Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holidays, Graces!

I'll be signing off through the holiday week for various family visits, gatherings, and travels up and down the east coast. Consider it research for future posts.

I bid you a temporary farewell with one of my fave Christmas classics:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gracious Grab Bag Gifts

The 'grab bag' seems to be in vogue this year as a gift giving trend, and I kind of like it. It enables a group (family, office staff, book club, or overeaters' anonymous support group) to enjoy the gift-giving tradition of the season without having to buy gifts for each person in the circle. Each participant purchases an item valued at a predetermined amount, and when the group gathers together the exchange begins.

The exchange can be a simple grab bag arrangement, where all the gifts are placed in a large bin and each person pulls one out, or it can be set up as a "Yankee Swap" (aka "Chinese Auction") in which numbers are drawn out of a hat. The person with number one chooses and unwraps a gift. Number Two then chooses; if Two prefers One's gift, they swap. This procedure continues for everyone at the gathering until the very last, with each successive number having the option to choose from all of the previous gifts. You will see that the Kiehl's bath and body set is frequently commandeered, whilst the reindeer embossed dishtowels languish disconsolately with their unlucky recipient.

After all guests have drawn and opened their gifts, Number One resurfaces and has free range to pick any of the gifts in the room. (In case you are wondering, Two is the least advantageous number in this setup; I ended up with a Wham's greatest hits CD last year as a result of my unfortunate lottery draw.)

In order to avoid this cruel fate (or to be labeled as the person with the worst taste in the crowd,) here are some suggestions for modestly priced gifts that will be frequently swapped and swiped...

  • Itunes or Starbucks gift card
  • Bottle of Champagne and non alcoholic cider for New Years Eve
  • Gourmet coffee/tea
  • Wine/spirits/beer
  • selection of mustards or hot sauces
  • Hand cream and anti bacterial hand gel
  • fleece or cashmere gloves
  • scarf and/or hat
  • bath/body products and/or hair products
  • olive oil/balsamic vinegar
  • chocolates
  • christmas ornament
  • books (this can be risky, pick a recently published award winner.)
  • magazine subscription of recipient's choice
  • scented candles

And nobody does these like "The Office"....I suggest avoiding the holiday oven mitt!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Grace's Homemade Gifts

Not sure what to get your boss? Feeling a budget crunch? These homemade gift ideas will help you stay on the Gracious path as you navigate these rocky shoals....

Friday, December 17, 2010

Be Our Guest, Be Our Host, Be a Grace

The following question came in yesterday from a regular reader; my guess is that she may have been in a host/guest situation in which one party did not keep his/her Grace on at all times. But of course my reader, who is a Grace, is far too Gracious to point that out. I infer this, of course, because she asked the question; if both guest and host behaved correctly, the inquiry would not be necessary. What do you think, Graces?

Dear Grace,
Do you agree with this statement: "When you go to someone's house, you accommodate them, not the other way around."?

Grace Says:

Yes and no. Graces are always considerate of other people, so whether we are hosting or guesting we are mindful of others' comfort and ease....kind of like the hospitality extended and received in "Beauty and the Beast." Wouldn't you love to have dancing, singing, serving, (mostly serving) furniture and housewares?

But to answer your question...
I have always been a proponent of "When in Rome....", meaning that when you visit someone, you try to adapt to his habits, even if they are not your cup of Darjeeling. Whether it means drinking a cloyingly sweet port with the appetizers, attending a lecture on the many species of algae inhabiting local ponds, or eating cold pizza for breakfast, good guests go with the flow....within reason.

The flipside of this, of course, is that as a Gracious host, you attempt to, well, be a Gracious host. If your guest is allergic to cats, you clean the guest room before his arrival and keep Fluffy out of there for the duration of the visit. If your guest is a strict vegetarian, don't serve steak with a side of sausage and salad topped with bacon bits for dinner. If she likes to exercise every day, make arrangements for some fitness time; this does not mean you must partake--a pass to the local gym or directions to a walking trail should suffice.

