My favorite New Yorker cartoon features a couple answering the door to a duo of smartly dressed guests arriving for a dinner party. The host couple is buck naked. The caption reads “Sorry we’re a little early.”
Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Cartoonist, for explaining why one should never arrive early to a dinner party. Never. Just no. Not even two minutes. Unless you’re bringing an appetizer, then it’s thoughtful.
If you entertain, you understand how the last five or ten minutes before the doorbell rings are pivotal. You’ve been busy creating magic for your guests, and as usual, you’re a little behind schedule. Those last precious minutes are often the only time you have to jump in the shower or even just change out of your yoga pants and put on lipstick. And then the doorbell rings. Not to sound dramatic, but it can set the whole evening off-kilter.
I’ve noticed it is people who don’t have parties themselves who tend to arrive early. Of course, you darlings mean well; you have no idea you’re being rude, but you are. If you arrive early, drive around the block, sit outside in your car or ask your Uber driver to let you off down the street. He or she will understand you are just trying to be a thoughtful guest.
Here, then, are some other ways to be a thoughtful guest.
When somebody invites you to something, get back to them as soon as you can. Even if you can’t give them a definite answer, acknowledge you got the invitation. The smaller the group invited, the more critical this is. If you must decline, do it swiftly so the inviter is not left in limbo.
Bring the fun you
Hostess gifts are nice, but the best present you can give your host is to show up on time, in a great mood, ready to shake off the cares of the day and—this is imperative—put your phone away. Smart-phone addiction is a social epidemic, even among well-mannered Boomers. Resist the urge to check your phone, unless you have a child at home with a sitter.
If you have pre-party jitters, don’t attempt to calm them with a “dressing drink.” Too often one leads to a second, a third. Better to use that time reading the newspaper, or watching the news, so you can talk about what’s going on in the world that day. Sometimes I check out the Facebook pages of those I know will be at the party. Instant conversation fodder.
Good conversation is the essence of any enjoyable party, and if you can add energy and sizzle to the talk, you will be an appreciated guest. Be willing to meet the other guests more than halfway, and pay particular attention to newcomers and shy types. It’s more important to be interested than interesting.
Remember: brevity is the soul of wit
Sure to dull any social gathering is the conversation of the bore. We all know at least one. Wholly convinced of the fascination his life holds for others, he can make a conversation seem endless. He fancies himself a raconteur, but what he is, is a crashing, world-class snooze. He is blind to the subtle cues of drifting attention: the surreptitious watch-check, the glazed over eyes scanning the horizon in hope of rescue. The bore engenders in others the classic cocktail party maneuver called the Human Sacrifice, wherein the bore is passed off to an innocent victim who wanders by. “Monica! Have you said hello to Wilhelm?”
The bore is seldom a sought-after guest, and if you suspect you might be one, it’s not too late to change. Realize that the key to being an interesting conversationalist is to listen as much as you talk, that conversation is about silences as well as about words. Ask questions, don’t interrupt and don’t ramble.
Did someone mention prezzies?
It’s certainly not necessary, but it’s always sweet to bring a little something for the host or hostess, in addition to the requisite bottle of wine. Just don’t bring something where she would have to drop everything and deal with it, like fresh flowers that need a vase. The Little Flower Shop in Fairway has gorgeous flower bouquets, in a simple glass vase, ready to brighten any room, for twenty-five bucks. I just wish the shop were closer to my house in midtown.
Here’s my new favorite hostess gift: I go to Pryde’s Kitchen and Necessities in Westport and buy a half-dozen plain white flour-sack dish towels (one can never have enough) and have them gift-wrapped.
A few other ideas: Bring a book you know she’ll like, with a heartfelt inscription. You could bring a jar of a great new spice you’ve discovered, a Pickwick or Mixture scented candle (both made locally), some little bath soaps, or a bottle of good olive oil. A fifth of premium liquor is a nice touch as well. If it’s a larger gathering, tag your gift somehow.
A note … about notes
A handwritten note still is the most appreciated and thoughtful way to thank your host. It’s easier to write a thank you if you’re punctual about it. The more promptly you dash it off, the more enthusiastic it seems, and the fewer words you actually have to write.
If you’re not a writer, don’t think your note has to be impeccably penned. I prefer a messy note written straight from the heart to one that is perfectly worded, with no cross-outs or other signs of personality.
Write the way you talk. Be specific. If the dessert was spectacular, say so. If the guest list included someone you were thrilled to see or enjoyed meeting, mention that.
And if you have hard-to-read handwriting, it’s perfectly acceptable to type or word-process a thank-you note. If you are time-challenged, a quick phone call or a brief, heartfelt text or email, sent promptly, is much better than nothing. And if you really want to dazzle, send flowers.
I don’t keep an Excel Spread Sheet in my head about who has had me over and whose “turn it is;” nor do most hosts. If you are not in a position to entertain, people understand. The important thing is that you bother to stay in touch and at some point initiate something. It doesn’t have to be lavish. Call your friends to meet you for beer and cheeseburgers at Blanc Burgers, pizza at Spin, or tacos and margaritas at one of our town’s excellent Mexican restaurants.
Inviting people to come as your guests to an interesting fundraiser is a thoughtful way to reciprocate, and support a cause at the same time. There are so many worthwhile, well-executed benefits in this town: fashion shows, movie screenings, art auctions, golf tournaments, dressy galas and theme parties of all kinds. Times are tough; fundraisers are seldom sold out. You have only to consult the “About Town” section of this magazine to get a few ideas.
In a rage for Ragazza
My friend Laura Norris toiled for years in Kansas City’s not-for-profit sector, all the while harboring a dream of owning her own restaurant. In late 2013, she opened Cucina della Ragazza (“Girl’s Kitchen”) at 301 Westport Road, now the go-to eaterie for a cast of regulars (including moi) who relish the soulful, cozy, quintessentially Westport vibe, not to mention the consistently excellent, sensibly priced food and wine. Now Laura has started “Ragazza Travels,” a catering service, and a fabulous alternative to lighting one’s own stove for a dinner party. On a recent Saturday night at my house, I served her Eggplant Parmesan and Meatballs Grande to a group of ten. It was divine!
Here is Laura’s simple recipe for one of the most popular appetizers at Cucina della Ragazza:
Directions: Toss the arugula with the Parmesan cheese (reserving 2 teaspoons for garnish), olive oil and juice from one lemon. Wrap the bresaola around small amounts of the arugula mixture—making tiny open-ended rolls. Pinch the rolls or use toothpicks to secure. Place the remaining arugula on a platter, place the rolls on top and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Slice the second lemon into disks and place around the platter for garnish. Keep cool before serving.