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Simply Entertaining: Good times depend on good guests

Monday, November 19, 2001

By Mary Miller

It's been a little more than year since the first "Simply Entertaining" column appeared, and I guess it's time for some personal (and obviously public) reflection.

I realize I've contradicted myself the past 12 months. In the beginning, I stressed the importance of just doing it. Just getting together with family and friends regardless of how many dust bunnies join you, or whether you're serving homemade ravioli or canned. Certainly, after Sept. 11, who wouldn't agree?

But, as the months passed, I went on to instruct on the importance of doing things correctly . . . from drinking wine, to RSVP-ing, to using napkins. What happened to just doing it? Entertaining began to sound like a lot of work. Should you not invite folks over just because you can't find drinking glasses that match or because your only snacks are year-old beer nuts and moldy Gouda?

To top off the contradictions, I frequently caught myself breaking my own rules. In the past few months, I've sipped wine from a Tupperware cup intended for toddlers (sans plastic lid), RSVP-ed after the requested date for a party, and -- Horrors! -- placed my used dinner napkin on the dining chair instead of the table.

So where is the happy medium between etiquette and enjoyment?

I don't care where guests place their silverware after a meal -- as long as it isn't in the trash can, the disposal or their coat pockets. I don't remember what guests did with their used dinner napkins for even five minutes, yet alone five years.

But I do remember if a guest makes others uncomfortable -- a pompous attitude, an inappropriate joke, or a statement about not eating "anything with a face" just as the forkful of filet enters my mouth. I may not remember it for five years, but it will stick with me until I make the guest list for my next party.

Whether we like it or not, manners reflect values, beliefs and learned traditions, says former political and society columnist Sally Quinn in her book, "The Party: Adventures in Entertaining." Polite -- not perfect -- manners make others feel at ease. Comfort is key. Once you're comfortable with your own manners (polite -- not perfect, remember), then think about your guest list.

It's not up to you how guests behave once at your home, but it is your choice whom to invite. So know your guests. If you don't, keep up your antennae at the party to quickly tend to any personality clashes by redirecting troublemakers or by changing the subject to something neutral. Topics to avoid include politics, sex, religion, money and illness.

A little challenging conversation is fun if those involved know where to draw the line. Adults should know how to behave but often don't, especially if that lethal mixture of ego and alcohol is involved.

The real reason to entertain is to have fun with people you enjoy. Invite people that you like. Quinn suggests, "If your heart isn't in it, don't do it." Then care for your guests as if they were a precious gift. They are.

"Don't accept invitations from people you don't want to have back," Quinn stresses. But don't feel obligated to reciprocate, either. Preparing for and living through an evening with folks who aren't on the same wavelength can be torture. All most of us have to do is think of mandatory family holiday get-togethers to be reminded of this. Of course, this is not from my own experiences during the holidays, but from what I hear from others.

So don't worry if your plates don't match and the napkins are left over from your 5-year-old's Barney birthday party. Just do it. With people you enjoy.

This relish, a favorite from the late 1970s, is more like a fruit crisp than a relish. Great with Thanksgiving dinner or even for breakfast.

Hot Cranberry Relish

3 cups chopped apples
2 cups cranberries
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup margarine or butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix apples, cranberries and granulated sugar in a 2-quart casserole.

Crumble and mix remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and sprinkle on top of cranberries. Bake for 1 hour until bubbly. Serve warm.

From my mother, the perfect guest, Millie Ulbrich

Mary Miller is a Fox Chapel-based registered dietitian and food writer. Her column appears twice monthly. For questions or comments, she can be reached at marymar333@home.com.

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