Whichever side of this equation you are on, I hope your counterpart maintains the Gracious standard.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Office Party Etiquette

'Tis the are some tips on how to keep your Grace on at the office party:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Going Postal

So there I was in the post office yesterday. Yes, December is a challenging time to go, but it was necessary. I should say up front that the postal workers at my post office are uncharacteristically nice and helpful. This seems to be an aberration in the profession based on my experience in other postal facilities, but I am thankful that this aberration occurred in my ZIP Code. I have often wondered about the theory posited in the movie Men in Black II, which claimed that many postal workers are actually alien beings living on earth disguised as humans. But I digress.

I waited on line to mail some gifts and procure stamps for holiday cards. A fellow customer had been assiduously filling out forms for international shipping and learned as she approached the counter that she had done so incorrectly. The clerk was helpful and kind; she explained the proper procedure, and advised the woman to redo it, and upon completion to return to the counter, not wait in the now serpentine line again. To say the customer was a sourpuss is an understatement along the lines of "Krakatoa was a minor rumble". She grumbled to the clerk, shot daggers at those of us on line, and generally exuded aggressive misery.

Abruptly, she turned toward those of us waiting and snapped, "Who smoked a cigar? It is totally rancid. You should go outside right now." Naturally, no one admitted it (though she did have a point, cigar smoke does linger unpleasantly--but she certainly wasn't going to get anywhere with her approach.) When those of us receiving her wrath shifted uncomfortably, she said, "No one will admit it." Attempting to lighten things up, I said, "Well, under the circumstances, who would?". It became even clearer at that moment that she and I would never be good friends. She continued her not quite sotto voce rant on the foulness of the odor clinging to one of us, and finally finished her transaction.

What is a Grace to do?

Well, you know how I feel about scenes--chew the tongue off first. My attempt to break the ice, which was a reasonable option were we dealing with a slightly reasonable person, failed. At that point, the best choice is silence, peppered with vigilance; you never know when a nut like that might just "Go Postal."

Finally, the Anti-Tobacco League left, and a man (normally I would say "gentleman", but you'll soon see that the label doesn't fit) approached me and began picking at my coat. It was made of down, and sometimes the filling escapes. I looked at him oddly, as he mumbled (it was a big day for mumblers at the local PO) "what have you got here?" "my, my, my, you're losing something," and the like. I glanced quizzically at the postal clerk, with whom I am friendly, and she gestured for me to move away. When I got up to her station, she whispered, "He's a total pervert. He always comes in here and looks for excuses to touch people. One of these days he's gonna get socked!"

I exited stage right with all possible dispatch and planned to have my remaining gifts sent via online orders.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Tipping, Grace Style

'Tis the season....Everyone and his mailman is looking for a holiday tribute for providing you with a clean house, safe children, a groomed dog, a landscaped yard, a fed get the picture.  In these lean times, here are my guidelines on how to prioritize, and what to do if your budget simply can't accommodate the customary cash offerings....

Monday, December 13, 2010

NFL Etiquette?

I am well aware that this sounds like a contradiction in terms. You know I am big proponent of staying in your lane. So I am not here to expound on the lack of etiquette demonstrated by the NFL players in general. I do not expect them to identify a salad fork or draft the proper wording on a formal invitation. But I do expect them to adhere to the codes of conduct that govern their game. It sounds incongruous, I know, but there is an etiquette of football. It's called sportsmanship.

That's why I was so disgusted to learn of the following two incidents that occurred during yesterday's games:

A coach of the NY Jets intentionally tripped an opposing player and injured him.

Trippee Nolan Carroll left the game immediately following the incident but returned at a later point. Teammate Channing Crowder remarked: "He stuck his leg out and tripped him? He should be ashamed of himself. A grown man from the coaching staff? That's high character.” There's a first for everything: an Inside Linebacker on the Gracious path.

Although the other incident that chipped my polish did not involve aggressive interference leading to actual bodily harm, it was egregious nonetheless. Can't Desean Jackson just play well, enjoy his success and move on? Must he rub the other team's nose in it by stopping on the one yard line and collapsing into the endzone? These peacocking displays are obnoxious, hubristic, and ultimately do not serve the team. Let's not forget, Jackson does have a bit of a problem with premature celebrations:

So come on, guys. We're not asking you to serve afternoon tea and scones; we're just asking you to stay on the Gracious side of the line of scrimmage.

