What to Do: Drama at the Dinner Party

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What to Do When No One Has a Clue, a book of "advice for the brave new world" by Stephanie Pierson and Barbara Harrison, will be released on May 11. Click here to pre-order a copy, or scroll to the bottom of this piece to watch a YouTube video about the book.

Oh, of course your host and hostess mean well and want you to have a good time. Can you blame them if there isn't enough food for everyone to get firsts, or if you catch one of them in the kitchen drinking a sublime Chablis Grand Cru while pouring plonk at the table for guests, or if you've been there since 7:00 pm and dinner isn't ready until 11:00, or if they insist that well-raised children (read: their own) adore Salade Niçoise and can't believe your child never read My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus? Yes, yes, yes—blame away.

Of course, there are clueless guests. Blame them too! The ones who bring their own entrees ("this crazy diet!") or who show up half an hour early or who walk in for Thanksgiving dinner (two turkeys, foie gras, cabbage stuffed with pork, gravy with giblets) and announce, "Oh, we're vegetarians again!" Or the ones who ask 25 times, "Are you sure it's de-caf?" or who spend a lot of time telling you what they can't eat because they have pre-celiac disease.

Aside from disguising their names and ranting/posting on Chowhound, what—if anything—can you say or do?

SITUATION: Your father refuses to use recipes and is in favor of "winging it." The result? Shrimp Diablo with more garlic than the Gilroy Garlic Festival and overcooked pork roasts with painfully sweet, usually burnt sauces. Do you praise his "creativity" or point out that one of the greatest kitchen skills is the ability to read a recipe?

"Maybe he should meet my mother-in-law. Last year, she came to stay with us and made a beef stew. Except she'd never made beef stew before and only had a vague idea of the ingredients. The result was carrots, celery, pearl onions, and two pounds of filet mignon boiled in a pot of red wine. But, as a working mother of six-month-old twins, I was not going to complain. Someone made dinner for me! So I downed it eagerly, which gave her the wrong impression entirely. I can't ever say anything to her about it; she's not great with criticism (unless she's dishing it out, but that's another story I'll save for my therapist). And is pointing out to her that there's a world of spices beyond salt and garlic really worth it? All she wants to do is make us happy, so it's just easier to let her."
-Grateful Berkeley mom who occasionally wishes Alice Waters were her mother-in-law.

SITUATION: Your host and hostess have a sophisticated five-year-old daughter who loves tomato aspic and tilapia. All that stands between your four-and-a-half-year-old and starvation is bologna and Kraft Mac & Cheese, which is what you want to bring along for a weekend visit. Can you?

"I would absolutely not bring along Mac & Cheese and bologna for that weekend. Especially to new friends, I like to project the vibe of 'low maintenance,' and packing whole separate extra meals—especially of that sort—does not help on that front. So then knowing what I'm getting into, I have to have a strategy for nourishment. I would take comfort in and plan for the fact that pretty much any foodie will at some point in the day/evening serve items that any child over the age of one will eat. I am talking about fresh bread, fresh fruit, crackers, etc. When I see those, I discreetly encourage my child to eat up. And they should be good to go. (We are only talking a weekend ... No changes in height or weight growth charts here.)

"Second, I have the strategy for 'pretending that my kids are foodies.' When dinner is served, I'd fake it, say as little as possible to my child, and hope for a hail-Mary-type peer-pressure pass into the end zone where my little one actually tastes or tries it because her friend ate it too. (My girlfriend's son just tried bun xao—a.k.a. "noodles!"—for the first time on Wednesday of this week at my house because of peer-pressure. It works!) If it doesn't, I can cheerily cite the statistic universally known to all parents, "Well that's try #1 for the tomato aspic ... eight more tries to go!"
-Kristin Krebs-Dick, mother of two girls, four-and-a-half-year-old Katherine and two-year-old Olivia.

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