Holiday etiquette: survive dinner with friends who can’t cook with advice from Karen Cleveland

by Sarah Kelsey

With so many things on the go during the holidays, it can be easy to stumble into a seasonal snafu.

Never fear: we have answers to your “How do I handle this?!” holiday questions (Tweet us or add a comment below) thanks to Karen Cleveland of the Finishing School — a national column devoted to etiquette, manners and civility.

This week, Cleveland tackles faking your way through a bad meal, getting over holiday office-party embarrassments and more.

You’re not a good poker player (read: you can’t lie very well), and you’re sitting a table with all of your close friends enjoying a holiday dinner. The only problem is one of your friends doesn’t “really” know how to cook and what she’s serving is kind of, to put it nicely, gross. How can you fake your way through a bad meal?

“I consider myself blessed that all of my friends are stars in the kitchen. If I found myself in this unfortunate situation, I’d feign ill. Seriously. I’d straight-up lie to my friends to avoid awkwardly explaining why my plate is full,” says Cleveland. “I would excuse myself from the table to get some air/grab some water/give some sort of hint that I’m not feeling well. And once I returned to the table, I’d eat would I could and turn my attention to having fun.”

For Cleveland, the point of having dinner with friends isn’t to critique the food, it’s about enjoying their company. “If you’re able to finagle yourself out of this situation gracefully, plan on how to handle the next dinner invitation you receive from this friend. You could offer to bring a course to the meal, order in or host them at your place.”

You embarrass yourself at a holiday party. You don’t remember what happened. But the next day there are stories circulating around the office about the previous night’s bash — some of those stories include you. What damage control can you do?

“In my circle, this is referred to as ‘The Fear’ or ‘The Scareies’ — that anxious moment when you wake up from a raucous night and need your accomplices to fill in the blanks for you,” says Cleveland. “It’s neither fun, cool nor becoming. In fact, it sucks.”

Her advice? “Once you’ve dealt with your hangover, begin by piecing together the evening by compiling details from those you were with. Find out who you owe an apology (or a whack of money?) to and take immediate action. Your damage control might take the form of a phone call, a massive dry cleaning bill, a handwritten letter or sending flowers. Regardless of how much your sloppy behaviour costs you, every penny is well-spent on redeeming yourself.”

Hanging out with the in-laws over the holidays can be really stressful. Any tips?

“Between the crammed schedules, stretches of commuting to see people and the pressure to be at our happiest, the holidays can be rife with stress. And that stress can be totally magnified when we find ourselves flung into someone else’s traditions,” says Cleveland.

If you begin to feel anxious about seeing in-laws, do as she advises and go with the flow and follow your partner’s family’s lead.

“Maybe your family opens gifts on the morning of December 25 and your in-laws do it the night before — don’t expect them to bend their traditions to accommodate how your family celebrates.”

And if you’re meeting your other half’s family for the first time, get your partner to do some reconnaissance so you aren’t going into the event cold (this way you don’t show up with a prized bottle of scotch to impress his/her father only to learn he doesn’t drink).

Also: “Don’t show up empty-handed. Bring along something that’s both fitting and doesn’t involve work for them. A potted bulb is ready to pop on a table, whereas an armload of fresh-cut flowers means having to find a vase and fuss over cutting and arranging them. Make yourself useful, too. Puttering around in the kitchen with your honey’s parents helps take some of the prep and clean-up work off of their plates and is good chit-chat terrain.”

(First published in The Huffington Post Canada, December 2011)

How to set a perfect table

When I was in high school, I worked for a fancy restaurant. The staff was trained (and really, initiated) by having to serve our extremely severe general manager a meal. Many years later, I’ve never forgotten how to set a table. Please, forgive the terrible diagram.

From left to right…..
· Napkin (some folks place it on top of the plates….purists to the left)
· Side plate (and bread knife on top)
· Salad fork
· Dinner fork
· Dinner plate (with salad plate on top)
· Dinner knife (blade facing the plate)
· Teaspoon
· Soup spoon
· Immediately above the plate is the dessert fork (prongs to the right), and above that, the dessert spoon (tip of the spoon to the left)

Glasses (from left to right)
· Water glass
· Red wine glass
· White glass

When the savoury courses are done and cleared, the only things that should be on the table are the dessert fork and knife. Coffee cup and saucer are added then, just in time for the dessert course.

(First published on She Does the City, October 2010)