The New Rules of Entertaining. Rule No. 3: Don’t Help Me Cook

New rules for guests and hosts.
Sept. 4 2013 8:00 AM

Rule No. 3: Refrain From Trying To Help Me Cook, Please.

Seriously, get out of here.
Seriously, get out of here.

Photo by Retrofile/Getty Images

I enjoy cooking. My friends, being fellow twenty-something urban-dwelling bobos, also enjoy cooking. You’d think this common interest would be a good thing, yielding countless shared sessions of culinary creativity. Indeed, I have pleasantly whiled away the hours with intimates by searing Brussels sprouts while sipping kirs, debating whether there’s enough lime in the guacamole while sipping rum and Cokes, and adorning pizza dough with various toppings while sipping Montepulciano. However, all of these gatherings had two things in common: They were prearranged (as in, we decided in advance that we wanted to cook together), and they were small (as in, there were two or three of us, and we weren’t expecting more guests).

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.

But I have far less pleasant memories of other occasions spent in the kitchen with friends—sweaty times, stressful times, times when the alcohol was not sipped but guzzled to ward off a panic attack. I’m talking about the times I’ve hosted dinner parties, and my friends have uttered the dread words: “Oh, I’ll come over early to help you cook!”

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We’ve already discussed the grave affront that arriving early represents to hosts, but it is the offer of assistance that truly strikes fear into my heart. Why? Well, honestly, I’m kind of a control freak about dinner parties. I plan my carefully balanced menus days in advance. I usually write up a schedule for myself, too, figuring out when I should shop for which ingredients, which dishes I can prep or cook in full the day before, what I can do the morning of, what needs to be saved for the last minute. Paying such close attention to minutiae soothes me, quiets the voices in my head that say things like What if my friends from college don’t get along with my friends from after college and What if [name redacted] drinks too much and gets obnoxious and What if NO ONE HAS A GOOD TIME?

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The schedule and my peace-of-mind inevitably go out the window the second my first early-bird friend walks in the door. Suddenly she is saying, “What can I do to help?”, and since my itinerary did not take this eager laborer into account, I never know what to say. And thus the tabbouleh ends up being made too far in advance and just sits there getting watery, or the frittata gets burnt while I’m explaining how thickly I wanted the eggplant to be sliced, or I completely forget to chop up the strawberries for dessert sauce because I’m distracted by the need to serve my premature guest the precise cocktail he desires.

Then there is the fact that the kitchen in my studio apartment is tiny. No joke: My half of the cubicle I share with Will Oremus is bigger than my kitchen. One time, I decided to see how many people could cram in my kitchen simultaneously—two if we wanted to be able to open the refrigerator door, three if we didn’t. You get the idea: There’s not much space, and there’s only one cutting board, which means that though my friends think they are being helpful by peeling garlic, they are in fact impeding me from completing the time-sensitive task of de-stemming kale for the salad that needs to marinate for half an hour before it can be consumed.

They are also making that kale very hot. Between the heat of the oven, the fire erupting from the range, the overworked refrigerator, and the healthy 98.6-degree bodies that keep rubbing up against me as we pass each other at the entrance to my furnace of a kitchen, it’s a miracle that the kale (or its cook) has never spontaneously combusted.

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Why do you even have dinner parties, Laura? I hear you thinking. It doesn’t sound like you like your friends very much. Ah, but I do like my friends! I like them so much that I want to spend hundreds of dollars and umpteen hours of my time to make them a delicious, varied meal and furnish them with a comfortable environment in which to drink and be merry. But when they come over early to “help,” they make it difficult for me to do that. I want my friends to be comfortable, but when I’m trying to figure out whether I should make the cake batter or start sautéing the onions first, it’s hard for me to attend to their needs. I want to provide my friends with sparkling conversation, but when I’m torn between checking on the contents of the oven and those of the food processor, it’s hard for me to return their repartee. I want to listen to my friends’ problems, but when the blender is on and the tofu is hissing noisily in a skillet, it’s hard for me to hear.

In other words, it’s not only better for the meal and for my mental health if my friends stay home until the designated start time—it’s better for our relationship. So please, the next time I invite you to a dinner party, don’t show up early with an apron in tow. A fashionably late arrival and a bottle of wine will do just fine.