FOUR THINGS THAT TRIP UP EVERY HOSTESS -- EXCEPT FOR YOU
It's an hour before your party, and you're still in sweats when the doorbell rings. Don't panic. Tell your guest to grab a drink while you get dressed. (Low-maintenance snacks like nuts and olives are handy here, too.) After that, explain that you have some things to finish, but that he or she is welcome to watch TV. Chances are, this time-challenged guest's manners will kick in and you'll score an assistant.
Unsolicited Kitchen Help
You want a helping hand, not a sous chef. If you anticipate that a certain invitee will try to take charge of the kitchen (think: "Seems like you oversalted this gravy."), have her set the table or load/ unload the dishwasher.
If someone's portion-patrolling or flat-out ignoring the "dinner" in your dinner party, offer (privately) to get him or her something else. If the answer is no, move on. (If the answer is yes, offer something that's on hand. Don't stress over it.) Getting quizzed about the fat content of Aunt Mabel's famous bread pudding? Remind everyone that calorie-counting is what February is for.
Criticism (and its cousin, Backhanded Compliments)
It only takes one snotty remark about the turkey being "better than I expected" to spike your blood pressure. When someone gets sassy, just smile (even if it's hard!) and offer a retort that says both "I'm onto you" and "I'm ignoring you." (In this case, a simple "Oh, would you like some more?" should do it.)
MESSES MADE OVER: ENTERTAINING EDITION
Our experts show us lessons we can all learn from our readers' hosting mishaps.
"Some friends were coming for dinner, so I wanted to make a fancy appetizer. I rolled green olives in bacon, secured them with toothpicks and broiled them -- quickly causing puffs of smoke to billow out. My 'fancy' plastic toothpicks had melted."
--Betty Niemczyk, Farmingdale, NY
Don't pressure yourself! It won't be perfect, and no one will mind. "When we have people over, everybody knows they're just there to have a good time," says L.A. event planner Alan Dunn.
"I had planned on making homemade vodka tomato sauce for my friends, but since I was short on time, I bought the jarred stuff, which I tried to pass off as my own creation. Seeing a bottle of vodka on the counter, my husband asked if that was what I'd used to make the sauce. When I said yes, he said, 'How funny -- the seal is still on the bottle!' Whoops."
--Sher Bird, Seattle
Stay on schedule. We're not talking train-station accuracy -- just plan to, say, clean in the morning and start cooking by noon. "Someone who doesn't entertain a lot doesn't start until 2:00 p.m. and then answers the door in her bathrobe," says Chicago event planner Debi Lilly. "Do as much as you can the day before, so that the day of the party you only have last-minute things."
"As a new bride, I had my father-in-law over for pot roast. My mom always made the gravy on the stovetop, so I put the glass dish of roast on a burner -- where it exploded! I'd forgotten that Mom always used a cast-iron skillet."
--Catherine Williams, Laurel, MD
Don't be too ambitious. "It's better to have the best-tasting four appetizers ever than to try replicating French Laundry," says L.A. caterer Kate Paul.
TALKING WHILE COOKING SOUNDS EASY -- UNTIL IT ISN'T
So we turned to a guy who does it for a living: TV chef and star gabber Guy Fieri.
"Some people are just born to cook and talk," Guy says. "But it's always good to go over the recipe beforehand, so you can easily think of the next thing that needs to be done." This should be easy, since you wouldn't dare entertain with a dish you've never made. Right?
Take charge of the convo.
If there's chatter in your ear at a crucial moment -- like, as you're about to deglaze a pan with alcohol -- try a a polite "Hold that thought. I need to concentrate for a minute." Better yet, narrate the recipe. "Now lemme just get this pot of boiling water to the sink," should alert even the most clueless guest to can it.
When all else fails, delegate.
Need an onion chopped? Even if you don't, ask your kitchen visitor to do it. This will either turn the focus to food or bore them straight out of the kitchen.
Party fouls happen. Here's how to avoid them:
You let the host's pet outside
Alert the owner quietly to keep party guests from panicking. If everyone runs out searching for the cat, the party will stop, and the commotion could scare him into running farther. Quietly grab one or two nearby guests to search neighboring yards, but let the host lead. He or she may know the pet's favorite spots or escape tactics.
You spilled red wine
There's hope for saving the carpet, couch cushion or poodle you've spilled on. To prevent hostess hysteria, act like an ER doc: Act methodically, and she'll think you've got tricks up your sleeve. Blot the stain, douse it with club soda, cold water or white wine (the antidote to red), and repeat until the spot disappears. If it doesn't, apologize and offer to pay for the damage.
You broke something
Shattering someone else's possessions can make you feel helpless. Don't justify, gush or blame it on the drunkest person in the room. In the end, a sincere apology is the offer your hostess will appreciate most. Accept responsibility and pledge to replace the item.
You clogged the toilet
We know, it's mortifying. First things first, don't flush again. It could overflow. Most people keep a plunger, so check under the sink or in the closet and try to clear out the clog. If you can't find one, ask an accomplice to grab an empty 2-liter soda bottle. Put the spout in the toilet and squeeze the bottom; the airflow might help dislodge what's stuck. Nothing? Own up and have a (red-faced) laugh.