Friday, September 17, 2010

Just Bring Yourselves .......Really

Nappy Valley in New York's current post prompted me to blog about something that has long bothered me as a Brit in the USA. The rigmarole surrounding inviting people to dinner or going over to their place.

As Nappy pointed out, most invitations will come with a direction as to what to bring, so just double the quantities and then bring more stuff. Bring a bottle? Bring three at the very least. Bring some nibbles? We're talking hand made appetizers or delicacies from the very expensive artisan store in the village center.  And FYI non-Americans, if you're invited over to someone's house, it is mandatory that you ask "What Can I Bring?"

This is such an ingrained response that the lovely Anne Byrn even has a book out to help you.  Called "What Can I Bring", it contains over 200 great and "easy-to-tote" dishes for any occasion. Each recipe gives "Tote Notes" explaining how best to store and carry the food, and has a "Recipe Reminders" column so that you can record where you last took the dishes and other notes. For strangers to this country, this book is great for giving you ideas of what constitutes standard American party food too.

If you're hosting Americans there are similar challenges. You may have planned each course carefully, even going so far as to pair a wine or two. You issue the invitations and with the RSVP comes the inevitable "What Can I Bring?". No amount of "just-yourselfing" can sway these people. They will wear you down with "Let me bring dessert" or "Can I bring Appetizers?" Since I never know what that might entail (it seems rude to pin them down), I usually convert the suggestion into extra wine, or crusty bread. The mistake you can make is to keep insisiting on "nothing". This causes much disress and they will still turn up with someting.

One famous occasion which appears in my book, was the first New Year's dinner I gave in the States. Everyone was instructed to bring just themselves, which must've sent one woman appoplectic as she turned up with a chocolate mousse dessert for everyone. I was equally aghast as I'd prepared a lovely orange mousse thingy (served in an almost whole orange, I'll have you know). My strategy? I just put them all out on the table and let people choose.

Lesson to foreigners in this land - Take something and accept something when we're talking about dinner invitations.


(Disclosure: Anne and I share the same agent. I have met her once and bought her book with my own money. She doesn't even know I"m writing this!)

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22 comments:

  1. Very good. I just popped over to Nappy Valley as well, also quite funny! I have to say, I wouldn't know what to do it I went to a dinner party in the States. Im such a confused little expat. I'd need that book. Put it on your list of recommendations for newbies.

    Just have a Potluck so everyone feels important, I guess. Doesnt work if youre trying to have a dinner party tho.

    What I hate is when someone brings wine then gets cross if I dont open it. I thought it was a present for me! And how would they know if it was going to match the food I was serving!? (there's me pretending to know how to match wine and food in the first place, ha!)

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  2. ha ha so true! the worst thing - and this has happened to me a lot here -is when you bring a bottle of wine to a dinner and they put it to one side and don't even drink it for reasons best known to themselves. Makes me so mad!!

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  3. Now you see I was always told it was bad manners to drink the wine that the guest had brought, as if we didn't have enough to drink so had to break in to their 'gift'. What to do, what to do? Fish & chips for all!

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  4. Thanks for the link. Yes, I've gone from London, where most people just turn up with a bottle of wine, to the US, where they are desperate to turn up with a Course. I just ask them to bring dessert now - I'm not big on making puddings anyway, and it keeps them happy.

    As for wine, I don't think it has to be drunk straight away if people bring it. Unless of course you've brought them a really nice bottle, and they are drinking cheap plonk....

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  5. I don't think I get invited out enough to really be in a position to comment. :(

    On the few occasions I do get invited out I think I'm hardwired to think in terms of a gift (some wine, or chocolates, or even some homemade jam) as a way of saying thanks for the invite. It wouldn't occur to me that I bring something that is an active contribution to the meal. Seems to complicate things, too many cooks and all that. You invite me to dinner, then I return the favour and invite you to mine.

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  6. I've seen it go both ways with the wine -- sometimes you bring a special bottle to a dinner party because you want to share it with the guests and think it will compliment the meal and then it doesn't get opened, which can be slightly disappointing; and then I've seen my husband's look of horror when he gave a £25 bottle of chateau neuf du pape to a friend for her birthday and watched her serve it up right then and there with the fish and chips we were eating from the local takeaway.

    Moral the story? If you are given a bottle of wine, ask the giver if they'd like you to open it.

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  7. Oooh, good one NS. I've had the same thing done with a really good "gift" bottle I took to a party; it was just shoved on the table with all the other plonk. Then somebody spotted what it was a slunnk off with it for him and his wife. Bloody cheek.

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  8. I think we've had this conversation before, tho it may have been another expat Brit blogging about this . . . I seem to remember quoting your frustration (which echoes mine) to my FIL. He cannot accept an invitation for a meal without turning up with food, even when he's been asked not to bring anything because we've already got everything prepared. At least Thanksgiving is easy - we tell him to bring the green bean casserole as he's the only one who really likes it anyway! Actually, I think he insists on continuing to bring desserts over because he hates the fact that ours are usually lowfat!

