Thursday, January 7, 2010

Holiday Survival Guide

He says

One of the things that makes my wife and me a good pair is our complimentary ways of hosting guests.

For her, the arrival of guests is cause to bring out all the household finery and engage in some wonderful table conversation. I’m always stunned by her unique table and food displays and vivid conversation. As a result we eat amazingly well and leave a crowd of equally amazed and satisfied guests.

Now my own instincts for guests run in a contrary direction. I feel the need to make the house spotless and organized and to ensure that the guests have time to relax when they’re at our house. My instincts - honed by years of assisting at many of my mother and grandmother’s very traditional Arabic gatherings - are to ensure that guests are free to unburden themselves and recline and relax.

The result has been (I like to think) a series of very enjoyable evenings for our friends and family. The process, however, has made for some very interesting discussions between my wife and me.

“What are you doing ... do you have to do that now ... is that really necessary?”

These words may be no surprise to those who know us well. It's not a secret to those who know us well that at first we spent a lot of time running at cross purposes to one another. No sooner would she open the kitchen than I would want to clean it up; no sooner than I would empty the sink and restore items in the closet than she would pull them all out again for the next course.

“Will you desist!” was often on both of our lips when we would get into this state; or sometimes (more politically) “Why don’t you take a break - you look tired.”

Over time, and after much discussion and trial and error and (sometimes) spats of mutual irritation, we’ve come to some compromises. Here are some on the list below:

  • We work in intervals; my wife cooks for a cycle and then I’ll clean for a cycle.
  • We coordinate the event in advance; we negotiate the number of dishes and the type of service - big crowd equals paper dishes; little crowd equals fine china and crystal.
  • We back off; events can be stressful and sometimes the kitchen acts as a zone to blow off steam.
  • Guests can help; we’ve begun to allow our guests to both bring food, wine and desert as well as to help with the clean up when appropriate.

These (and other) arrangements have made our events much less stressful and more successful. We’ve had more fun planning and enjoying since we’ve worked together more cooperatively and it has made the whole house feel happier than ever when the holidays arrive.

Even our young children have begun to feel the change.

My four year old daughter (because she’s a bit older I think) has recently been taken by all the excitement of guests. She has begun to arrange tea parties and dinners for her stuffed animals. She has also, of late, begun to plan events and compose guest lists. I think this has happened because of the many events and guests that we’ve hosted over the holidays and new year.

Now, also being a four year old, she has other interests as well. In particular, she also shares the interests of her preschool peers in cartoon movie characters.

So I suppose it should have been little surprise to us when she melded these passions together.

On a recent night in our house, as I was typing out some emails to work I heard my daughter chatting happily in the background into her toy phone.

“No, Wednesday’s no good .... uh huh .... well I can make ice cream and chocolate chip pancakes if you like ... okay, I’ll see you on Friday.”

It all sounded cute and silly and I paid little attention to her patter.

After a time she came up to me purposefully and planted herself in front of my chair.

“Daddy,” she said with her toy phone in one hand and the other akimbo on her hip, “I just spoke with Megatron. The Deceptacons are coming to Shabbat dinner on Friday.”

“Oh boy,” I thought, “They probably won’t help clean up either.”

She says

We both tend to go overboard. I have my Nana's knack for pulling out all the stops; our events scream (with a Brooklyn-ny nasal accent) "hazah, hazah". They may not have all the bling of her diamond district jewelry nor the pizazz of her bleached, blond beehive, but like her ruby red lipstick, they tend to leave a mark. Esther was a famous cook and entertainer; more than 50 years later people still reminisce with me about her baking, cooking, knitting, cleaning, and presentation. She was fearless and brazen; no dish was too complicated, and no method was too daunting, and all bent to her skill and creativity, making each event a culinary triumph.

But she was no picnic. Esther was, ironically, a tough cookie. I spent much of my youth in awe of her, fearing her wrath and yearning for her love, both of which she gave in abundance. My standards for entertaining were set by my Nana's example, but I do not have her ruthless sense of purpose or drive. Once, she made an elaborate dinner party for the family,my uncle (her son), and his fiancee, and at the very end publicly humiliated them by announcing that she refused to accept their marriage. My Mother clearly remembers her marching my Grand-Father to vacuum in front of everyone right after another meal, retaining rank and order in a single bound. Everyone left her gatherings well fed and agitated. She never understood why, and was genuinely sad and confused about her relationships.

I have no desire to treat my husband or guests that way. I want my home to be a warm place where people can come and enjoy themselves. I want delicious food that makes people smile and ask for a second helping. I want my children to remember holidays as happy occasions, replete with family and love.

None of this can be accomplished however if 10 minutes before everyone arrives I am acting like a mental case because I can't find the rafia my husband cleverly hid. Or he is cursing because I made two brisket courses (it happens). Or if we have been fighting or worse silently resenting the other for whatever he or she did or did not do, finding ourselves at cross purposes. I agree that the key to success is communication before, during, and after an event.

We try to talk it out and then stay out of each other's way. This year he begged me not to ask him to do any last minute shopping. He always returns with the wrong thing from the wrong store that I didn't need anyway because I finagled it after he took too long to get it (sigh). And of course I am none to gracious about it, leaving him confused and angry and me pissed and empty-handed. So I honored his request and took extra care with the shopping, ordering in advance and making sure everything was on hand. Quid pro quo, I like to set a nice table. And tend to get anxious in the hours leading up to the event. So when the piles are still all over the dining room 30 minutes before guests are to arrive, my heart starts beating like an Edgar Allen Poe story. This time I asked him if he could clean up earlier, explaining why as best I could. And he did it, no questions asked. The place was spotless by early afternoon, and I was very, very grateful.

Both if us respond well when the other acknowledges the work we did. We make a point of toasting each other in front of the guests and thanking each other for the help. And when one of us says back off, we do. This makes for a cheerful and generous atmosphere at our occasions, more so than any of my cooking or his cleaning. That's what counts. I know my Nana and Megatron would be proud.