Rescuing Simple Holiday Entertaining

Some of your guests may be stranger than others...but they mean well...and even this sweet alpaca we encountered last week was in the holiday spirit!

Some of your guests may be stranger than others...but they mean well...and even this sweet alpaca we encountered last week was in the holiday spirit!

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Dear Readers,

From our kitchen to yours: wishing you the happiest of holidays, and a healthy and prosperous New Year!

I hope this finds your holiday budget well.  No?  Shocking.  I’m starting to think that having oneself a Merry Little Christmas is getting further and further out of reach every year.  Nothing quite spoils the holiday spirit like a large credit card bill come January.

It seems that the nature of the holiday has shifted away from what I remember as a child in the ‘90s.  What stands out in my memory is the food and the warmth of friends’ homes, typically enjoyed simultaneously.  Families had the requisite Christmas tree, festooned with mismatched strings of lights, and littered with glittering cardboard ornaments, on which their offspring’s school photos were pasted at a charmingly crooked angle.  Most other decorating, including lawn ornaments, was typically found on the lawns of the wealthy (hideous plastic nativity scenes in garish colors excepted.)  Plug-in candles in the windows were about as exciting as it got for many households, which was likely for the best (given how many falls are sustained each holiday season by heads of households teetering on ladders, icicle lights in hand, as the rest of the family shouts conflicting directions from the safety of the lawn.)

But back to the food and warmth.  As I recall, there used to be a lot of both, right at the heart of the holidays.  The Arts and Music took an honorary role as well, in the form of school plays and Christmas recitals, attended by parents who were willing to be enthusiastic about the performance, and who hopefully would not demand their money back afterwards from the music teacher.  The competition over whose mother made the best baked goods (washed down with punch at the reception following) was nearly as stiff as the auditions for coveted solos or the role of Santa Lucia. 

Another distinguishing feature of these Christmases Past was the general idea that someone (referred to as the “host” or “hostess”) provided not only the venue, but also the food, libations, and dessert, unless the event in questions was a cookie-exchange party (remember those?) Other people (referred to as “the guests”) were expected to RSVP, show up, enjoy (or pretend to enjoy) the offerings and company, and keep their children from destroying the house.  Then, of course, the guests had to host something in return, which sadly was already slipping into disuse way back in the ‘90s. 

The food at these parties of my childhood was rarely, if ever, photo-worthy.  Fortunately, no one had come up with the bright idea of taking pictures of food: one admired it (or not) and ate it (or not.)  Fairly simple.  Something happened to our food, though, when people armed with cameras and smartphones decided food had to look good, and that its chief role was not to be eaten, but to sit graciously for photographs, which were then filtered and touched up to elevate it from humble plate to lofty stardom.  Casseroles and dips, not to mention the ubiquitous jello-and-nut salads, wouldn’t have lent themselves to this photography at all well.  The hostess of the ‘90s would have been horrified if a guest had started snapping away at that steaming, gooey casserole, informing her it would soon be online for all to see (of course, not too many people had computers back then, now, did they?)

At roughly the same juncture, advertising took aim at those same friends’ homes, decreeing that white-on-white was the new standard, all the way down to the flooring.  The former hostess began looking at her shabby (but comfortable) plaid sofa (occupied by the family dog) and her gooey casserole with a cold eye.  If it wasn’t photo-ready, the advertisers argued, it wasn’t fit to be seen (or eaten) by anyone outside the immediate family.

Many families interpreted this decree in one of two ways: they either adopted the new prevailing standards of decor (thus necessitating the family dog to relocate to the pound), or they stopped having people (formerly known as “friends” or “neighbors”) into their homes at all.  The few that boldly pressed onward with entertaining on their plaid sofas should have been awarded a medal for their refusal to change with the times.  They also ended up with more than their fair share of friends and neighbors taking refuge at their hearth, at holidays and otherwise, as a last port of hospitality in the storm. 

So perhaps what happened to the food and warmth of Christmas happened on the other 364 days of the year too—one just suddenly noticed hospitality’s demise on the 25th of December more.  Without advocating for a move to Memory Lane, complete with margarine and cream-of-something soups, I propose that we step back from the brink of holiday financial ruin, towards a kinder, gentler form of celebration that includes modest presents, of course, but also the gift of feeding guests in one’s home. 

If, that is, you can find any of those harried, over-scheduled people we used to call “friends” and “neighbors” to invite.  If you track them down, you must then be able to endure the frustration of having exactly none of your guests RSVP, and the related possibility that none will arrive on the appointed day, either.  At least you and your family can enjoy the good food, even if everyone else is “too busy” with far more interesting things.

