Thursday, 5 December 2013

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Art of Acting Hostess

It seems to me, that hosting any gathering (no, we're not talking hostess in the airline or twinkie sense) has become a more complex affair in recent years. As fad diets, new eating preferences, and new food allergies emerge, today's hostess is challenged to be more aware of the needs and wants of her guests than ever before. If she wants to be successful, that is.

[An aside: Yes, this is a gendered post . . .no, I'm not saying that men can't host gatherings. I was inspired to write this post by this little book from the early 1900's offering up some guidelines for proper hostessing, and the book itself was, interestingly, written by a man named Paul Pierce :  http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1859388]

While the hostess of yesterday was concerned with producing an endless flow of dishes that would "occupy in part the attention of the guests and tend to promote the success of her favorite dish by allowing her to proceed in its preparation undisturbed by haste or excitement," today's hostess has to worry about what sort of bloating, rash, physical discomfort, or ultimately gruesome death she may potentially be inflicting upon her guests. 

Mr. Pierce ridicules those who are anxious in the kitchen, jesting "why there should be so much excitement over the cooking of an ordinary rarebit, a creamed chicken, a souffle of oysters or all this terrible excitement about a lobster Newberg or a simple cheese fondue is beyond comprehension." Arguably, today's hostess experiences the same sort of anxiety in deciding upon something as simple as which cookie to bake -- should it be gluten free, low in fat, vegan safe, sans nuts, and diabetic friendly? 


I know, I know, we give credit to the woman of the past for her ability to pull off elegant and complex dishes in multiple courses over the duration of a long night without a dollop of gravy on her frock. But really, what the modern woman does, or attempts to do when she entertains is just as impressive. Not only are we attempting to bring together in a social manner a group of people who have become unused to social interaction unmediated by a touch screen, but we are attempting to do it on our one day off of a week of working. Shopping for quality ingredients, prepwork, actual cooking, and of course the weekend ritual of cleaning house (something the old "American aristocrat" of Pierce's time didn't have to do) can eat up an entire day before anything resembling actual eating even begins. Any woman who does all this, even if her dinner isn't as complex and has a few less courses than those described by Pierce, should be proud of her work.  And it IS work, as anyone who as ever tried to cook more than three things at once can attest to.

It is comforting to know, however, that we do share some of the same aspirations and concerns as our century-separated counterpart. Themed dinners were as popular a hundred years a go as they are now (and presumably just as fun to put on). Pierce poignantly explains the difficulties of a young woman wanting to entertain in a small space (a section of his book I might need to go back and look over more thoroughly -_-u) saying: "there are some people to whose distorted vision the tiniest molehills are magnified into veritable chains of mountains, rugged and insurmountable; and if, in addition to their other woes, they happen to be unfortunate enough to dwell in a flat, their desolation is complete." The same is very much true today. There is something isolating about living in a small space by oneself--a problem which grows as more and more people resolve to spend their lives alone in the modern day. 

I could go on and on comparing this witty little book to our present day entertainments, but I suppose instead I will leave you with these compelling words from Pierce: some women " have a perfectly inexplicable talent for making life livable" and " bring[ing] forth into the bright sunshine the many opportunities which everyone's life contains." I think that this is something we should all strive for--be it by having friends over for an evening of good food and company, fixing our boyfriend's car, or just smiling at a random stranger.