs to someone else's plate–the divide and conquer method. Or you can laugh and immediately give up your own. Once someone sees you doing this, they'll do the same. Plus, this isn't the 1963 model of Thanksgiving, we have a lot more freedom to say "Hey, can I just have a bite of that? I didn't get to try any."

MC: How do you handle fickle guests like Ned-The-Wine-Snob or Carla, who only eats organic?

TR: Your invite starts to sets the scene, because it gives you the chance to telegraph what your plan is—casual versus formal, what to bring or not bring, if it's a potluck, or even if you need them to kick in a few bucks. It subtly tells people what to expect—so if Carla can't eat anything that is not organic, she probably never goes anywhere, and if Ned's vino is that important to him, he'll most likely bring his own.

MC: I'd like to exit the kitchen without looking like a sweaty hag—any tips?

TR: Save your shower until the last hour before your guests arrive. If you have a friend helping you—and big dinners are always done better with a partner—you can take turns showering. Just don't do it so last minute that you're seen streaking through the hallway to your bedroom dripping wet and covered with a washcloth that was hanging where you thought your towel was. I also keep a tube of my favorite lipstick in my pocket, or next to my kitchen sink when I'm cooking. That way, the minute I hear the doorbell ring, I take that last sip of wine, wipe my mouth, slather some on, and then I feel like I'm ready for the game. It's a small detail, but it makes me feel like I brought the pretty, even with flour in my hair and lettuce down my bra.

MC: Speaking of small details, should I keep the plunger in plain sight in the bathroom in case, er, all that heavy food doesn't agree with them?

TR:You should! It's also great to have Pepto in your medicine cabinet. Let's face it, every guest goes through the cabinet—if you don't do it, you're a better person than I am!—so put it in whatever door you think they'll open first.

MC: What can I do to prevent the dreaded socialized medicine argument from happening?

TR: I think a good, spirited argument with well-considered sides is what is missing in group dining these days—when was the last time you had an entire evening devoted to talking about ideas, and not people or things? Plus it makes us all smarter in the end. Bring it on!

MC: Edwin, my techno-loving neighbor, has taken control of the stereo—do I wrestle the Ipod from his pasty hands?

TR: Plan your playlist a week in advance. Music for a party is like a rollercoaster. It starts off slow as you're going up the hill, and then everyone gets there and then it gets fast and fun and interesting. During dinner it should be soft so you don't have to fight with it. And then it picks back up for dessert, but needs to slow down after that because you want your music to tell your guests that it's time to go. Music assists you with that. So if somebody takes control of your iPod, you are perfectly within your rights and to say 'I really worked hard on this and I'd really appreciate you letting it play out' as a gentle reminder that it's your house—Prodigy can blast back at his crib.

MC: Besides Valium, what's your secret hosting weapon when it comes to having 20 people over for dinner?

TR: Hire a dishwasher. If everyone pitches in to hire one, it'll be the best money anyone has ever spent. It doesn't have to be a lot of money, maybe 50-100 bucks, and you can hire a teenager, we've hired busers from our local diner—and right now, it would be a great gig for a friend that's out of work. But just knowing that once you're done cooking, you can sit down and enjoy your party while someone else tidies up is worth $1,000,000.

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