    DH usually makes some kind of salad when we go to someone else's house for lunch/dinner - and usually makes enough to feed twice as many people as are expected to be there!

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  9. So every dinner invitation is really a potluck? Is that right? I still haven't quite fathomed this one.

    Here, people bbq more often than not, and whenever I've offered to take something along, they've said "oh don't worry", so I've taken them at their word, and taken nothing, or perhaps a bottle of wine. Am I out of line?

    I have noticed, though, that if I take a bunch of flowers ($4.99 alstromeria from Dillons - nothing fancy), they seem overwhelmed, and comment on it the next time I see them too. Is it a London thing? Taking flowers? Seems like the ideal option here. I don't have to cook. I don't have to spend much. But I score huge points.

    And of course I always take along my cute accent, which is worth any number of desserts or pasta salads.

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  10. And by the way, Almost American, don't mention the green bean casserole on Expat Mum's blog... Not her favourite thing.

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  11. No! That must be the mid Westerners. In California you bring a bottle or two of local wine.

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  12. @Iota - I remember that conversation :-)

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  13. I think it must be mid-western and southern because the dinner party incident was in Dallas, and Anne, the book author is southern.

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  14. Taking flowers is certainly a British thing! I was raised to take a hostess gift and a bottle of wine when invited to dinner. Gives you mega brownie points in the US. The first time I was asked to bring an appetizer I had to Google it and then try to find some recipes. What a pain! Then I tried the dessert thing and picked some packaged thing that turned out to take over an hour to reheat. Dessert ended up really late by American standards and no one wanted any by then......And this was at someone elses house! After 6yrs I'm coming down to a homemade dessert & flowers. Seems to score best!

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  15. Ha ha - that sounds like something I would do with the tardy dessert!

    Round these parts, you take a small gift or flowers to a dinner or party. I have a stash of inexpensive but unusual gifts for this very purpose. Things like funny memo pads or paper napkins, posh popcorn (covered in chocolate etc) or delicious chutney. Plus wine. Costs a fortune!


    BTW - I now have 200 followers. Thank you everyone!

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  16. My American friends viewed my home cooking with extreme caution after the rumour went round I had taken sheep's head pies to a kindergarten celebration - it was at this point I discovered mince pies weren't a concept in my neck of the woods and that my Scottishness had led to a justifiable (?) confusion with haggis! Australians also very keen to bring something but are fabulous at making salads - which is good because lettuce leaf and tomato represents my own personal heights so I always suggest a salad.

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  17. Oh, forgot to say flowers, a big bunch of sunflowers always goes over well (in California)

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  18. I'm so glad you posted about this as I've had similar experiences!
    I was going to say that no one seems to bring flowers in the USA but then i just saw A Modern Mothers comment. I always take flowers and wine and ask my guests to bring nibbles - chips or cheese and crackers. Took me a while to get used to the order of things over here too.

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  19. They kind of miss the point of going out for dinner, don't they?

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  20. It's strange. I found that the Brits were almost better at bringing things to parties than my friends back home! Maybe it was because most of them were Welsh?

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  21. I've never taken any food to contribute and nor has anyone brought food to mine - I invite friends over and I cook a great meal and they may be kind enough to bring a bottle of wine and/or some flowers or some other little gift to say thank you....then they ask us to theirs and I do the same! As far as drinking the wine that is brought - hmm, a good can of worms opened here I feel! I used to think of it as a gift for us so a little crass to open it whilst the guests were there, as if we hadn't catered with enough wine ourselves. Then I recently had an epiphany and thought I detected a sorrowful look from my friend's hubby as his bottle of french red wine remained on the sideboard unopened, and I suddenly realised that perhaps that was the idea, and I made faces to my husband to open it and get it doled out once it had breathed of course(!!). The look of delight on our friend's face was palpable as he sipped his beloved wine (not being a wine boffin myself I was quite happy with our Californian red!)

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  22. I'm an American and it's true! Why do we do this?!? When I invite people over, they always ask that, and unless they're my mother, I usually say, 'just bring yourselves.' Then, they show up with something in their arms that comes in a container that won't possibly fit in my fridge. If they'd only bring bottles of good wine, well then! I wouldn't mind! From my own experience, I can just trace it back to this: in the 50's it was common for people to get together for 'potluck dinners' -- where everyone brings a pot of something. The intent, I think, was to not put anyone out. In the 70's we even saw the rise of 'bring your own meat' (no joke), because of a supposed meat shortage that made those products very expensive. But these types of events were usually just the stuff of family picnics. Anyway, I think there's a spirit of dinner party attendees not wanting someone to spend too much $$ on them, so that by contributing something, anything, we're making up for, well...ourselves. It's silly, but well-intentioned, I think. And common, at least in middle-class America. It's kind for someone to respond this way, I tell them not to bother, but they never listen!

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