Friday Off-Topic: 5 Alternate Responses to Globe & Mail Advice Seekers

I long ago learned that, when Tina and I are watching any kind of cooking show, she is not in it to stand by and passively absorb… oh no, not at all.  She will casually identify a recipe entire minutes before Alton Brown deduces it on Iron Chef America; she’ll casually pick apart Bobby Flay’s techniques when he’s trying desperately to keep up with someone on Throwdown; she’ll sort of shake her head sadly at just about anything Claire Robinson does.

My point isn’t that cooking shows fail to entertain Tina — our groaning-at-the-seams PVR would stand in evidence against that, if nothing else — but rather that the source of her joy is in the second-guessing, in matching her wits and knowledge against the people who somehow ended up on TV, and now dare to presume to tell her how to do things.  It is a process of rather more active learning than I have seen before, and she engages in it full-heartedly:  the dismay in her expression when she catches Roger Mooking cutting corners is enough to bring a tear to your eye, I’m telling you.

I have a similar thing, but not with cooking shows, because I honestly don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time.  It’s possible that food comes into the kitchen in one form, and exits in a slightly more improved condition, but I do not credit that to myself in the slightest.  If there are words on a page that say I have to set fire to the neighbors’ shed to make sure my potatoes turn out okay, I won’t even question it — I’ll just check to see if the recipe calls for a certain amount of gasoline before I go get the job done.

Where I do get all lathered up, though, is on etiquette.  I absolutely love to read advice columns about hosting, with the sort of fervor that probably shouldn’t exist in a 33 year-old who likes videogames as much as I do.  But it’s there, and it’s passionate, and whenever I read advice columns I constantly find myself shaking the page in outrage, as there are just better ways of going about it than these people offer.

Tina thinks I’m crazy and a little bit hypocritical, given that I will stand in the hallway of our house, in full view of all windows, and actively ignore people who’ve just rung the doorbell.  Which, yeah, but just because I’m a misanthrope doesn’t mean I don’t know how other people should act!  There is A DIFFERENCE.

So, because it’s the Friday before a long weekend in many parts of our thawing-but-not-yet-springlike nation, I thought I’d get a bit of this out of my system by offering my alternate responses to questions that have appeared in the Globe & Mail Entertaining Q&A’s columnNOTE: I hold no personal issue with Chris Nuttall-Smith, and view him as a very competent columnist.  I just have a better answer than him sometimes.

Like these five times, specifically:

1. My sister-in-law insists on washing up, but leaves a mess

The question from the reader is about how, when they invite his wife’s sister over for dinner, she insists against all objections on making an effort to clean up the kitchen.  Unfortunately she’s terrible at it, and apparently makes a bigger mess than the one she’s trying to clean up.  Reader’s wife says, “Just let it happen.”  He looks to the columnist for validation, who suggests hiding all the cleaning supplies or just letting her go through with it.

My answer is, my God, how awful would this woman feel if she knew that someone was bitching about her like this in a newspaper (if anyone read them any more)?  Clearly this is a person who feels obliged to make some kind of contribution to the evening, however bumbling and ineffectual.  That she would choose one of the least-rewarding and loathsome tasks (i.e. cleaning up the then-crusty dishes and pans) means that she isn’t in for some trivial task — she genuinely wants to help, and is willing to participate in the crappiest part of the night to do it.

That the Reader cannot accept this has more to do, I think, with his preoccupation with his sister-in-law doing it wrong than anything else.  So instead of confronting her on clean-up, why not offer her some other role in the party that might more adequately fit her skill set?  She could be put on wine-refilling duty, on appetizer re-stocking detail, on go-get-extra-wine-we-ran-out missions… the work is endless at a dinner, so why not involve those who want to help in a constructive way?  Then she gets to feel like she’s done her part, the Reader gets to exert the apparently significant control he requires, and the dishes end up as clean as they’re supposed to be.

