The etiquette of pot luck parties

December 29th, 2014

These parties are always great fun and share out the workload amongst the guests. Follow these tips to make sure you have more than luck on your side.

Organise The usual custom is for whoever is hosting the party to co-ordinate who brings what. You don’t want to end up with four lasagnas. Some use a group email to liaise with their guests as to who brings what, others just straight up tell people what to bring. Opt for whatever works for you and cause the minimal amount of confusion for guests.

Cater for everyone Make sure every guests’ dietary requirement can be accommodated. If you have a guest who is vegan, lactose intolerant as well as allergic to nuts then get them to bring a dish that they can eat and they will have to make do with that plus the salad for the evening (remember – whilst the food is always nice to eat, the main point is the socialising).

A theme, perhaps? Veteran potluck hosts will introduce a theme after a while to make things more interesting and to help avoid that feeling of de ja vu. Always keep in mind your guests’ cooking abilities and budgets. Some usual and more unusual themes include: Greek, Italian, desserts-only and an under the sea theme.

Check your equipment Is someone doing a soup? Do you, as host, have soup bowls and spoons? If not, tell them. They can bring their own or they may have to hire them in (or not do soup!) Think about your oven space as well and get guests to let you know how they intend to cook and serve their dish. Potlucks do require planning!

Come prepared Similarly, good potluck guests know that part of the deal is bringing their own stuff for their dish that they will have to clean and deal with when they get back to their house. Bring your own trivet or heatproof matt, too, to place under your dish if needed.

Plates vs bowls To be honest, even though we have already mentioned soup, that’s a bit of a nuisance to bring to a potluck party. Ideally, everything should be eaten off a plate. If it needs a bowl, forget it. Save that recipe for your next dinner party.

Is it appetising? People don’t have to try your dish. It’s buffet style so you want your dish to look appetising. Know your crowd and avoid doing things that are super garlicky, overly spicy or contain weird ingredients.

Don’t forget the veg Many potlucks I have been to are awash with meaty, creamy and heavy dishes. What was lacking from most is a nice crunchy vegetable dish, salad or lighter accompaniment. These are just as important as the main dishes.

Label it Hosts should provide food flags or tented cards to place in front of each dish to label what it is, together with any key ingredients that those will allergies need to know about (i.e. contains meat, fish, nuts, dairy etc).

Guests don’t have to bring food Task a guest or two with bringing the drink, maybe even paper napkins, decorations, the flowers or candles. (Hint: this is a good trick for those who aren’t known for exemplar cooking skills!)

Originally written for the Middle East’s leading lifestyle magazine ‘Fatafeat’ (November 2015 edition).

Being a good houseguest

May 18th, 2014

Here’s the next column I wrote for the Middle East’s leading lifestyle magazine ‘Fatafeat’ – this time on good manners for houseguests. 

1) Allergies Upon accepting the invitation to stay, you must alert your hosts to any allergies or intolerances you may have – this can range from being gluten-free, to being deathly allergic to feather. If you do have known medical bedding-related conditions then it may be a polite thing to suggest you bring your own pillows or bedding, should your hosts not have any synthetic fibre equivalents. Failing that, invest in some allergy-proof encasements (special pillow protectors).

TIP FOR HOSTS: If you have the space and budget, keeping some hypoallergenic or fully allergy-proof bedding for sensitive guests is always a good idea. Washing bedding with non-biological washing detergent is also good practice as biological detergents can make people’s skin break out in rashes.

2) Hostess gift Never turn up empty handed if you are staying at someone’s house. If you are staying for longer than one night then your gift should reflect this.

3) Don’t be late for breakfast! I get sent many questions from hosts who are always a little annoyed when guests fail to show for breakfast. If your host says ‘would you like breakfast at 8am tomorrow?’ then it probably is not a proper question, more of a rhetorical one. This means you show up just before the stated time, pressed, dressed and ready to eat.

William making a bed4) Help! No one is ever too grand to offer help to the hosts, and hopefully no host will ever be too grand to continually refuse it. Ask to help set the table, or help wash or dry up after dinner. If you are staying for more than four days, you should not expect your hosts to foot the bill for all meals. Instead, offer to cook (and buy the ingredients) or, better still, invite them out to a local restaurant as your guests.

5) Damage If you break it, you pay for it. Simple! Although some hosts will graciously decline your offer to remunerate them for the cracked vase, or irrecoverably stained towel, your gesture should be noted and appreciated.

6) Offering to strip the bed When you leave, thoughtful guests will ask whether they should strip the bed before leaving – regardless of who the guest is, or how many staff the house has. Good hosts will never dream of asking guests to do this, but should appreciate the offer of help. And it goes without saying that you should leave the room tidy.

