Everyone Welcome at the Table
I grew up collecting and reading all sorts of vintage books and articles on etiquette. I loved reading about the different philosophies of setting a proper table, ideas on placement for the glasses and the uses for obscure cutlery. In particular, I enjoyed finding and comparing differences of opinion on gift giving, the proper way to butter bread, and how a “lady” should RSVP to a party. Although, as for that bread business, the opinions were generally the same – break off a small piece, butter it individually and then chew. One should never slather the whole piece with butter and take a big bite.
I was the only person I knew in my small town who ate with their cutlery continental style. You may have seen this on British programs such as Downton Abbey. The fork stays in the left hand, tines down, and the knife in the right. After spearing the food with your fork, you transfer it to your mouth, all while keeping the fork in your left hand. A little affected to be sure for small town Kansas, but it made me feel very cosmopolitan. I won’t call you out for slathering and biting your bread though, I promise.
After all that reading and comparing, here’s what I know – the rules then were no less confusing than they are now. There were as many opinions on the right way to do something as there were authors to write about it.
But here’s the thing: There is a right way.
Manners aren’t a blast from the past
One of my favorite movies is a silly 90s comedy called Blast from the Past. The lead character, Adam, is born and spends 35 years with his parents in a fallout shelter. Raised underground in an isolated environment and taught only the finest manners by his parents, when he emerges and begins meeting people in the modern world, no one knows how to react to his peculiar behavior. Is he really as polite as he seems? His friend Troy explains to Adam’s love interest, Eve, “You know, I asked him about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them.”
These days, manners and etiquette seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, and perhaps only make a showing when arguing over how to fill out invitations for a wedding. Personal expression, creativity and individuality sometimes make the world a less hospitable place than it needs to be if the focus is only on self-gratification. And being gracious is very simple: Treat others as you wish to be treated.
And now about that right way
Today there is no real need to worry about etiquette of the past if you remember one simple thing — when you entertain, make your guests, all of your guests, feel comfortable and at home. For me, that starts with the food selections.
There’s almost no one among us who doesn’t have a food sensitivity or allergy. For some, it’s a religious choice. As a host, preparing food that services all these requirements can feel daunting, but it’s really not difficult. The nicest thing about planning inclusive dining menus is that you will gain the undying affection of people who have gone to one too many parties where they could only eat a single side dish or stood around starving and nibbling on raw carrots while everyone else enjoyed platefuls.
How to know what to serve and what to avoid?
Talk to your friends. Find out their key sensitivities and avoid them, or at the very least offer many choices and label your dishes well.
Do not serve one main meat dish without serving another that’s vegetarian. The same rule goes for side dishes and appetizers.
There are so many amazing and simple dishes to prepare that do not contain meat, or at the very least, don’t contain pork, if that’s a dietary consideration with your guest list. In addition, prepare at least one or two side dishes or hors d’oeuvres that don’t contain pasta or other obvious glutens. Avoid seafood unless you know it’s safe for every guest or serve it in a separate location where there’s no danger of serving utensils getting mixed up.
If you really want to earn some points, serve a few gluten-free desserts. They are not difficult to come by thanks to the power of the internet. If you’re pressed for time, stop by Mud Pie on 39th Street and grab a bag of goodies. Don’t taste them in the car though, because you’ll eat them all yourself before you get home. And that’s a guarantee, not that I would know.
If you are a Pinterest junkie (or even if you’re not—in which case, grab your phone now and sign up) you can search for any category and come up with so many amazing choices, all with photographs. Simple side dishes? Done. Hot paleo? Cold vegan? Gluten free? Yep, yep, and yep.
Many recipes on Pinterest click through to blogs or other recipe sites as well. I enjoy reading the comments and feedback for more information on what tweaks have been made by others. Many recipe testers have great suggestions for slight changes to reduce calories, increase specific flavors, etc.
If you have sensitivities to one of the recipe ingredients, odds are someone else does too, and has tried the recipe without that ingredient or with a substitute and posted about it. Love that. Think of it as the Amazon Review of the recipe world.
What to take to a potluck?
I sometimes find it challenging to decide what to take to a buffet or potluck meal. Then I started paying attention to what others bring and found my opening.
Most potlucks I attend seem to feature about 70-percent desserts and about 30-percent chips and salsa or guacamole. All delicious choices of course, but what most gatherings seem to lack are side dishes. Start there.
The hosts often take care of drinks and a main course, so focus on a side dish and you can’t go wrong. Even better, make it vegetarian and avoid pasta. Trust me; yours will be the first to go. Furthermore, bring a lot. Don’t be my infamous relative who showed up to every family gathering with one can of cold pork and beans in a tiny Tupperware container barely large enough for a teaspoon.