A little something I wrote for The Age Good Food section.
How to be a good 21st-century dinner guest
Been invited to a dinner party lately? Probably not. In the olden days people threw them with linen napkins, man-woman-man seating arrangements and a proper cheese course. Nowadays it’s all, “Pop over Friday – I’ll cook!” and the host will unfurl some parma ham, open some dip and call it mezze. While today’s dinner gatherings are less formal than those of yore, there’s still a protocol, some elements of which are timeless classics while others are contemporary evolutions. Here’s how to be a good 21st-century dinner guest.
Arriving is important. While this may sound obvious, when you’re on the couch in your booties, Netflix and cheese toast looks very inviting. It would be so easy to hide behind a text message – Hey. soz not feeling well. Won’t make it tonight. Burgers next Fri? – but unless you’ve come down with the plague and have a medical certificate to prove it, once you’ve accepted the invitation attendance is a non-negotiable. Your host has factored you in when buying Phillippa’s herbed spiced mixed nuts ($15.50 per 300g!) and that salmon fillet wasn’t cheap either. Ideally, you’ll be 15 minutes late too, to ensure your host has had ample time to get back from an eleventh-hour bog roll run.
“Don’t bring anything” is of course polite for “bring something, and make it something decent”. Flowers? Perhaps, but choose something petite and boxed – your host doesn’t have a bucket big enough to house that triffid-like monstrosity. Good olive oil, honey or wine are practical (and remember the wine is a gift and not to be swigged on the way there or ogled when your own supplies have dwindled). Whatever you bring, just make sure it doesn’t need close attention – like a goldfish or a gluten-intolerant uninvited plus one.
A good guest offers to help and will ferry plates, get drinks for others and make inoffensive conversation. A bad guest will offer to help, then plonk their Jabba the Hut-like frame in front of the fridge and subject the host to a series of complex open-ended questions.
Unless you are on call for a heart transplant or to foil a massive terror plot, leave your phone tucked away. If you start to twitch from withdrawal, don’t try the sneaky phone-in-the-lap swipe – the ghoulish glow on your face is a dead giveaway. Rather, excuse yourself to the bathroom.
You need everyone’s written consent to post their photo online, and passing around permission slips can devastate the ambience. Posting a photo of the Mexican share feast may seem harmless enough, but what if Ethel wasn’t invited and now your host is up sh*t creek? Or you’ve selected the photo in which you’re all cheekbones and white teeth, but Bernadette’s muffin top is hanging out. Perhaps Paul told his partner he was helping out at the local orphanage and there he is shoving quesadillas down his neck. On the other hand, not Instagramming the main course could offend your host. There are booby traps everywhere in the social media landscape – best leave the selfie stick at home.
Say it’s delicious. End of. Sure, your hosts will claim that dinner was no trouble at all, but in reality they are spiritually broken from all the effort of creating an appearance of effortlessness. Try not to look judgmental when the Uber Eats driver arrives at the door or, if your host has accidentally served up the rubber band that trussed the Woolworths roast chicken’s legs together, chew hard, swallow and smile.
Read the signs: is your host openly yawning and stacking plates? Eyes travelling in a southerly direction toward their watch, or far north at your conversation? If so, that’s your cue to skedaddle.
Say thank you
Text or email a thank you within 24 hours. Try to be specific about the parts you enjoyed. Was it the scintillating company? The after-dinner mints? All the attention when you choked on a pea and had to be resuscitated? Here’s a template:
Dear Mary, Thank you so much for inviting James and me. You have always been an outstanding cook, but you really outdid yourself with the olives. It was great to meet Louise. What a coincidence that she and my James were an item way back in primary school… So sweet. And Meowbert’s attack was far worse than it looked. The doctor says the stitches can come out next week – I just hope you can get the blood stains off the ceiling! Our turn next time! Love, xxx.