The Head of the Table
In this the month of giving thanks, we feel it’s essential for a dignified host to know some of the fundamentals of hospitality that distinguish the perfect host. Unless you’re making an intentional statement by not participating in this month’s food fest, it’s important that you know how to prepare, carve and serve the iconic fowl expected to grace your dinner table.
There should be abundance without gluttony, plenty without too much. Remember that, for many, leftovers make the better meal.
If you’re single you have an A-list group of friends you’ve invited to share the day with. If you’re a family man you’re well aware of how it will play out. You’ll respect the rituals and traditions you were taught, modeling for your protégé how it’s done in your family. He, in turn, will pass it along when it’s his turn. That’s how traditions work. That’s what they’re for. It’s your duty to add some signature to the ritual as you take ownership of the day.
Head of the household. Man of the house. Head of the table. One in Charge. Most likely this year that may well be you. You’ve managed to create a haven for yourself and your charges, no small feat in this age of diminishing expectations. You’ve created a home from a condominium, an apartment, perhaps a house. The distinction between a structure and a home is significant. A residence is a roof. A home is a statement. It’s a symbolic institution threatened of late by the encroaching insecurities of ownership. A hackneyed expression defines it as your castle, a nod to the days when only a lord had the resources to afford such a magnificent manor that provided warm, secure shelter, something in short supply during the Bronze Age.
A well-prepared host should initiate the evening’s first toast. If you don’t have a traditional sentiment – get one. People like it when the host takes charge, guiding those gathered through the moment with confidence and aplomb.
There’s no app for being the consummate host. And there shouldn’t be. This feat is realized only when you actually do what’s expected for those whom you want to expend the time and effort it takes to provide a sumptuous feast. You should have a signature dish that you are known for preparing. Chose one and do it well. Trust us, in time people will wonder where it is if it’s not on offer. Like a good best man, you should have an appropriate anecdote to share when it’s time to honor the moment. Find someone at the table who’s normally the quiet one. Invite them to share a memory.
The responsibilities of hosting is innovation tempered by tradition. Your guest will expect something memorable – make it your priority to deliver on that expectation but surprise them just enough to keep them guessing. Preparing the feast is part of the ritual; serving should complete it. If you don’t already possess the skill set, learn how to properly carve and serve the bird. If you’ve opted for another entree learn how a standing rib roast should be treated or impress by properly carving duck or pork or – surprise us. And remember to have some fresh parsley to garnish your main course. There should be abundance without gluttony, plenty without too much. Remember that, for many, leftovers make the better meal.
A well-prepared host should initiate the evening’s first toast. That goes for choosing the right moment to have all pause and offer thanks. That’s the fundamental reason you’ve all gathered at your place at this time. If you’re not the religious type, fine. Go with something heartfelt, a few well-chosen words that infuse the moment with a dignity befitting those present. If you’re lucky enough to have a family rich with traditions then perpetuate them by reciting the family grace the way it was taught by your predecessor. If you don’t have a traditional sentiment – get one. People like it when the host takes charge, guiding those gathered through the moment with confidence and aplomb.
Fate may decide that this year you’re not the one in charge. She may cast you as a guest at someone else’s table. Just as there are responsibilities to being a host so are there responsibilities of being a guest. It’s just good manners to arrive with an appropriate gift, a symbolic “thank you” for those who’ve invited you to share their hospitality. Wines are always in good taste but equally appropriate is a dessert that’s not the centerpiece, rather, an esculent complement to your host’s offering. It’s not cool to overshadow your host’s efforts.
And leave the iPad in the car, at least until dinner’s been served and you’re enjoying the post-feast languor after you’ve helped clear the table and fill the dishwasher and fold up the kids’ table. Then it’s permissible to catch up on your Fantasy Team’s stats – but only a bit. And resist checking your text messages in the company of others.
Finally, remember to enjoy the day. It only comes once a year so make it a pleasant memory not a tedious chore. Gentle reminder: Christmas is less than a month away so you may get to do it all over again. Watch this space for counsel on how to make it the same, but different. Amen.