Manner Matters: Don't Cook at My Dinner Party!

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

Here's something that's been bothering me: guests that ask what they can bring, and then show up with a grocery bag and expect to prep/assemble/cook the dish at my house while I'm preparing the rest of the meal. I've had this happen several times recently, and it drives me nuts. I'm a very neat, organized cook, and our kitchen, dining room, and living room are all one open space so it's very important to me that the kitchen is kept nice when entertaining. Having a guest come in and make a huge mess and a lot of chaos is incredibly disruptive, but how does one discourage that? I've tried saying nicely, "Please bring an appetizer that is ready to serve when you arrive," but that didn't work. I've pretty much taken to just asking guests to bring drinks, but sometimes they really WANT to bring a dish, and we're back to the same issue.

Please advise,

Keep Out of My Kitchen

Dear Keep Out of My Kitchen,

Oh man, do I hear you. Unless I'm laid up recovering from surgery and you're coming over to grill lamb kebabs and throw together a couscous salad for me like my cousin Sam once did, absolutely do not show up at my house with a bag of groceries expecting access to my kitchen.

I sometimes feel alone in my dislike of the generalized potlucking of dinner parties. While everyone around me joyously offers to bring a side dish or solicits carried-in salads, I'm thinking that I either want to plan and cook the entire dinner, or I'd rather not give it a thought until I ring someone else's doorbell. The whole asking-to-bring-things dance exhausts me, and I sometimes yearn for the guests of yesteryear, who knew to bring a host gift (like flowers) and send a thank-you note the next day.

When people ask what they can bring, I go with drinks. When they insist, I insist right back. There are several ways to do this.

First, you can be honest. You plan and cook in a particular way and you don't like having it disrupted. This works well if you can be a tad self-deprecating in the process, perhaps referring to yourself as a bit of a control freak for good measure.

Second, you can emphasize that you've already planned the menu and you're excited about it. It's all done! There's nothing to add! If they could bring drinks that would be super helpful! I've also found that outsourcing the task of picking up something fairly innocuous, like bread, can work nicely with people who really want to feel like they're helping.

Third, simply keep track of which of your guests can be relied upon to show up with food ready-to-go and allow them to do so.

There is, as I'm sure many readers will point out, another tactic. You could decide that you and I are entirely too uptight. You could let your kitchen get messy and chaotic. You could loosen up, embrace the living-in-the-moment aspect of entertaining, and know that people enjoy a gathering for many reasons, but rarely the neatness of the kitchen.

This last approach is beyond my own abilities, but I know it's probably the better, more generous course. If you happen to be a better person than I and more capable of change, my hat is off to you.

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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Check out her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.

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