With lockdown easing on the horizon, we’ll soon be able to socialise again. Kay Plunkett-Hogge and Debora Robertson’s funny, frank handbook Manners: A Modern Field Guide is the cheat sheet to every social situation. Whether at home or work; public spaces and shops; births; weddings; holidays; eating out; how to party; digital decorum; office etiquette and even how to manage deaths and grief – this is your right-hand manual to styling out life with a modicum of grace. They have done the fieldwork, made the mistakes and committed enough embarrassing faux pas for two lifetimes in the hope that you don’t have to! Here, they share their tips on how to entertain at home.
by Kay Plunkett-Hogge and Debora Robertson
There comes a point in most of our lives when we have no other choice but to let people into our homes to eat food and drink drinks. Sometimes, we can even enjoy it. Here’s how.
HOW TO ENTERTAIN AT HOME
Like so much else in life, success begins with our own attitude. The late, great American food writer Julia Child famously said, ‘No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologise’. I have been to more dinners ruined by the hosts’ relentless apologies than I have to those spoiled by split sauces or overcooked beef. The constant thirst for reassurance is a form of neediness that is not only deeply unattractive, it’s also quite selfish. Instead of allowing your guests to relax and have fun (everyone’s busy, they didn’t come round to provide you with free group therapy), you are pulling focus. Stop it.
At one of the worst dinners I ever went to, the food was quite delicious but tiresomely elaborate and involved lots of last-minute faffing. The husband and wife stood shoulder to shoulder at the counter, chopping and sautéeing and bickering the whole time. It completely killed the mood. They divorced shortly afterwards.
Certainly, prepare an elaborate dinner if that gives you pleasure and you can pull it off cheerfully, but if in its execution you end up a hot, furious mess, it is the worst kind of showing off. Your friends would rather have the pleasure of your best self and a roast chicken or takeaway pizza and some nice drinks and laughs, than a five-course extravaganza that transforms you into a grumpy LOOK-AT-ME ogre.
It is hugely important that you enjoy your own parties or you might as well not have them – restaurants and bars exist for a reason. You can help yourself by doing as much as possible ahead. Plan, make lists. If you aren’t a confident cook, avoid anything that needs last-minute preparation or buy everything in. Allow yourself enough time to lay the table and get everything ready. Call in help if you need it. As soon as guests arrive though, it’s curtain up. You plough on, no matter what happens. You keep smiling; you act relaxed until you feel relaxed. You keep moving. Don’t keep asking your guests if the soup is all right or if they like the dressing – they are highly unlikely to tell you if there is anything wrong with the food and you are just trampling all over their pleasure.
The Five Minute Rule
Within five minutes of your guests’ arrival, you should have taken their coats and given them something to drink. You should also have introduced them to anyone in the room they don’t know. If you’re entertaining on your own and need to focus on the food, it’s a good idea to enlist a friend to help you. If you’re introducing a new friend to your old crowd, or you have a guest who is a little shy, it’s a great idea to give them a job. Handing out drinks and snacks is the perfect way for them to get to know the rest of your guests and having a purpose makes it easier for them to break into conversation naturally.
How to Survive Your Own Party
- Plan ahead. Give yourself a fighting chance – 8.05 p.m. isn’t the moment to discover you don’t have enough chairs.
- Get help. Enlist friends to serve drinks, hand out snacks and set the table. People often enjoy having a job to do.
- Ditto get the chattiest pals to strike up conversation with the shyer types.
- Don’t get smashed, or at least not until the end of the evening. There are few things more boring and guaranteed to ruin an evening than a sloppy host.
- Never wash up the glasses until the morning after. Deb and I disagree on this! But at our house, everyone always ends up in the living room with the last dregs of wine, or a digestif… so I leave the glasses.
- I have an innate fear of there never being enough food and drink. Over-cater if in doubt. Bottles can always be returned and food frozen.
- Lots and lots of ice. You do not want to run out.
If you have enjoyed Kay’s and Debora’s tips on how to entertain at home, check out their new book Manners: A Modern Field Guide. Illustration by Denise Dorrance.