2. How do I politely decline dinner-party leftovers?

Reader asks by what means can a person politely decline leftovers, knowing that they will only be brought home to rot in their refrigerator.  The columnist offers a few half-hearted lines, but ultimately advises that one should knuckle under rather than unintentionally implying that the meal was crappy.

My answer is that wow, these people have never been to a meal at my family’s house.  When my parents prepare a meal for our extended family, they start by closing their eyes and imagining an entire division of Marines, who have just stormed a beach and are now — having sated their appetite for victory — hungry for food.  Every host who has put together more than one dinner party knows that preparing too much is far preferable to running out, and so when you’re waving goodbye to twelve people at the end of the night, they had better be waving back with the hand that isn’t holding at least three things.

In other words, at the end of the night when you’re looking down at the bundle of appetizers, dinner and dessert that’s been given to you, it shouldn’t be thought of as extras that are being fobbed off.  Instead, realize that it was food made specifically for you, just in case you wanted it, by people who did their best to make sure you wouldn’t go without.

And also:  leftovers are what freezers and/or dogs and/or lonely nights alone are for.  Everyone has at least one those, if not more.

3. Is it gauche to serve tap water to guests?

A reader writes in to complain that one of their friends say serving tapwater to their guests is gauche, a cutting enough insult that it requires external arbitration.  The columnist suggests that lazy may be a better term, and explains in detail why buying a filtering pitcher for $20, or indeed a carbonation unit for $100, would solve this problem.  Also sticking lemons or cucumbers in the water were a suitable response, somehow.

My answer is yes.  Yup.  Uh-huh.  The only people to whom you should serve tap water are those who say, “Oh no, don’t worry about it — water from the tap is fine.”  They may be every single person who come through your door, but the important thing is that you let them decide whether they want to drink whatever is coming out of your sink.  Bottled water from a Costco costs less than the fuel required to drive there, and upgrading to a case of Perrier is a nominal increase at best.  If you’re hosting a large group of people, and your intent is to impress and make them comfortable, it’s a totally reasonable investment.

Plus, leftover Perrier goes great in cocktails.  Dual-purpose!

4. We got sick after a dinner party. Should we let the host know?

The question: The reader and his/her partner got sick (squirty, barfy sick) after having chicken at the partner’s colleague’s house.  The very thought of the meal gives them post-traumatic meal stress, and so they wonder whether they should tell the host.  The columnist responds by saying that unless you know for sure, you should never say so; but if the host got sick, they should get on the horn and start apologizing.

My answer is that before anyone even consider picking up the phone, should their first thought really be, Do I have the burden of proof on my side, here?

Let’s assume the worst-case scenario, that your significant-other’s working colleague put together some kind of horrifying conflagration of chicken and disease.  They proceeded to serve it to you at a social gathering, I assume not designed to bring about your discomfort or imminent demise, after which you go home and wake up with the kind of gut-churning agony usually reserved for the fourth night at a Caribbean all-inclusive.  Take all that as read, that you experienced awful discomfort and that the food was to blame.

What possible good is telling the host going to do?  Yes!  As a guest you underwent the terrible consequences of food poisoning, and accounts must be settled on that score!  But what actual change can you bring about as the result of a phone call?  Imagine its progress:

You: Hello, host and working colleague of my significant other, how are you?

Host: I am well, how are you!

You: Not so good, in fact. I have spent much of this Wednesday losing significant weight thanks to a terrible illness.

Host: That’s awful!  I’m so sorry to hear it!

You: Yes, indeed.  The thing is, I feel with some certainty that it was your poultry that brought about my sickness.  I… just thought you should know.  That through your cooking, the food that you served a group of people in your home, I have undergone considerable distress.


You: … and… well you should?

Fact is, unless you are powered by significant enough rage, this is a conversation that will rapidly go nowhere.  The host will apologize, you will apologize for making them apologize — you weren’t looking for an apology! (yes you were) — and the likelihood that their food safety practices will improve are pretty slim.

