So there’s this other little incident – no, it’s too small to call an incident… it’s more like a minor interaction – that’s been niggling at me lately. It’s not something I’ve been actively worrying over. More like, every once in a while it will pop into my head and I’ll roll it around a few times before something else takes its place.
It falls into the realm of etiquette, I suppose, or social graces. And it’s not a Big Deal, by any means. It’s just one of those things where I wish I knew the right way to behave, in case I encounter it again.
Anyway: Let’s say you have a group of friends who get together once a month or so at one friend’s house. We do this for my book club (although it’s been a woefully long time since we’ve met), and the host cooks a meal and the guests bring wine. Every guest brings a bottle of wine. Every time. This works GREAT, in my opinion.
But let’s say that YOUR group is less wine-focused. Not to say they don’t like alcohol! Oh no! But there’s a different understanding with this group. Or maybe it’s a lack of understanding. Or I don’t know.
So the host cooks a meal, and the guests bring… whatever they want.
Of course the guests always ASK, “What can I bring?” And the host always says, “Nothing! Just yourself!” But the guests feel (and I am 100% guilty of feeling this way!) like they can’t show up empty handed, so they bring something. Like cookies. Or chips. Or Bloody Mary mix. Or whatever. Sometimes wine isn’t an option!
Let me give you a real-life example. My husband and I were the hosts, and we hosted brunch. So we made a French toast casserole and some other carbs – seriously, there was nothing in the way of meat or fruit or vegetable ANYWHERE, not even eggs – and we had Champagne and orange juice and we were all set. And the guests all asked what they could bring and I said nothing, just yourselves… and then they showed up with stuff.
One guest brought… Champagne and orange juice. Another brought some sort of delicious pastry. Another brought some other sort of delicious pastry. And so on down the line. Seriously, carbs out the EARS.
It is my understanding that the number one rule of hosting etiquette is to make your guests feel comfortable, so even though I’d made enough food for all of us to eat twice, I popped open the extra Champagne and extra orange juice and set out plates and flatware for the additional pastries. The more the merrier, right?
Plus, I am an extremely picky eater. Doesn’t hurt my feelings if you want to bring something you KNOW you will like, and it doesn’t hurt my feelings if that’s all you end up eating.
The non-incident/minor interaction was that, at the end of the day, when the guests had left and my husband and I were surveying the carb carnage of our kitchen, I spotted one of the boxes of fancy pastries that one guest had brought: totally unopened. And it was a store-bought thing, so at least she hadn’t made it with her own two hands. But still, she saw it at the store and thought it looked good; she spent her money on it. And no one even OPENED IT. Ack.
As I roll this over and over in my head on occasion, I usually roll around to feeling like it’s okay, that truly no feelings were probably hurt. I was busy trying to keep glasses full and plates full and babies fed, and I just overlooked that little pastry box and I am sure my guest understood.
But this raises two questions:
1. If someone brings food or a beverage to a non-potluck dinner you prepare, even though you expressly said “Nothing! Just bring yourself!”, are you obligated to put it out?
Listen, I am pretty sure that on the other end of things, the being-a-guest end, etiquette guidelines (which I have…somewhere. I just don’t feel like clomping upstairs and rooting around in my bookshelves to find the appropriate book. Am lazy.) say that you should bring food/wine as a hostess gift and NOT expect it to be added to the menu plan. Your host has planned a specific meal, so you shouldn’t expect that your offering be anything but a gift for the host to enjoy after the fact. That is how I approach bringing things: this wine is for you to enjoy as you see fit. If that means opening it right now, so be it! If you want to save it until later and guzzle it up before you face the pile of dishes your guests created, that’s fine too!
But… I guess I lean toward putting the food out. Because I don’t know that other people have heard of that guideline. Certainly I have been in situations where someone provided wine and was miffed when she didn’t get to drink it during the dinner party. Or even concerned that the host didn’t like the gift.
If the host’s ULTIMATE goal is to make the guest feel comfortable, then I would put the food/wine out even at odds with my own planning rather than cause any potential disappointment or concern or hurt feelings.
It can be frustrating, though, if you have a special bottle of wine you want your guests to taste. Or if you spent all day making cupcakes, and now they have to share the spotlight with a guest’s handmade chocolate truffles or whatever.
Unfortunately, I don’t think you can deter people from bringing things. I have even tried the thing where you give them a specific item to bring: “Please bring a side dish. Please bring chips. Please bring beer or wine.” And they inevitably bring MORE THAN THAT.
WHY ARE PEOPLE SO GENEROUS AND NICE?!
Which brings me to my next question…
2. When can I comfortably LISTEN to the host and just NOT BRING ANYTHING?
My husband and I met with our group of friends again recently, and we went back and forth over what to bring. Should he make cookies? No, because what if our hostess made a special dessert? Should we bring wine? Seemed out of place for the meal we were having. What about bringing nothing? No, that seemed wrong – the hostess brought something when she was a guest at our house.
But of course, the hostess had prepared the entire meal, from bread to main course to dessert, and had plenty of drink options to boot. (We ended up bringing store-bought cookies, with the intention to offer them as a hostess gift rather than to expect they get set out with the food. But they were set out with the food anyway.) She certainly didn’t need our contribution. And we see her so often (once a month) that I know we’ll “repay” her for all the time and money she spent.
It just seems pointless and exhausting to keep bringing things that the host doesn’t want.
Of course, it seems LESS pointless if you are the only guest who shows up empty handed. But maybe if you do it enough, at enough houses, you will either get your message across or you will be booted from the group.