Friday, December 10, 2010

RSVP, Damn It!

With the holidays upon us and parties being thrown like rice at a wedding, now is the time for all good Graces to come to the aid of the party. Shout it from the rafters: RSVP is not optional. Repondez s'il vous plait does not translate into "let the hostess know at some point maybe if you feel like it and remember to unless you get a better offer for something more exciting that night". Nor does it mean "wait til the last minute, then call the hostess and say you're bringing your parents and 5 friends who happen to be in town for the weekend, all of whom are on restricted diets". Or God forbid your uninvited kids.

When you are fortunate enough to receive a kind invitation from a generous host (or even a repugnant invitation from an abhorrent acquaintance) you absolutely, positively must respond. Promptly. I feel even more strongly about this than writing thank you notes--and you know how militant I am about thank you notes.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been forced into the undignified position of calling invitees 3 days before a party and asking whether they plan to attend. By then, I am so irritated with these louts that I hope the answer is a sheepish no, but as a Grace, I would rather wear pleated pants than be caught short as a host, so I hunt down these miscreants to insure an accurate count and ample supplies. For them. Talk about a flawed system. (well, ok, maybe not pleated pants, but you get my drift.) Provisioning for a party is work (I love it, but it is still work), and it should not be complicated by playing russian roulette with the number of filets mignons you buy at $18.00/lb, or even the number of cocktail franks at $1.29/lb, or for that matter, the number of pizzas you plan to order. Caterers need head counts, and hosts should not pay for guests who have no intention of showing up. If you are one of those people and you are reading this, there is hope for you yet--we will set you on the Gracious Path.

Nearly as bad as the non-rsvp offender is the waffler. This is the charmer who says right up until the day of the party, "I may come by early or late if I have time." or "I am going to a matinee, then dinner, but I will try to come on my way home." Or the lovely who says, "We planned to go out to dinner but will try to come for a drink beforehand." Is this helpful? NO! They don't think about the fact that I now need to consider appetizers and drinks for 2 more, and the possibility that they may just decide to hunker down and stay for dinner once they get here. Do I order 2 more lobsters on this eventuality?

I kid you not, I received an email one morning (10 hours before my party was scheduled to begin) that read "I am sure I am the last person on your list to rsvp. I really want to come but I am going to the boat show today, then out to dinner in Chinatown, but I'll try to come later if I can." Gee, thanks. I was tempted to respond: "Thanks for letting me know. Maybe we'll open the door if you ring, or maybe we'll just leave you standing on the steps." But of course, Graces end up compensating for others' boorishness. I wrote back, "We hope you'll be able to make it; would love to see you." I erased my first draft, not wanting to appear snarky. But I felt very snarky.

Another RSVP no-no: Asking who else is coming. If the hostess volunteers this information, fine. You may graciously respond, "sounds like a fun group," or "Great! I met Greg and Marcia at a benefit last week and loved them. Can't wait to see them again," or "I'll look forward to meeting them all Saturday." Or say nothing. You never want to be the person who says, "Ugh, I can't stand George and Laura. If they are coming I simply won't be able to." This puts the hostess in an awkward position, and, frankly makes you look infantile. I can think of few scenarios which justify backing out at this point, but if you truly think coexisting with said invitee(s) would ruin the party, then be honest: "Abigail, I have to tell you, we are in the middle of a contentious lawsuit with Carol and Mike. Their dog killed our cat last month and we are suing them for wrongful death. I think it would be better if we declined your generous invitation and got together with you and John some other time. Please don't give it a second thought; how could you have known? Have a wonderful party, thank you for thinking of us, and let's pick a date to have dinner very soon. Are you free on the 7th?"

Required: Swiftly Verify Plans. That's what RSVP means. Learn it. Live it. Share it.

