How to Host a Dinner Party serves up perspective for a hostess without the mostest

Posted Jul 31st, 2013

How to Host a Dinner Party serves up perspective for a hostess without the mostest

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I did something really bad the other week.

I invited a friend over for dinner and made Swiss chard gnocchi from scratch. It wasn't that my guest had an allergy to chard or an aversion to gnocchi. It's that I had never made Swiss chard gnocchi before. According to Corey Mintz, dinner party host extraordinaire, relying on a recipe you haven't already tried your hand at is a major no-no when hosting guests for a meal. In fact, it has potential disaster folded into each one of those unfamiliar green gnocchi I waited until the last minute to make (also a bad move). Mintz, a columnist for the Toronto Star who's known for inviting newsmakers and prominent community leaders to his house for a meal and then writing about it, published a guide for hostesses lacking the mostest — like me — earlier this year. How to Host a Dinner Party ($19.95, House of Anansi) is his tried and true rule book that he shares with others hoping to be equal parts decorous and culinary genius in the eyes of their dinner guests.

There are 178 easy-to-digest pages of tips about dinner party etiquette, covering everything from when to start the meal preparation (sometimes it's Thursday even if guests are arriving Saturday) to when to ask for help in the kitchen, how to serve up the proper portion size or just spike dinner and call for pizza, and even how to diffuse a dinner conversation-turned-heated argument. I really will take Mintz's advice for thwarting any tensions that may arise over tarte tatin by asking 'Did you know the mouth of a jellyfish is also its anus?' Mintz even includes simple recipes, such as "low-maintenance" ptitum and cheese — to be tried out before sending out the invitations, of course — to help make meal preparation easy on a host while still serving up some serious wow factor to guests. "We spent all that time planning and prepping so that when our guests arrive, we can look after their needs, rather than our own," Mintz writes. (Did I mention I was still mixing and rolling the gnocchi dough when my guest rang the door bell? Fear not, I did remember to ask if he'd like a drink). This book is packed with advice that is both helpful and humorous, much like Mintz's Twitter feed, which really has evoked belly laughs from me.

How to Host a Dinner Party is much like inviting Emily Post for supper, but on this occasion, she brings her sense of humour as her date. Still, while I learned a lot, at times I felt a little overwhelmed by nearly 200 pages of information to help me host a flawless nosh fest for my friends. There were times as I read Mintz's wise words that I thought 'I'll never remember this' or 'Forget it. Dinner parties are too hard." Tidbits about sitting at the end of the table to let others converse freely versus sitting in the middle of the group to help along any conversation stressed me out. Ditto for sketching out the presentation of the meal on a plate. Or placing the guest who offered to help in a seat at the table where they'll see me in the kitchen and know when to jump to action. But then there's the issue of figuring out said volunteer's motives for wanting help. Do they feel guilty that you're slaving over dinner while they're sipping cocktails? Or are they just nervous and uncomfortable in social situations with people they may not know well? I'm not a mind reader but if you are, tell them to stand in one place and not move. "Guests need to know that the kitchen is a workplace and that they should not get in the way.

They should find the corner of the room that is the least used and stand there, not pace back and forth to stay close to cook," Mintz advises. Later on, he suggests telling the potential helper that all is currently under control but perhaps they'd be willing to help with dishes between courses. I'm not sure I could do that, if only because I don't feel comfortable putting my guests to work, even if it will make my life easier. I want them to relax and enjoy not having to worry about that stuff for the few hours they're in my home. Still, good for Mintz for dispelling any myths that asking for help with the dishes is a faux-pas, which I clearly thought it was. Mind you, this is coming from the person who thought it was a good idea to make Swiss chard gnocchi for the first time as a dinner party meal. Despite feeling my heart rate rise in those moments of reading something I was sure was incredibly important but that I was bound to forget and wind up a dinner party failure, Mintz regularly swooped in with a few reassuring words that dinner parties are more than a performance. They are about connecting with people important to us. Keeping that in mind can make a dinner party more successful — more enjoyable — than whether you remember to serve dessert or offer to make coffee. It's that perspective that makes a book like this important and necessary reading for anyone sending out invitations to join them at the dinner table. And it's why I won't be too hard on myself for deciding to tackle homemade gnocchi an hour before my guest was standing on my doorstep. That and the fact that it turned out beautifully.

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