7) Guest expectations Don’t expect your hosts to entertain you all day, all night. You should have your own itinerary planned and ideally spend at least one day totally out of the house to give your hosts time to breathe and get on with any jobs or chores that have been left untouched since your arrival. It is the rare houseguest that realises how much effort good hosts put in to looking after them.

TIP FOR HOSTS: Have a selection of flyers of local tourist attractions, a list of good restaurants, nearby shops, and a map of the area easily to hand – even pop it discreetly in your guests’ room.

8) Tipping staff If you are staying in a house with staff, especially staff that have been looking after you and your room, then in many houses it is the done thing to leave a tip for them when you leave. Ask your hostess whether this is all right and if so, what amount she suggests.

9) Two-sided thank you letter Once you are back in your own house, the writing paper and fountain pen should come out for you to write your thank you letter. For overnight stays, two sides is the key. One-sided letters are for thanking for presents and dinners.

10) Reciprocal hospitality I always say, never stay with people who you would not want to come and stay at your own house. Guests need to be prepared to play hosts whenever the time comes. Upon departure, make it clear to your hosts that you are more than happy to have them come to stay whenever they like.

Good guest graces

April 13th, 2014

I am fortunate to write a monthly column for the Middle East’s leading lifestyle & food magazine ‘Fatafeat’ (Arabic word for ‘crumbs’) .  Below is what I wrote for then in March on good guest graces. 

1) Accept on time!  When you receive an invitation via the post, email or (sadly) Facebook, it is your duty as a guest to reply on time.  Don’t dilly-dally as to whether you want to go or not – make your mind up, post haste, and let your host know.  They will want to finalise numbers for catering purposes.  Up to three days is normally your window for replying.

2) Note the dress code.  Even casual invitations on Facebook may come with a word about what you as guests are expected to wear.  Don’t play fast and lose with it, stick to what it says.  If a host has been unfair and stated a dress code that no one other than they know what it means then it is perfectly fine for you to call ahead and ask them to clarify.

3) Arrive on time!  Did you know that different countries have different expectations when it comes to timekeeping?  In much of the Western world, if an invitation says 7.30pm then good guests will arrive from 7.40pm, arriving no later than 7.50pm.  Yet in other parts of the world, timekeeping is less of priority.  If you have been invited to a Westerner’s house then perhaps be aware that you won’t be able to get away with arriving forty-five minutes after the printed time.

4) Hostess gift.  Turning up to anyone’s house for a party empty handed is very bad form.  If the host has gone to the lengths of putting out the best silver, buffing up the cut-glass goblets and serving delectable munchiettes for you then the least you can do is present something upon arrival to say thank you.  Chocolates are the internationally acceptable gift.  Flowers are good too, but send them in advance so the host can display them ready for the party – rather than have to worry about putting them in water when you arrive: avoid showing up with a job!  Did you know?  If you are attending an event in Japan you could turn up with a steak!

5) Receiving lines.  At some of the grander parties, weddings or balls the guests will be expected to enter a receiving line.  This is where the hosts and principal guests will be lined up and guests presented to each one.  A good way to ensure they see each guest.  What you need to remember is you should not start a conversation with anyone in the line-up.  A few polite words by way of a greeting is all.  ‘Good evening, thank you for having me’ is ideal.  Anymore and your fellow attendees won’t thank you as you’ll hold up the line.

6) Greeting the host.  For less formal parties, it’s a safe bet that there wont be a receiving line.  If your hosts have not greeted you at the door then you should ensure you find them pronto and let them know you’re here.  But by all means acknowledge and have the scantest of chats with friends you pass as you make a beeline for the hosts.

7) Mingle!  It’s very tempting to stand and chat to one or two guests you are getting on well with all evening, but avoid this.  Talk to as many people as possible.  15 minutes should be the limit for conversation with one particular set of guests.  Good hosts should be circulating too and mixing everyone up.  You never know – your next romance or best friend could be in the room!

8) Knowing when to leave.  The best guests do not stay until the bitter end, however scintillating the socialising may be.  Judge when it is best to leave.  Drinks parties usually last for a couple of hours, so leave twenty to fifteen minutes before the two hours is up.  Dinners will vary based on service, but once the hosts or their staff stop offering things then it’s probably a good idea to make tracks.

9) Thank you letters.  These are not a luxury but a MUST!  The best of guests will put pen to paper the day after a party and write to say thank you to the host – even if it was a disaster (although this is where diplomatic phrasing comes into full force!)  One side of writing paper for a party, two sides for when you have been a houseguest.

10) Reciprocal entertaining.  If you have received entertainment from someone, it is polite to reciprocate within six months.  For the socially very popular, I suggest a little log of who you owe hospitality to keep you from forgetting.  If you owe a lot of people a reciprocal party you could always hold a drinks party and/or buffet (rather than numerous smaller dinners) and then your whole list is sorted in one evening.