Thursday, 2 December 2010

Christmas special #1: Hosting the Day

Welcome to the first of my series of festive posts, which will continue until I run out of inspiration, or until December 24th - whichever comes sooner.

Today: some words for those who are hosting Christmas Eve, Day or Boxing Day and are scared rigid at the prospect and wish they'd never offered.

I freely admit that I am naturally a very bad hostess. The worst. From the smallest dinners to huge parties I have always been uptight, nervous and *this* close to tears. But over the last year, I've forced myself to do it so much that I've collected a series of tactics that makes things go easier both for me and for my guests. I now actually quite like it.

I've also canvassed the opinion of YOU, my readers, about what makes a good and a bad host and I've thrown in all your suggestions.

Your second biggest gripe is a stressed-out host. (For your top gripe, see Tip 15) And how right you are.

At any function the host sets the atmosphere. You are in charge, whether you like it or not. It's like when you're on an airplane and it's being a bit wobbly and everyone cranes their necks to see the expression on the stewardesses' face. If she looks calm, you feel calm. If she looks worried, you feel like puking.

So, get this into your head: this is not a film and your anxiety is not an adorable idiosyncrasy - it freaks everyone out. And it won't make anything run more smoothly or prevent anything from going wrong.

I'm not saying don't be anxious, because of course you're going to be anxious. I'm just saying pretend you're not. Dissemble. Act. Lie.

When you find yourself alone at various points in the day, take a calming breath. Force yourself to walk more slowly round the house than you feel like, rather than marching from room to room, breathlessly shoving plates of smoked salmon under people's noses and screaming "NOTHER DRINK?!?!?" before running back to the kitchen hissing "Fucking fucking fucking HELL...".

Other top tips are:

1 Light a lot of candles. And they're not just for the evening, as long as you compensate by not having overhead lights on. If you're into ordering stuff in advance, Price's has a good website. Just put them anywhere that they're not going to set fire to the curtains. Place in groups of three or five. Instant loveliness.

2 It's always surprising how few people have music on when they're "entertaining" (retch). Something - anything - pootling along in the background is instant atmosphere, especially in that inital critical 45 minutes. I am tone deaf and don't have a clue about music, but find having something on when people are round makes a huge difference.

3 Attempt to stay sober until you sit down to the main event. You've got a better chance of achieving this if you don't drink anything at all until you do sit down. After that point, get as ratarsed as you like. In fact, see how ratarsed you can get.

4 Think about heating. When it's just you in your house/flat, it will feel cold. When there are 5 other people in there with you, plus the oven on and the hob blazing, it will heat up very fast, so don't have the place greenhouse hot from the word go becase people will start fainting and you'll go magenta.

5 I know it sounds really obvious, but think about where you're going to put coats - even if it's just over a chair in the corner.

6 When people arrive, a surprising number always want a glass of water. You can, if you like, just fill a chipped Homer Simpson mug from the tap and hold it out, dripping - a lot of people would think that was frightfully smart - but I think it makes people feel more loved if there's a jug of water and a clean glass available.

It is also hard to overstate the importance of taking people's coats and getting a drink in their hands as quickly as possible after they've arrived. I mean, without actually ripping off their jacket or running out into the hall with a gin and tonic.

I know a girl who never offers you anything when you go round to her house, ever. Nor does she tell you where you can put your coat. It's only because she expects you to make yourself at home and just help yourself to whatever you want - but the effect is, in fact, monstrously inhospitable.

7 At any kind of party, you will go through a lot of loo roll. So have at least 2 spare in the bog.

8 Don't cook anything you haven't cooked before. And I mean it - this is really important. If you've never made roast potatoes, or honeyed parsnips - or anything else you want to do - use the next 3 weeks to give them a small trial-run. The recipe will tell you it's easy. And it might be if you're not cooking anything else, but with other stuff on the go it'll suddenly be like taking History A Level in Russian.

The one exception is the turkey; with that you just need to follow the cooking timings, which it ought to come with or you can seek out advice from Hugh F-W, or Nigella, or Jamie. People make a lot of fuss about cooking a turkey, but its mythical difficulty comes from the days when people used to buy them frozen and not defrost them in time. Just make bloody sure that it'll fit in your oven.

If you don't have a good timer, that does minutes and seconds and does a loud bleeping thingy, now is the time to purchase one.

9 It is perfectly acceptable to buy the following:

- Bread sauce
- Cranberry sauce
- Christmas pudding
- Christmas cake
- Brandy butter

I am the first person to scream in disgust at shop-bought stuff, but at Christmas, all bets are off. Yeah fine, kill yourself making all these from scratch if you like, but no-one will know or care if those things are bought.

Obviously, don't be a dick about it: get top quality stuff - I can make suggestions if you like - and don't leave the buying of it until 5pm Christmas Eve.

It is not acceptable to buy:

- Pre-roasted potatoes
- Pre-peeled carrots
- Stuffing
- Gravy

People will know. And they will judge you.

10 Overcater

11 It might seem cool and relaxed to let people sit wherever they like, but actually it fills most people with fear and option paralysis. Me? I love a place card - for dinners for more than 6 I always use them. Luckily, I don't give a damn if people think I'm naff, but you might - and they do make most people cringe.

My brother-in-law once bought 12 lottery tickets and wrote everyone's names on the bottom and used them for placecards, which I thought was brilliant.

Anyway, don't use them if you don't want to, but at least have an idea of where people ought to sit. They like it - and I know that for a fact because you've all mostly said you like it. It's especially vital at Christmas as if you know someone's going to be unhappy sitting next to a particular person, you can separate them.

