Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cruel to be Kind

In the corner of the world in which I grew up, there were two kinds of hostesses. All the hostesses in Bedford. And then, the ones in Pound Ridge.

I do not know how this divide developed but having had the dinner service under my care while in school of one remarkable Bedford hostess, I can assure you, they looked upon one another with uncertainty then, if not occasionally, outright distain. Two miles of road never more separated hostessing philosophies.

In Bedford, it was all very starched. By the rules. Divergence and creativity were, "interesting," and "fun" but also exotic and unwelcome. Just on the other side of Pound Ridge Road though, they were more laid back, "casual" (a word used as if spat), and "woodsy." And not failing to note the similar failings of Bedford hostesses, by Pound Ridge standards, they were "stuffy" and "affected."

But naturally, attended one another's parties .

It was while I was checking the hand towels in the home of Katharine Gottsegan, founder of the Tobe Review, cookbook author, and entertaining powerhouse (my parents neighbor for whom I oversaw parties and dinners), that Kay came around a corner and said, "Catherine, can you come with me to Judy's next Saturday night?"

I agreed, politely but unwillingly.

Judy was a friend of Kay's from Pound Ridge. I came from the Bedford side and was trained by other Bedford types like Kay, and my gorgeous Mother. I knew this scenario was a nest of pit viper-hostess warfare. I was eighteen and would have found anything else to do besides oversee a party of seventy-something warring Westchesterites. But, the old girl collared me.

I understood that Kay and I were to keep this party from becoming a wretched fiasco at Judy's request. The words "wretched fiasco," gennerally associated with parties given by others who were one fragile chain link from barbar's in Kay's estimation, or so I inferred.

Kay was a character in many ways, not the least of which was that she had no inclination toward tact of any kind. The hour before Judy's party in which Kay wandered around Judy's house, looking things over and then saying my name, looking me in the eye, causing my glance to follow hers, and correcting Judy in wilting verbiage, is one I would like to forget. I was desperately thankful for my Mother and Grandmother just then; Never having been at the wrong end of Kay's etiquette sword which I was then witnessing in full effect for the first time.

Kay had been monotone through her stabbing instructions and disgusted alterations regarding how buffets had been laid, the kitchen considered, and the bar left "a mess" in her estimation. It was a matter-of-fact hostess slaughter, until she was shown the wine. In a jug.

Then. Then her cheeks flushed, her eyes grew wide and animated, and she became incensed. "INGLENOOK!" she railed, "Oh my God! PUT IT IN A DECANTER!!"

As I showed her to a chair, she said, "Can I have something to drink?" Then she sat back heavily and sighed, "But not, not, wine!"

She was a tactless task master, perhaps. But correct in making the point that one should give their best to their guests. Failing that, be sure an insultingly inferior product is not on display to add insult to injury.

Photo courtesy Gump's, Saint-Louis Excess Decanter


An Aesthete's Lament said...

And here I lived in Pound Ridge for years yet yearned only to dine in Bedford! In Pound Ridge, my table was considered too fancy/eccentric (was heavily under Pauline de Rothschild's influence then).

Picture of Elegance said...

a very interesting post.

Karena said...

Really enjoyed this! Here in Kansas City we can entertain quite elegantly or go casual for Barbeque!

LPC said...

Aaargh. I just hope those days of women wielding swords of pain to make other women feel bad for stupid stuff are over. And I hate bad wine. But still.

Lily Lemontree said...

Kay sounds like the kind of woman everyone should have the privilege of knowing. (I usually prefer the 'very starched' myself!)
Great post, have a wonderful day!

Heather said...

Please help. I think I need further enlightenment. I was under the impression that the whole raison d'etre of ettiquette is to make those around you feel comfortable and to not offend. If one offends and makes someone uncomfortable over matters of ettiquette -- doesn't this show poor manners?

little augury said...

so amusing, everyone should have the opportunity to know what's what and do what they and their guests will be comfortable with. As always-don't ask if you don't want to know, esp. if ladies wielding cutlery are in charge.

The Blushing Hostess said...

AAL - I am only sorry I missed it.

POE - thank you.

LPC - indeed, I can only hope.

Lily - She was spectacular in many ways and worked harder than anyone I have known before or sense. I dare say you would have enjoyed her, though perhaps, as many noted, not warmly so.

Heather - While that is the kind goal of the discipline, I found the instruction and learning process not unlike law school: Grueling, unforgiving, and generally rigorous. Possibly the end justifies the means. I can say however, that I have noted other equ. bloggers issue some equally withering instructions in response to reader queries. Indeed, while it is often confused with something that should be kind and gentle, it truly is handed-down in some places in a fashion not unlike the experience my Husband had in boot camp, I gather...

LA -I have told myself that same thing in the time since, Judy clearly needed Kay, and Kay made a perfect drill sergent. Both got the hostess they needed.

EntertainingMom said...

Having spent time in both town I can only sit here and crack up at the absurdity of it all... and wonder, do I, or don't I use my decanter when I entertain? Will people wonder whether I have something to hide? Perhaps I pour the wine into the decanter so that it can b r e a t h e, and leave the original bottle on the counter ;)

home before dark said...

Oh, dear. What would Edith Wharton say?