Friday, December 19, 2008

The Hostess declines foothold on slippery slope and other notes

"Here was So-and-so up in South Kensington; someone else in Bayswater, and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence... and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it.

And so it was an offering, to combine, to create... An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance..."
- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (and as re-quoted by Peter Conradi in The Metaphysical Hostess)

One of the Hostess's more amusing moments over the last day was an email from a reader advising yours truly that a dubious entertaining blog was offering the gift of planning a future party for you. The Blushing Hostess Commandments largely originated from emails I received pointing out suggestions from this site; such as entertaining expertise as would place pots on the table from which to serve, setting the table with cocktail-sized paper napkins, and several terrifying others.

Lordy! Is this an offer to gratuitously turn guests into enemies? With this kind of help...

I was going to post today simply pointing out the marvelous Eddie Ross table setting tutorial, Table Manners. However, I feel I should add, in light of the apparent desire of 60 poor, innocent, entertaining souls to be lead down the piano-as-buffet horror show path, that while Eddie is a busy guy in high demand and may not be coming over to dish brown sludge (looking suspiciously like dog food) out of your saucier with a wooden spoon while reassuring you that you are indeed doing it correctly just because you are doing something; his help, as posted, can reach into your home and help you to retain, even garner, the respect of your peers and go a good deal further than, say, those paper napkins you have been counselled to purchase by feebleminded hostesses who are only kidding themselves.

Just a moment as I draw my soapbox out from under the console, hold please.... Ah-hem. Now hear this:

This entertaining gig is neither quick, easy, nor merits so little consideration as to be approached in a thoughtless, dim-witted fashion. The way you present to your guests tells them how you feel about them, how you respect them and want the quality of their experience to resound in their memory. Never, never take a guest for granted, even when eating cold pizza in a dorm at 3 am. Always do the very best you can.

This has nothing to do with money or time, either. Shop the Goodwill or a flea market (refer to Eddie, once again) if you feel you need something and have a beautiful table for $10. If you don't have $10, borrow what you need. If you have to use the "I don't have time," excuse at all, then do not invite until you do have the time to do it, or to see to it being done precisely and carefully. In my professional life, I worked long days and when it came to entertaining vendors and counterparts I would have loved to bring them into my home for dinner. I certainly knew how to hostess for them, but I did not have the man-hours to get it done properly. There were private restaurant and hotel dining rooms that could do this properly and I turned to them (admittedly with a very controlling hand) to be sure I did not fail my guests. There is nothing wrong with this alternative. Their experience trumps do-it-yourself wishes always.

This work is tiring, don't be afraid not to invite. My Godmother, Margaret, created a magical, perfectly executed and presented Easter Brunch for the multitudes of our family every year. The preparation took weeks: From gathering the hard-to-find menu, having all the food blessed, pressing every stitch of linens, gathering a mighty collection of beautiful flatware and table items, and finally, fielding a thousand "What may I bring? " calls. Ten or so years ago, when my Mother advised us we would no longer have Easter at Margaret's she gave a two word response when asked why, "She's exhausted." It is understandable. She did everything masterfully, but that level of good is tiring and surely one wonders what it might be like to sit at restaurant in Vienna instead. Go, go to Vienna then, I beg of you, rather than putting forth something which does not speak to your talent, abilities, and mannerliness.

While the Hostess has plenty to say on the subject of wealth having no relationship to great hostesses (having grown up in the once frugal, nay, downright cheap, old-money enclave of Bedford, New York), this discussion is beyond the scope of this post. Ultimately take two points away today:

1. Read Eddie Ross's post for correct and varied table settings for all your holiday occasions. Amy Vanderbilt would surely be proud.
2. Do not let anyone talk or blog you into accepting short cuts in your work - any work. You, my Precious, are better than that. This is your gift to give, give it brilliantly.

By the same token that I receive email asking for comments on pots on a table, I will get those demanding I not take an elitist or compulsive stand on the joy of spending time with others. Let me spare my detractors the typing: I will remain silent for all time before I capitulate to a casual cut-corner plan which encourages plastic cups at place settings. If this creates an environment of insiders within this blog, then I dare say there would be no insiders were there not equally as committed outsiders. I am confident this difference is what makes the world out there go 'round, but not in here, in my domain, nor at any gathering or table in my care.


Anonymous said...

OMG you are so sweet! Happy Holidays!

Mrs. Blandings said...

This is so beautifully and passionately put. I just attended a holiday party in an usually foul mood. I realized why once we arrived at this annual affair to be served my wine in a solo cup. We're forty for heaven's sake. Opening the door is not enough.

Visual Vamp said...

Here here!
While Eddie is a talent and a gent, you need not take a page out of a book you yourself have already written.
I raise my glass to hostesses and hosts everywhere, and thank them for their efforts.
Enjoy your holiday entertaining (I know you will).
I wish you wre close enough so I could set a place at my table for you and wait on you hand and foot.
xo xo

Blushing hostess said...

You are all far too kind. These comments are precious to me.

SuSu said...

I cannot agree with you more! (And I communicate with Eddie, too!) If you can't do it right, don't bother. I spend hours on Thanksgiving (had 20 this year and everyone had silver, china, crystal and damask napkins and their place (w/ place cards!), 2 tables - dining room & large center hall). Then there was Christmas Eve (only 8 - Spode Christmas Tree, my mother's silver, the napkins, etc.) candles only in dining room, homemade Whiskey Sours, everthing homemade. It's my gift of love to those I love. Thank you...thank you...thank you! Now I know I'm not crazy!