12 Let's talk about portion control. Yes, it's Christmas and yes, it's a time for overindulgence, but at the same time, people like being able to take as much as they want - and by that I mean as little as they want. It's a bit overwhelming to be handed a plate literally towering with food.

So carve up your bird and give everyone a few slices and then if you can make space, put dishes of veg and sauces on the table so that people can help themselves. People will eat more in the long-run if initially handed the food reins.

13 Now let's talk about booze. At a large gathering, you can't be expected to be constantly filling up everyone's glass - plus I feel about booze the same way I feel about food - people ought to be given control over their alcohol intake. YES it's Christmas and YES it's a time for overindulgence, but getting more pissed than you want because your host keeps filling your glass when you're not looking is really annoying. Especially if you have to operate heavy machinery later.

The vital thing is for there to be a lot of booze available. It should not run out. Ever. What you can do, if you're so inclined, is to say to everyone as you press their first drink on them: "Please do me a massive fave and help yourself to more drink...?" OR say to one or two key helpful sorts: "Would you help me keep an eye on everyone's glass?"

14 You probably don't salt your food enough when you're cooking, because pretty much no-one does. So it's really important to make salt and pepper available on the table and don't, for God's sake, take offence if someone seasons their food. I am, obviously, a massive snob about salt and pepper. Maldon salt in some kind of dish or bowl and black pepper in a grinder is the only thing I think is okay - but LoSalt in a big plastic thingy and ground pepper out of a jar is better than nothing.

15 Okay, this is it. Here it is. Ready?

Your top, Number 1 most hated thing is.... hosts complaining about their own food. *Tsh*

So when the food is out and everyone's tucking in and someone says "This is brilliant, thanks so much for all your hard work," YOU SAY (repeat after me)

"Thanks! Yeah it's worked out okay. Merry Christmas!"

It's very hard to say this when in your head you're screaming "FUCK FUCK FUCK THIS IS A BIT COLD" but you must hold it in and start making conversation about absolutely anything other than the food.

Do not say:

"Chuh took fucking long enough"
"Chuh yeah sorry sprouts bit burnt"
"Oh God this is such a disaster"

Just don't, okay? Every cook - you, me, Delia, my mum, Giles - feels compelled to apologise for something as they present food and it's really annoying and everyone hates it. So. Just. Don't.

Next time: Devils on Horseback


  1. Oh, thank god and all his angels in heaven for this list. I'm not taking the p*** here, I really mean it. I'm crap at hosting, I can do the cooking bit but I can't handle the people. The drinks. The coats...

  2. utterly, utterly brilliant and essential.

    I'm criminal at point 15. Good to know it's annoying.

  3. Thanks, great list :) I go into overdrive and start behaving like it's a logistical experiment. It's really bad because people talk to me and sometimes I can't quite manage a sensible reply because too much is happening in my head. It's easier with more people though, a nightmare with just one!

  4. I must say I'm usually good at being a host (I'm crap at impromptu dinners, mind) .. but I hate when I go to dinners and the host is in the kitchen the entire night and stressed to the eyeballs.
    Best tips is plan, plan, plan, write lists and a time plan for big dinners, and pre-prepare as much as you can. Chop all the veg and keep in water in the fridge. When it comes to drinks, just allocate someone to do it for the night (I always give my boyfriend the job as he's a useless cook)
    And instead of making lots of different things, make lots of a few things - keep it simple otherwise you'll go mental.
    Love your blog Esther - it's the only food blog I read

  5. Thanks Catherine. I very much approve of your confident declaration of good hosting skills, it's the first step anywhere. And they do sound VERY good. I haven't heard that one about chopping veg and keeping in water in the fridge. Good one.

  6. I love your list Esther but I imagine you dressed in a starched 50's full skirt and pinafore with way too much rouge on your face and a dusting of flour on the end of your nose a la Lucille Ball... making endless lists and speaking in a very very plumb English accent commanding poor Giles to make eggnog... oh and one more thing: Number 10... pure GENIUS!!! you are a Jew at heart my dear. x

  7. Hi Esther

    I love your blog. I found you via your husband, have loved his restaurant reviews for years but your writing is even funnier.....

    I was reading through some of your old posts, decided to have some paprika parmesan popcorn tonight to soothe myself after a frustrating day and then had a strop when I thought I didn't have any corn in. Turns out I'd moved it to a different cupboard. Feeling calmer now....

    This is my new favourite website.


  8. Hello Helen,

    The popcorn will not disappoint you. It's especially fantastic with a cold beer, or wine, or sherry. Or meths.

    I hope to remain your favourite website. I will do my best to be as un disappointing as paprika popcorn.

    E xx

  9. Just returned from a dinner party where just about every rule was broken. Arrived - hostess completely stressed and red faced. No drink offered. No music. Put in kitchen to 'help out' chopping salad. Drink ran out. 80% of guests soooo boring, especially special lady who had just married herself. Yes. Married herself. Only saving grace was a few candles. I wanted to run away.

  10. Although I'm sorry you had a terrible time, I'm very pleased that the denouement to your story wasn't "But we had a brilliant time anyway so you can fuck off with your rules, you bossy cow."

    I am intrigued by the woman who married herself. Is that legal?

  11. ... and why were you eating salad in December? I hope it was a fucking exciting salad.

  12. Nuff said that I live in Amsterdam and apparently the Dutch lady imagined her story of inter-marriage was in some way amusing. Have no idea if it was legal but somebody did ask who went on top. Was told to stop talking in the middle of her tirade. Had to walk away as I was wetting myself a little. Salad was the best thing on the table. Still there were candles. Clutching, clutching ...