What to Do: Drama at the Dinner Party

Our advice columnists opine on entertaining. How to deal with hosts, guests, and underdone meatloaf.

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Carl MiKoy/flickr

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.

SITUATION: Summer house. Family and friends. Your 20-something daughter makes "special" pancakes that need to rise overnight. Because of some unfortunate alchemy between batter and metal, the pancakes taste like tin. Is it your job as her mother to tell her they're inedible? Or is it your job to hope someone else will?

"Sorry. It's your job to tell her, rather than have everyone else push toxic pancakes around their plates. So, take a taste. Then in your most tactful and unconditional loving mother way, say: 'Hmm ... funny. I'm tasting a little metal. Did you taste it too?' Hopefully your daughter will thank you. Someday. Far in the future."

-Phyllis Cohen, CSW, New York psychotherapist

SITUATION: Your neighbor asks if she can bring anything to your brunch and you say no thanks. She shows up with a huge lopsided gooey baked brie wrapped in refrigerator crescent rolls. Do you have to serve it? What if people think you made it?

"Friends and guests often want to contribute even when you say, Just bring yourself. But let's face it—what's more important? Your menu or your friends? I say, be gracious and serve it. Just put it in a 300 degree oven for about 15 minutes until it softens. And let's face it: even if you are serving the best hors d'oeuvres in the world, people love baked brie."

-Kate McDonough, editor of thecitycook.com and author of the upcoming book The City Cook (Simon & Schuster, November 2010).

"You have to serve it unless you have some theme party thing going that it will clash with—like a Hawaiian luau or a Tamil Thai Pongal Day banquet. As soon as your guests are all there, strut out of the kitchen carrying the brie and announce in a loud voice, 'My wonderful neighbor, Nancy, made this!'"

-Anika Chapin, Broadway casting director and a frequent dinner guest who sticks to flowers and wine.

SITUATION: Your hostess (a firm believer in her skills as a cook) insists that the blood-red really rare-in-the-middle meatloaf is thoroughly cooked. As you pick up your fork, you ... ?

"You could say, 'Wow, this must be really good meat if you serve it this way!', hoping it is La Frieda or Niman Ranch quality and won't kill you. You could also ask your hostess if the meatloaf is 100 percent beef or if it's some combination of beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken. If the meatloaf looks really dicey, say something like, 'I just got over a stomach bug, so I think I should pass. I'm sure you'd agree.'"

-Celia Barbour, contributing food editor, O, the Oprah Magazine.

"I've found that hard-headed cooks are a force to be reckoned with and resistance is futile. And as a guest, your role is to smile and (try) to enjoy yourself. Ideally, the family dog would be roaming nearby trolling for goodies, and I would discreetly pass bits of the meatloaf under the table."

-Laura Holmes Haddad, a wine and food writer based in Los Angeles, founder of GourmetGrrl.com, contributor to MyRecipes.com, and author of the book Anything But Chardonnay.

What to Do When No One Has a Clue - Book Trailer