MUCH SIMPLER:  Politely decline future dinner invitations.

5. How fancy can I get, cooking for my boyfriend’s parents?

The reader writes in with the simple question:  I’m having my boyfriend’s parents over for dinner for the first time; how fancy should I get?  The columnist does his best to pad the column by imagining any number of relationships the reader may have with said potential in-laws, before advising her to just go with, you know, whatever’s comfortable.

My answer is that if you’re at the point where your boyfriend’s parents are coming over to your house, you know them to some degree — and now’s your chance to show it.  Unless your boyfriend has decided to totally throw you under the bus, there have already been dinners out, and maybe even dinners over at their place from which you can draw all the data you need.  Let’s face it!  The first dinners you have with your significant other’s parents are going to be spent talking about the food, at least for a significant portion, because it is the safest possible topic.  What you glean from those evenings is everything you need to knock it out of the park now.

Best case: You have accurately captured their preferences, interests and appetites and combine them into a meal that appeals to your boyfriend’s parents on a genetic level.

Worst case: You cobble together a ramshackle series of appetizers, salads and entrees based entirely on what you’ve seen them eat in the past.

Either way: They will see, unless they are critical awful people, that you have been doing your utmost to learn about who they are and what they like.

The important thing is that food is a means to an end, a way for you to give something to the people you’ve invited into your home.  If you show that you’ve made an effort to know them, and that you’re excited about getting to know them better, then you’ll have done the best you can.

Anyway, see?  It’s way fun second-guessing advice columnists, isn’t it?  Do you have similarly column-friendly etiquette questions that you would feel tempted to squander on some local print rag that will only use you and not call you the next day?  Wouldn’t you rather share them with us directly?

We think you would.  And if not that, then go ahead and third-guess me in the comments — that’s what this process is all about.

Happy gossipy Friday, everyone!

  • Hebby

    Got to disagree with the tapwater thing. Partly, this is because 40% of bottle water is actually filtered tapwater (in the USA, at least– may differ for other countries), which is then sold for about 1000 times the cost. Partly, it’s because it takes 3 litres of water to produce a 1-litre bottle, which is just so wasteful. Unless your tapwater tastes bad, why not? Still bottled water seems pointless, an unnecessary expense, bad for the environment and wasteful.

    Fizzy water is different, though. That, you pretty much have to buy in.

    • Mike

      Oh, I know it’s a hideous waste — all you have to do is look at your recycling bin at the end of the night to see that. But hosting is fraught with stupid, wasteful things that are done to make your guests feel comfortable, because otherwise you’re making assumptions about them, which is what leads to irritating post-dinner gossip.

      “Did you see how they gave us paper napkins? And then filled the pitcher with tap water? I didn’t know they were experiencing financial difficulties!

      Easier to make a brief moral compromise, spring for a $2 six-pack of Aquafina, and get on with things.

      • Hellcat13

        We are devious. We have one of those big water jug cooler thingies – which we refill with tap water. Our water tastes fine (I am a well-water snob, so for me to admit city water tastes fine is saying something). No one is the wiser. No bottled-water guilt.

  • mamashack

    I get around that by using britta water and carbonating in my soda stream. No recyling box full of bottles and nobody watching me pour them tap water lol!
    I was awarded a stylish blog award yesterday and now I am supposed to pass it on to the blogs that I am loving and I love your blog, so here you go!

  • Jessica

    I rolled my eyes at the start of this post, but for the most part I think your advice is spot on (especially for the first question), but I’m gonna agree with the other commenters that tap water is fine! A filter is a great choice if your water doesn’t taste great, or a big water jug, or, a couple of hours before dinner, fill up a couple of decanters or carafes and stick ’em in the fridge! In my book, bottled water should be a last resort.

  • Steven Ebia

    Howdy! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly enjoy reading through your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics? Thanks!