Last week I was having coffee with a friend and we ran into a dad she knows from her kids’ school. Jenny, she said, This is Tom. He is the best dinner guest.
I learned also that he is a writer. A film professor at a nearby university. But that’s not what stayed with me. When I saw him the next weekend across the farmer’s market the first thing I thought was, There goes that great dinner guest.
Man, I hope people describe me that way. I know people describe my husband that way. I like to think we are invited back to people’s dining rooms and kitchens and patios because every time Andy takes a bite of food that someone has cooked for him he makes a big point of showing of how satisfying it is. It doesn’t even have to be particularly delicious — though he loves good food and when it’s good, the fork will drop and some gutteral sound will be uttered. Even if he’s eating a steak that is about as tender as a piece of cardboard, he’ll express genuine appreciation for what’s on his plate, for the fact that someone has spent time in the kitchen making something for him. The fact that someone planned a menu, went shopping for ingredients, and most likely spent one half of the day straightening up the house and the other half protecting the straightened-up house from being torpedoed by the kids.
When I was editing at Real Simple and Cookie, we’d get a ton of letters from parents asking for help teaching their kids table manners* but the story I really wanted to write was about grown-up table manners, specifically how to behave when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner. In my book it comes down to two basic rules. Rules so basic that they can be easy to forget.
1) Again, acknowledge the food you are eating. Even if it’s not good. Even if you are at this family’s house every single Sunday and have been for most of your adult life. Where do you buy beluga lentils? Where’d you find this oyster-fennel-hot pepper pilaf recipe? How did you get this sauce to be so good without butter? What is in the dressing on this salad? Man, this brownie is all about that hint of sea salt. I have to say, I don’t think there’s anything stranger than cooking for someone who sits through a whole meal without mentioning the meal in front of him. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you have to be a food writer to feel this way.
2) Acknowledge the event the next day. Give your host a call. A voice-mail is sufficient if no one answers. Send an email. It can be one line. It can be three pages long. The same friend who I was having coffee with sent me the most thoughtful note the morning after we grilled up some yogurt-marinated chicken for her and her husband. “It was so fun to see the set of Dinner: A Love Story,” she wrote. “I felt very backstage and glamorous!” She went on to praise the meal, my family, and even suggest a few ideas for DALS.
It sounds kinda narcissistic — the need to be acknowledged and praised — but it’s not about telling the host how great she is. You don’t have to lie and say the food is the best thing you’ve ever eaten and her family is otherworldly and their house is what you dream about when you fall asleep at night. But a meal is a kind of gift and it’s not cool to forget to say thanks.
*My favorite solution is up in that picture: Add a marble to a glass jar every time the kids make it through a meal without being told to “sit up straight” or “use your fork,” or “use your napkin” or “stop wiping the bacon grease on that perfectly beautiful Petit Bateau dress your aunt just gave you yesterday for crying out loud.” Or, um, whatever. When the jar is filled, they get to go out to dinner and pick the restaurant.