If you are, let’s say, particular about how you entertain, then the holidays can be equal parts exhilarating and exasperating, your hosting Olympics marred slightly by having to fit in decathlon coverage. This is because you have an idea of how you want Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas Eve cocktails to go, and people around you want to help.
I completely understand where you’re coming from, because I’m also a controlling person (in many areas, not just entertaining). Southerners are often so good at hosting that we let the rogue, foil-wrapped offering get under our skin. I, for one, don’t like surprises in the form of unexpected cheese straws that upset my appetizer balance, and when people offer to assist me in the kitchen, a small troll that lives in my gut starts to shiver in panic.
I’ve found that hosts with this type of personality tend to respond in one of two ways when people ask what they can bring. It’s either “Nothing! Just yourselves!” or “If you’d like to make a dip, eggplant caponata would work with the rest of the menu. Here’s the link to the recipe I like…only I leave out the capers.” The problem with the first response is that guests will bring something anyway, and while a more free-spirited hostess may be golden with that, you are not. The second should be reserved for a relative you’re comfortable with.
Let’s find the middle ground—because holiday gatherings should be joyful and no one but you really cares about the appetizer balance. (Everyone else is too busy admiring your magnolia-leaf mantel swag because you nailed that sucker.) You can say, “Bring nothing,” and then roll with whatever comes in. If it’s a bag of spiced pecans, tuck it away, but if it’s stuffed mushrooms on a platter, you need to set those out.
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A better option, if you are going to loosen your standards, is to do it strategically. I often request beverages, being specific but not tyrannical. “We could always use seltzer,” or “We’re heavy on Manhattans but light on wine, so please bring whatever you love.” If someone texts me en route to the party, I usually ask for a bag of ice. People like to help, and you don’t get a ribbon at the end of the night for not accepting any.
My mother-in-law doesn’t cook. In the past, if I hosted Thanksgiving, I’d tell her not to bring anything, thinking I was helping her by giving her an out. She would lovingly order six dishes from her country club and pile them on my dining table. We went on like that for years. Now, I ask her to get the club’s mashed potatoes, which reheat well, and a store-bought pie. She still brings at least one more thing, and I happily serve it too.
I’ve learned that unbuttoning always feels good, physically and metaphorically. Which brings me to my word of advice for the loved ones of control freaks: The most compassionate act might be to give us a choice. “I can bring a bottle of Prosecco or the shrimp toasts I made for book club last month. Would either be helpful?” That’s friendship. Also, when your hostess says to go have dessert and stop loading the dishwasher, please do so. She means it.