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!)