Because if you don't, and you simply show up, you are no better than a party crasher. And you know how we feel about them...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Dos and Don'ts of Re-Gifting

Pretty soon, your holiday decorations will be put away, your thank you notes will be sent, and your gym regimen to battle the bulge from all those Christmas cookies will be in full swing. At that point it will be time to deal with The Gift. And Graces, like the Boy Scouts (homophobia notwithstanding) must Be Prepared.

We all get one. That total lemon that you wouldn't be caught dead in a ditch with but the fact remains, it's yours. The life size poster of your nephew playing basketball. The sweater with a reindeer on it. The set of decorative plates depicting frolicking kittens. The cuckoo clock. The complete set of Danielle Steele novels. The scarf with a piano key pattern.

Last year, mine was a pair of gold, elbow length gloves studded with rhinestones, suitable for either Ginger on Gilligan's Island (were she to be marooned in a non-tropical location) or the King of Mardi Gras. My solution was simple, I gave them to my daughter for dress up. She was overjoyed. When and if a time comes when the giver catches me, I will play the mommy card: "you know how it is; when your child shows such rapture in something it is hard to say no. And she is so careful with her prized dress-up items that I know she will keep them in pristine shape for me. Her closet is in much better order than mine; I am thinking of putting her in charge of my jewelry next!"

In general, I am a proponent of regifting. It is economical, saving you both time and money. It epitomizes recycling. It means that hopefully someone, somewhere, will enjoy the gift you didn't. But it has to be done with care. In order to regift successfully, I abide by a few Gracious Guidelines:

1. Don't regift where you eat. By this I mean you must ensure that there will be no overlap and zero chance of your getting caught. If you "won" the piano key scarf in the office grab bag, don't give it to your assistant for her birthday next week. Give it to your piano playing niece as a "congratulations on your recital" present. (It might even buy your way out of attending said concert.)

2. Ugly is ugly, don't pass it on. No one (not even Colin Firth) should wear a reindeer sweater. Do not participate in the propagation of this scourge. Cut it into pieces and use it as a cleaning rag.

3. Use the little white lie. When Aunt Tillie asks about how you are progressing through the complete works of Danielle Steele, tell her that you are saving them for your upcoming trip to read on the beach.

In case you are unfamiliar with its origins, here is the etymological source of the term "ReGifting". Thank you, Seinfeld.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

With Friends Like This, Who Needs Frenemies?

Dear Grace,
I recently invited 2 friends to attend a benefit, in fact the biggest social event in our town this season. I did not ask for reimbursement for the ticket expenses, but rather invited both as my guests. We planned to meet for dinner beforehand, then proceed to the party. While one guest (Guest 1) met up with me more or less on time, the second guest (Guest 2) was nearly an hour late. Guest 1 and I discovered that Guest 2 had met up with others instead of joining us for dinner--without telling us, so we ended up waiting for her.

On our way to the gala, Guest 2 asked if I had the tickets, as she wanted to meet up with some other people beforehand. I explained that our tickets were electronically traceable to my credit card, which had to be presented, along with IDs at the door, so separate entry it wasn't possible. We arrived with time to spare so we decided to have a drink in a nearby bar before moving onto the event. At this point, Guest 2 did offer to buy a round of drinks, then complained that the beverage I chose was too expensive.

At the party, Guest 1 and I sat together, enjoying the spectacle and the crowd. Guest 2, seated directly to my left, abandoned our seats as the event began, again to see other people. Guest 2 left us repeatedly throughout the evening. After several hours, Guest 1 and I had had our fill and were ready to leave. Guest 2 had not returned, so Guest 1 and I left. Guest 1 escorted me home in a taxi, which she paid for, then proceeded on her way. Later, Guest 2 texted me, to find out if I left and why. I have not responded.

My question is - does Guest 2 owe an apology to me and Guest 1?

Grace Says:

The straighforward answer is yes, Guest 2 should apologize, and also send a thank you for your generous invitation. The reality is, however, that based on the horror story you shared, the owed apology is likely to arrive with the freezing over of hell, the needle appearing out of the haystack, or the camel fitting through the eye of a needle and the flight of pigs--pick your cliche. And dare I suggest, pick a replacement for 2; she doesn't deserve you.