As far as the holiday entertaining menu goes, please put down that glossy food magazine you’re reading, and stop poring over those tempting, exotic photos of food online.  Those are all well and good, but on an average budget, with average skills, almost no home cook can produce the stunning results created by a professional chef, to whom such things are second-nature after years of dedication and struggle.  Not that we don’t obstinately try, of course (here I remember, with a shudder, the disaster of a sponge cake that was supposed to be Ye Olde Christmas Yule Log, which Ms. Julia Child assured me was simple to make.) What’s wrong with cookies and punch (provided you promise not to exact an admission fee of a plate of cookies per guest, unless, of course, it is a true cookie exchange)?  Or chips and dip?  Or cheeseballs and crackers (yes, I was pleased to see, in the New York Times, no less, that my favorite childhood treat is now back in vogue)? 

And what, for that matter, is wrong with our homes?  (Please excuse me while I rant a little here.)  It’s impractical to live in a house furnished and decorated right out of the pages out of a catalog, not to mention expensive.  The family dog vastly prefers the comfort of the worn sofa to the cold, hard floor of the pound, awaiting an uncertain future. Guests inevitably spill red wine on white furniture and carpeting (this is a Law of Nature.)  The only solution to all this chaos is to banish those messy animals and people entirely, leaving you alone with your wine and white furnishings, and the satisfaction that should one encounter the other it will be entirely your own fault.

Of course, opening the front door to guests is not without its risks, and not only to the furnishings.  For example: a friend of mine relays that once, upon a guest’s entering her home for a party, that woman cast a disparaging glance around and said bluntly, “Is this all?”  Sadly, the shocked hostess could not come up with a suitable reply (such as, “I’m terribly sorry you’re disappointed. Here, let me give you your coat and bag, I wouldn’t dream of keeping you.” The rude guest is then bundled back out the door.)  Instead, the poor hostess found herself apologizing for the state of her neat, cheerful home, and for the lack of more scintillating guests (and admittedly there were not many, since most of those invited had found more interesting things to do that day, such as staring at their walls, without notifying the poor hostess.)  Equally sadly, my friend reports that she hasn’t thrown a party since this unfortunate event, for fear of what the next guest will find fault with.

True hospitality, while risky business, is something money can never buy, even if few people in our consumer-driven culture recognize this fact.  One can do it on the (relatively) cheap, and if enough people of goodwill return to the tradition of holiday entertaining, possibly fewer will feel the need to buy quite so many presents (or gift cards), for themselves and others, as a poor substitute for what we used to refer to as “friendship.” 

All of this is obviously made more difficult if one lives hundreds of miles away from one’s friends and family, who are, these days, scattered like stars in the heavens.  Even the attitude in most, if not all, of our neighborhoods has changed: once we had the nosy neighbor who brought home-baked banana bread to satisfy her curiosity about that “new family” and went on to become fast friends; now we have a prevailing standard of “I’ll leave you alone if you’ll leave me alone.” (This injunction applies equally to the neighbor’s dog and teenagers, which means you are not to call the police when any of the above are making unwanted noise at two in the morning.) If people are curious about their neighbors now, why, they just look them up online and suddenly know far more than they’d like to about who bought that house on the corner.  The best one can hope for these days in the neighborhood is an incurious and quiet neighbor who has no dogs or children, but who cheerfully tolerates yours.

To summarize, the three major roadblocks to home entertaining, at the holidays and otherwise, are as follows:

1.  The uncomfortable feeling that your food is not “good enough.”

2.  The uncomfortable feeling that your home is not “good enough” (and, by extension, neither are any resident children, pets, etc.  Of course, if you have a large, elaborate house, you may run the risk of cowing your guests with your real estate and material goods, and the related risk of spending the entire party bragging about your shiny appliances and giving house tours.  While you most likely have worked very hard to obtain all those expensive things, unless you won the Lottery, of course, it is still Not Quite Nice.)

3.   The uncomfortable lack of friends in your geographic area to serve as guests, who might come only to criticize your food and/or home, if only you could find them in the first place.

4.   (I would also add a fourth point, even though I just said there were three.  Fourth is the uncomfortable “busyness” epidemic in our society.  Have you noticed that everyone is always too busy to do anything, unless they suddenly need your help moving or a babysitter?)

In the face of such modern challenges, the gracious holiday host or hostess should attempt to revive the old-fashioned and affordable art of simple home entertaining anyway.  Even if the results are mixed (and this could be the fault of the hosts, the guests, or an unfortunate combination of both), the genuine spirit of Christmas has at least been attempted, and one’s wallet is only slightly worse for the wear. 

My dear Grandmother had a sampler with this lovely old saying, which I will leave you with, hoping that it will inspire goodwill towards the men, women and children at your next holiday gathering:

 

There is so much good in the worst of us
And so much bad in the best of us
That it little behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.

 

             

                                                                                      Yours Truly,

                                                                                                    Sarah