Final Rules: Entertain Philosophically
Thus far in this series, we have covered a promiscuous range of entertaining questions. Some were general and frustratingly familiar, like the vexing issue of food restriction accommodation and the complicated choreography required for guest and host to wake-up gracefully. Others were intriguingly specific, such as our exploration of the great lie we call “brie” and our (apparently politically charged) invective against washcloths. But as the series comes to an end, I want to retreat for a moment from the table, bar, and guest room into the quiet, contemplative confines of the study. I want to take some time to meditate on entertaining as a philosophical issue—because all the guidelines in the world are about as useful as an invitation without a date-and-time if the underlying foundation, the why that must undergird the how of entertaining, is not understood.
Rule No. 17: Buy This Ottoman
If you often play host to overnight guests, and you don’t have a dedicated guest room, where should your guests sleep? The answer, clearly, is: The ottoman.
Don’t fret: I am not proposing that your visitors sleep curled up like little cats atop a mere footstool. I speak of the Castro Convertible Ottoman, which rather miraculously folds out into twin bed. The advantage it offers over other venerable solutions to the where-should-guests-sleep conundrum—including the pull-out couch, the futon, and the Aerobed—is comfort. Featuring a firm foam mattress that rests atop sturdy wooden slats, the Castro Convertible spares your guests the special sensation of a metal crossbar prodding their lumbar regions, or the need to wake in the night to reinflate a leaky air mattress. And it spares you the college-dorm indignity of having a futon in your home.
Rule No. 16: Dishevel the Sheets
For me, it’s always been the most stressful aspect of being an overnight guest: What to do with the bedclothes come morning. Do you make the bed, in the hope that your expertly executed hospital corners will erase any evidence of your having been there? Or do you take the opposite approach, stripping the bed down to the Serta and acknowledging that your host will want to launder the sheets before her next guest arrives. Neither approach is ideal: The former might telegraph a cavalier attitude about hygiene—a little drowsy-drool never hurt anyone!—the latter condemns your host to a chore: Thanks for having me—you’re going to want to wash these.
Rule No. 15: Provide Liquid Soap
My epic struggle with the question of soap and guests began over a decade ago when I found myself, unrelatedly, grappling with the previously explored washclothconundrum. Everywhere I stayed, my hosts graciously laid out a bath sheet, a hand towel, and a washcloth. As a polite houseguest I routinely toweled off with the bath sheet, dried my hands with the hand towel, and then—wracked with guilt and confusion on the day of my departure—I would strip my bed, tidy my room, and rinse and fold the unused washcloth. Why this last unnecessary ritual? Because I wanted to signal that I had enjoyed and appreciated the washcloth, even though, as a matter of empirical fact, nobody has actually used a washcloth since 1954.
Rule No. 14: Commit and Stay Committed!
Whatever the event, when an invitation comes just face it: You know whether you can go. These days most invitations arrive on the same devices on which you keep your social calendar. So stop procrastinating, being coy, or keeping your options open—immediately accept or decline. Think of how much more willing to entertain people would be if when they invited their friends to their homes to provide food, drink, and hospitality, they weren’t made to feel that the process required them to act like stalkers.
Rule No. 13: Keep Your Guests Connected
Beyond the requisite provision of (certain!) linens and a selection of basic toiletries, hosts of overnight guests have a measure of discretion regarding which other amenities to provide. Writing in the 1940s, Dorothy Draper included the following accoutrements in her list: “a tiny clock on the bedside table,” a stack of “one or two new and interesting books,” “a small desk fitted with note paper, envelops, two or three postcards, several stamps, ink and several new pens, pointed and stub,” and “a pincushion with various kinds of pins and two needles threaded, one with white cotton, one with black silk.” Times have changed—a bedside clock is still nice, but these days, instead of a formal correspondence setup, most guests would probably prefer a different kind of link to the outside world. Are you tending to your guests' digital needs? A few thoughtful courtesies can help you be sure.
Rule No. 12: Set Wake-Up Expectations
I love hosting friends from out of town overnight, but living in a 560-square-foot apartment poses certain challenges. For instance, when your 6-foot-5 friend Cole visits from Chicago for the weekend, whether or not you have the physical space to house his sleeping body becomes a very real question. But the most vexing conundrum I face hosting Cole (or any other guest) isn’t a problem of geometry; it’s one of circadian rhythms. In my experience, rarely do host and guest operate on a common sleep schedule.
Rule No. 11: Put Away Your Washcloths
You’ve got houseguests coming over! Hooray! Hosting friends, family, or strangers you met on the internet is one of the most civilized, rewarding things you can do with your home. Your house is becoming a haven for weary travelers, providing them sustenance and warmth, strength for their future journeys, companionship for a night or two. (What’s that? Three nights? Well, OK, but...)
And so you prepare! You change the sheets on the guest bed, or at least pile clean sheets at the foot of the futon. You dust the bookshelves and stock up on hummus and get out the playing cards. You change your wifi password from “ilikebigbutts123” to something innocuous. And in your freshly cleaned bathroom you set out a fluffy towel and a matching washcloth.
But wait! Put away that washcloth. No one wants it, no one needs it, and you’re wasting space, energy, and money by buying it. Here’s why:
Rule No. 10: Know When to Say Goodbye
In the opening post of this series, I described an ideal dinner party scenario: After taking their fill of food, drink, and amusing conversation, host and guest alike parted ways with the most pleasant of tastes in their mouths—a nip of cognac or Grand Marnier and perhaps a bit of quality chocolate. That those flavors lingered on the palate instead of less savory ones—acrid awkwardness, bitter confusion and indigestion-inducing shame, for example—resulted from the successful execution of one of the most difficult moves in the choreography of entertaining: saying goodbye.
Rule No. 9: Never Bring Brie, Ever Again
To brie, or not to brie? If you ever find yourself selecting cheese for a party, that is the question. You might think it’s a good idea to brie. In the last few decades, the cheese has become the default choice for a “classy” occasion. As online grocer FreshDirect puts it, “It's what your guests expect (and want) you to serve.” How could you go wrong?
I am here to tell you that you can go wrong. In fact, you go wrong just about every time you choose brie for a party. The reasons are simple: It’s bland, it’s boring, and—at least in the United States—it’s rarely even the real thing.