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First Person Hostess-gift hell: what’s with all the little jars of relish?

The Globe and Mail

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I don’t know about you, but I’m a bigger fan of going to parties than giving them. In the days leading up to any soiree I’m hosting, it’s unnerving the way I am rendered totally incapable of making a decision in the cheese aisle, or how I suddenly notice my sofa screams to be reupholstered. My family and close friends quietly disappear in an effort to avoid being sucked into the vortex of my fiendish desire for perfection and frenzied behaviour in grocery stores. Just ask my adult children – one of them says it makes her hands sweat just thinking about my approach to entertaining.

I do, however, like receiving a well-considered hostess gift, especially when it’s wine from one my friends who actually knows the difference between a good sauvignon blanc and an unoaked chardonnay, and remembers that I’m not a fan of the latter. Obviously, there’s nothing lovelier than a big, beautiful bouquet of expensive flowers showing up at the door, especially when the bearer of the gift knows where the vases live in my pantry and, better still, when said giver chooses one, fills it with warm water, then arranges the flowers without any help from me at all. And, of course, a dreamy, decadent confection decorated with chocolate curls and whipped cream goes a long way in my book to ensuring that guest gets a repeat invitation, at least as long as they can find room for it in the fridge without help from yours truly.

But something has shifted in the world of hot hostess gifts. And the trend has led to a mini crisis in the shelves of my refrigerator door, adding yet another hiccup to my already complicated relationship with entertaining. When did it suddenly become de rigueur to bring one’s hostess some sort of jar of artisanal marmalade not made for toast – and, more importantly, when is the trend going to go out of style? I have more fig jam than you can shake the proverbial stick at and certainly more than will ever be consumed in little dollops on top of yummy bits of crumbly parmigiana or Asiago, regardless of how many cocktail parties I throw. And as I’ve already made clear, those are not many in number.

I recently received a lovely set of three new spreads for Christmas from the same woman who gave me a quaint little jar of caramelized-onion spread the last time she visited; a woman who had plainly seen – and sampled – the many, many varieties already crammed together in my fridge. And can we talk about the difficulty in trying to nestle little round-bellied jars beside one another on the narrow shelves of the fridge door?

The myriad of mustards and their cousins, the relishes, the red-pepper jellies and the olive tapenades have, one by one, expanded beyond the fridge door and up onto the top shelf of my fridge, where they are slowly but surely crowding out the olives and antipasto, which used to occupy the space quite happily on their own. Soon, there will be no room for anything other than party food in the fridge – and surely you can see the terrible irony in that by now.

But I must confess my own strange propensity to be helplessly drawn to strangely concocted condiments. Case in point, last fall, before attending a funeral service for a very old and very quirky fellow, I found myself in a trendy part of town with time to kill. As chance would have it, I happened upon an ever-so-charming facsimile of a terribly British, terribly snooty little “shoppe.” Unable to resist temptation, I filled my clever little shopping basket – it was lined in Liberty print cotton – with a bewildering array of sundry items: lime-green linen table napkins, sparkly silver birthday candles, several Cadbury Flake bars, licorice allsorts irresistibly housed in a replica of Big Ben and, for no explicable reason, a rather large jar of pickled onions. I can’t think what was on my mind that day – I was probably channelling one of my kitchen goddess heroes, imagining the Barefoot Contessa extolling their virtue as the perfect accompaniment to a good Stilton. I should have put the lot back on the shelves then and there, and sprinted right back to the funeral home. But that was not what happened.

So now, lurking menacingly atop the shelf formerly reserved for all things pickled is, you guessed it, a batch of what looks like tiny disembodied aliens, their oversized heads suspended in a suspicious, murky brown liquid, which even my daughter, who loves all things briny, deems inedible.

Maybe the moral of this story is to throw more parties – or maybe the moral is just to throw out all these jars, especially the onions – and I would, except that they will never go bad, and they are delicious on cheese. So, I think what I’ll do is give over to the invasion, forget about extending any more invitations and simply eat party food for the rest of my days – with a crisp Sauvignon close at hand, of course.

Sarah Prospero lives in Almonte, Ont.

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