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by C. Jeanette Tyson


     
     Oh, how tangled the web of social obligation. First they ask you, then you ask them, then they ask you, then they ask you again, then again because apparently they do not work or have weeds in the garden or juice spilled all over the back seat or bosses with migraines then they ask you again before you can quite get to scraping the black stuff off the grill, then they do something above-and-beyond fabulous, and then it is absolutely, without a doubt, youíll- never- freeload- dinner -in Ėthis- town- again, your turn.
 
    
     Sure, entertaining looks easy. (So do the parallel bars.) We all know itís not. At minimum, thereís a week of phone calls, a night of flipping through cookbooks, and an afternoon of shopping. Thereís just no way around it.

    
Or is there? You could do what Iíve noticed a few people doing lately: let a restaurant host your party for you. 


    
   Let it be known up front, I have no problem accepting these invitations. But I wonder: are we finding new ways to adapt to our fast-paced world or have we lost the will to reciprocate?

     I asked a few geographically-dispersed friends about the proís and conís.
 
     Nothingís changed in New York , where restaurant parties have long been the way to combat shoebox-sized apartments and cross-town buses. If the comfort of oneís guests is the hostís primary concern, then you might even say no one does it better than a New Yorker.

     A single mom in Orlando emailed ďA dinner party? Whatís that?Ē  But figures we should take any old chance to pull out the good china. In Chapel Hill , you go to someoneís house, but forget the potluck.

     A reminder from San Francisco : watch the booze. With mark-up at 100%, and the expected tip, it can kill you. But if you can live with that, then be sure to get a round table and drink and eat up.

     Restaurant-hosting has its perks: the plates and silverware match, you can spend as much time on your hair as your guests do, and of course, no clean-up. The only rule seems to be that you tell everyone the rules. In other words, if you want guests to cover their own drinks, let them know long before the waiter comes with the check.

     But restaurant-hosting does have its price. For instance, youíre giving up the chance to be known for your ďsignature dish.Ē This does not have to be your grandmotherís marshmallow jello, friends. It could be jambalaya or spanikopita or even Virginia ham.

     For many years, when I lived in California , Iíd import one of those lip-puckering Virginia hams for my annual fall party and the word got around. I was also known for the longwinded invitations going on about the first nip of cool in the air and the way the sun dropped low in the sky and lit the valley and the relative relationship of truth, beauty and wine. Really, itís a wonder anyone came at all.

     But come they did. And that, you see, is the whole point. Keep Ďem coming, and get credit for it.
 

     Speaking of which, you only get points for trying if youíre at your house. So the lambís a little overdone or the chocolate chip cookies are hard as a rock. It doesnít matter. It even works in your favor, as a kind of reverse signature dish; people remember you fondly for the things you canít do.

     Host your party at a restaurant and you deprive yourself, and your guests, of the entire dynamic of the invitation. You know what I mean.

     You call to invite someone to your house. They say, ďOh, that sounds lovely. Can I bring anything?Ē

     You, of course, say ďno,Ē which gives your guest that full-bodied flush of relief and also sets you up nicely as a martyr, with continuing solo credit for the party. You go along your merry, organizational way but the drama continues for the guest, who must then figure out what to bring when you tell them not to bring anything.
 
     Usually I just take wine. Itís easy to keep the extra bottles in the house so I donít have to make a frenzied stop at the liquor store when Iím running late anyway. You can also re-gift wine youíre not too sure about. If you party with the same folks all the time, this can backfire on you, though, so just be warned.  Flowers are a nice gesture, especially if you provide a vase so the host doesnít have to go rummaging through cabinets while the toast points burn.

     But restaurants have plenty of wine and flowers. Whatís the well-bred guest to do then? Unclear on the concept, I went to dinner once with a gift tucked in my bag, just to see how the evening would play. Now Iím the proud owner of an ice cream scoop with a rather artsy handle. Oh well, Christmas shopping starts early.

     Nothing seemed this complicated when I was growing up. Granted, I didnít get invited many places that didnít include relatives.

     I love going to parties at peopleís houses. I love the slightly nervous, slightly exhausted look of pride on the hostsí face. I like to see what their imagination has cooked up. I like to tuck away in various hallways and rooms, dropping in and out of conversations, so that itís not one party Iím attending, but several. I like calling the next day and telling the hosts what a great event they pulled off and hearing how theyíre still finding wine glasses in the strangest places.

     I guess I just like it when hosts are hosts and guests are guests and hosts donít get to be guests, too.

     But itís your party.

     Iíll come if you ask me.

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C. Jeanette Tyson is AustinMama.com's beloved foodie-in-the-field.

      

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