I pride myself on being a foodie and a good cook, and I love to entertain. On both occasions that we have had my husband’s cousin and her boyfriend over for dinner (also foodies), they resolutely did not say one nice thing about the food. I was brought up to always compliment the chef, no matter the quality of what is being served, but especially after sourcing the best ingredients from the market, spending all day at the stove, and thinking it turned out quite well myself, their silence really stung. At Thanksgiving, when someone else commented on how good the turkey was, the cousin said, right in front of me, “I’ve had turkey wrapped in bacon before and then it’s less dry.” It was a slap in the face. Easter is coming up and I just really do not want to invite them for dinner, but they are family. Any advice?
I’m a “foodie,” too: pinned to the Food Network all the time, watching Chopped in the same state of breathless suspense most men reserve for watching sports, waking up every morning rubbing my hands together, wondering what we should have for dinner, reading exciting new cookbooks as if they were novels (cover to cover, chuckling and oh-ho-ho-ing to myself, sometimes in bed, to the puzzlement and no doubt annoyance of my wife), and so on.
But there are different ways of being a foodie, and if as part of the ongoing Gwyneth Paltrow-ification of our society (my theory as to why she and Chris Martin broke up: he just wanted a freakin’ cheeseburger) you cross over the line into holier-than-thou preciosity and sanctimony – when you become a “sancti-foodie”– then the whole spirit of the thing is lost.
Because the spirit of the thing is: Food is a gift begrudgingly bestowed upon us by an angry but tolerant God, and for most people throughout most of human history it was in scarce supply, and you were lucky if you had a stale piece of bread to gnaw upon at the end of the day.
A slice of cheese to go atop that bread? Aristocratic luxury! Maggots crawling through the cheese? Additional protein! My point is: living in a land and time of relative plenty as we do, we should be grateful for every tasty morsel – and it doesn’t sound like your relatives are. In fact, they sound relative-ly boorish.
Thus, my first piece of advice to you is: I don’t think you need to feel under any obligation to invite them over again and again (sorry – by now I suppose you’ve invited them or not for Easter – you didn’t give enough time for me to answer! Anyway, this is for the future.)
Family or not (and cousin-in-law? Please, I think you’re under no major obligation there), being invited back is a privilege earned through good behaviour – as I learned growing up in the mean streets of a sweltering city where I was the only kid I knew whose family didn’t have a cottage.
I knew, if I wanted to be invited back to my friends’ parents’ summertime getaways (and I did), to bask in the sun, jump off their docks into the sparkling waters, I would have to be a good guest: “Here, Mrs. Seymour, let me grab those. Don’t be silly! I love doing dishes! Didn’t Agatha Christie say she got her best inspirations doing dishes? As you know, Mrs. Seymour, I want to be a writer some day, so in a way you’re doing me a favour.”
You don’t have to go overboard like teenage Dave Eddie, but it amazes me to this day the number of people who do not observe the most basic rules of being a good guest, which are:
1. RSVP. Your hosts have taken the trouble to invite you: take the trouble to respond. 2. When you get there, be engaged and fun: Don’t just sit like a lump, chewing. Contribute! 3. Thank them on the spot, praise the food early on in a meal and then again as you leave. Duh! 4. Thank them afterward. I have a friend who sends a card through Canada Post. That’s obviously the pinnacle, but a simple (what my mother calls) “bread and butter call” the next day should suffice. Throwing a dinner party takes at least a half-day to prep, another to clean, and usually a fair amount of expense (ours cost a fortune because my wife has to practically has to renovate the entire house before people can come over). Show you appreciate it! But if you do feel you have to invite your boorish, bumpkin cousin-in-laws, and they still sit there in a stubborn non-complimentary stupor – well, I guess: do what I do with my teenage boys.
I serve my boys delicious stuff every day. Sometimes they comment, sometimes they scarf in silence. In which case I wait until they’re about halfway through, then go: “So, boys, how’d you like your dinner?”
“Oh, yeah, great, thanks, Dad. Delicious!” I’m training them, see. Eventually it will become second nature. And then, and only then, will they be fit for the rapidly vanishing, ever-more-antique-and-ephemeral-seeming segment of the population known as “polite society.”
If you have the time, and energy, I suppose, you could perform the same service for your taciturn, bacon-wrapped-turkey-preferring cousins-in-law. But if it were me? I’d give their spot to someone lively, someone grateful, someone who enthusiastically appreciates your gourmet offerings.
What am I supposed to do now?
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