At the last dinner party I threw, I faced a severe time crunch. My kitchen was stifling, panic began to set in, curse words were muttered, and the thought of guests arriving before I was ready sent me into a small frenzy. A friend called me mid-freak-out and offered to come over early to help. Without realizing it, I put on a singsong voice that I think I inherited from the generations of Southern women before me and convinced her, and possibly even myself, that I was doing just fine. This denial is what I now refer to as hostess martyrdom—a condition derived partly from pride and stubbornness, and with a touch of control-freak thrown in.
There’s a fine art to hosting that I’m still mastering. But one thing I’m sure of is that a host’s demeanor sets the tone of the entire evening. If the host is tense and anxious, guests will quickly sense it. Luckily, I believe that the attributes of a good hostess, like all things, can be achieved with a little practice and some simple tips.
1) Overcome hostess martyrdom. Graciously swallow your pride and accept a helping hand when needed. Thankfully, my friend didn’t listen to me and came over early anyway. I continued the cooking, but she ended up re-arranging the flowers that I had hastily thrown in a vase, making a party play list on my iPod, pouring me a much-needed glass of wine, grating the parmesan cheese and giving me the moral support that I needed.
2) It’s your job as a hostess to introduce guests who don’t know each other or to find relatable topics among guests. The more engaged people are with each other, the less they’ll notice potential glitches in the meal.
2) Think of little ways to prevent having to get up during the meal. If things such as the water pitcher, wine bottles, and bread basket don’t fit on the table, set up a small TV table next to your seat, cover it with a cloth napkin, and have the items on hand so you don’t have to go back and forth to the kitchen.
3) As much as I admire a fully homemade meal, there’s no pressure to make everything from scratch. Don’t be afraid to pick up a dessert from a good local bakery or some antipasti favorites from the market for an appetizer.
4) Don’t do the dishes while you’re guests are there. It sends your guests one of two signals that you don’t want (most of the time, anyway)—that they need to go home, or that they should be in the kitchen helping you. Clear the table and leave dishes in the sink; no one will know if you don’t do them until the next morning.
The conversation and camaraderie will most likely leave a longer impression on guests than the food that’s being served, so let go of perfection and focus on enjoying the night and the company. Chances are, your guests will do the same.