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I'm tired of cooking for my friends' dinner parties

The question

My husband and I enjoy entertaining. When our friends ask if they can bring something, we always say 'No, just bring your appetite.' We're happy to supply the food and drink. The problem is that when we're invited to our friends' homes for dinner, and I ask if I can bring something, we are always asked to bring a salad, a dessert or something else very specific. I end up preparing food whether I'm the host or the guest. For the record, I always bring some kind of gift for the hosts anyway. But I resent cooking for someone else's gathering when I never ask anyone to bring anything to my place. I'd love to just be a guest once in a while. Is there any way to raise this without hurting anyone's feelings?

The answer

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I know that, since I'm an advice columnist, I should expect to answer the odd question on etiquette and protocol.

The truth is, it's not my forte. My specialty is what to do when etiquette and protocol have failed you. When you show up late, with a half-empty bottle of vodka, spill pinot noir on the hostess's expensive antique ottoman, ask her not-pregnant sister when she's due and, later, barf in her bidet.

How to salvage the situation? How to come out smelling, well, if not like a rose, then at least not like someone who tried to make a manure milkshake but forgot to put the top on the blender?

That is my comfort zone. That is where I, who have crashed through life like an enraged hippo through the wedding-china and crockery room of William Ashley, can offer deep pockets of experience, wisdom and counsel.

This kind of stuff, not so much. But I'll give it my best shot.

I have noticed that the etiquette and protocol of what to bring to dinner parties varies across different subsets of our overall culture.

If my wife Pam and I are going to her parents' house, for example, or to the fabulous mansion of my friend Linda, society doyenne, we bring flowers.

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To bring Linda wine would seem too collegiate, even vaguely gauche. Her manservant (okay, she doesn't really have a manservant - let's say her "husband") would gaze in puzzlement at the proffered bottle before shrugging and whisking it off to the "subpar" section of their cellar.

But to most other occasions, bringing a bottle of wine is perfectly appropriate. It's an unstated/assumed courtesy.

I know a lot of people awkwardly ask, "What should I bring?" But the answer is almost always either an equally awkward "Nothing, just yourselves" or "Well, if you have a bottle of wine around …"

But that whole "what-should-I-bring-oh-just-yourselves" exchange strikes me as uncomfortable, unnecessary, mostly mendacious and basically just best dispensed with.

Especially in your case, since everyone keeps asking you for appetizers and salads and so forth. So that, sister, is my advice to you: Stop asking.

When you ask, especially since you've done it so much in the past, you are in effect volunteering to bring something. You know how they say, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it"? I would also say, "Be careful what annoying chore you volunteer for, because people have a funny way of taking you up on that kind of stuff."

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You should never volunteer for anything you would not be willing to do with a happy heart. And preparing food for other people's dinner parties is clearly not something you relish.

(Hey, I understand. I've been the family chef - basically a short-order cook for a party of five, including a vegetarian - for 15-plus years. I still like to cook, but have noticed that, with the exception of sex, things tend to be more fun the first 10,000 times you do them.)

And I agree when you are invited to someone's house, you have the right simply to be a guest and not have to cook yourself. After all, we're all adults now. I know some busy groups of friends, especially ones with young kids, enjoy a little soupçon of potluck action to take the stress off.

But for that to work, everyone should participate. And in your case it does seem like a one-way street.

So the next time someone invites you and your husband to dinner, just say, "Thanks, we'd be delighted," then show up with a bottle of wine.

Or maybe two. That's something Pam and I started doing a few years ago, on her say-so: Because there are two of us, we bring two bottles. And sometimes even a bunch of flowers on top of the two bottles.

At which point I'm tempted, along with Seinfeld's George Costanza, to say, "Why don't we get them a couch? Bring them a nice sectional." But here's a free bonus piece of marital wisdom: I keep my mouth shut.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change, Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad and Damage Control, the book, now in paperback.

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