You may want to batten down the hatches for the inevitable confrontation--people like 2 invariably skate over their own appalling behavior and instead focus on a bone they believe they have to pick with others. Justifiable though your departure was, 2 will undoubtedly make this entire contretemps about your 'abandonment'. Beware of that, and be done with 2. There are lots of other numerals out there who would love to go to a party with you. Maybe you should stick with the odd numbers? No one needs a frenemy, just ask the Mean Girls:

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Thanks, But No Thanks

Dear Grace,

I always enjoy reading your posts! I would love your ideas on the following--my dear and wonderful husband is always so thoughtful and considerate in his gift giving to me. When he does buy me something that I know I may not use, and I know I would enjoy something more do you think I should exchange it? I would never want to hurt his feelings nor dampen his spirit in gift-giving, but Hanukkah is here, and I want to be prepared. Thanks for your advice.

Grace Says:

This is a tricky one, indeed, and like many scenarios, the answer is "it depends". If your dear and wonderful husband (by the way, does he have a brother?) bought you a very expensive item that he hoped you would wear daily and it just isn't to your taste, then you should probably fess up. Try your own version of the following script: "Darling, I really love the tiara you got me for Hanukkah, and I know you bought it thinking I would wear it all the time. When I opened it, I thought I would , too. But I am finding that it isn't really workable for me chasing the kids around the park and careening through the grocery store. I am in a quandary--because I truly love the tiara, but I hate to think that it will spend most of its life on my shelf, and only come out for a few very formal occasions. Part of me would love to trade it in for an eternity band that I would wear 24/7. What do you think?"

If the gift is a smaller ticket item and you can consider appearing in it in public occasionally, then keep it, break it out from time to time and hold your tongue. Keep up the good grace in your appreciation and sensitivity to your lovely husband--and, really, tiaras can be au courant if paired with the appropriate ensemble.

Since you mentioned Hanukkah, I was reminded of Adam Sandler's hilarous 'carol'; couldn't resist sharing it. Enjoy, and Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sometimes a Recipe is Not Just a Recipe

Dear Grace,
I strive to be a Grant, I really do. But I got myself into the dog house last night over what I thought was nothing--but my wife disagrees. Here's the scenario:

I was watching a game when she came home last night from a work event. She said hello, then went to the computer and printed out something. I figured she was taking care of some household accounting; we had paid bills together earlier in the day. She came into the den and handed me the papers. I thought it was something I had to sign so I looked up from the game. It was a recipe--for mulled wine.

I hate mulled wine. She knows that, or I thought she did. I looked confused, having expected an electric bill, then must have frowned at the recipe. She said something like "What's your problem?" I was still mystified and said, sort of bemused, "I don't like mulled wine." She grabbed the recipe, huffed off, and shouted "Fine! Then I won't make any for you." She has been in a snit since yesterday and I really can't figure out what I did wrong. Was I rude? I don't even know what to apologize for--hating mulled wine? Please help.

Grace Says:

I'm sure you are a Grant. The fact that you are seeking a solution to this instead of storming off in an equivalent huff tells me that. The decision you need to make is whether you want this episode to be fair or finished.

If you seek fair, then Wife should come to you, hat in hand, and apologize for her irrational reaction to an innocuous response on your part. Realistically, that may not happen, and requiring it may only escalate this contretemps. As Bill Clinton learned the hard way, sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. (Or, in your case, sometimes a recipe is not just a recipe.)
When considering the cigar, sometimes one must take into account how the tobacco was grown, where it was harvested, the factory in which it was processed--ok, this metaphor may be getting a bit out of control, but I am driving at the following: you don't know what may have preceded the mulled wine outburst. Wife may have had a miserable time at the work event, the household accounting session you had earlier in the day may have stressed her out, the frenzy of the holidays may be overwhelming her.

For all you know, the mulled wine may have been a version of her dear departed granny's brew that was part of the family's Christmas tradition dating back generations, has been lost for a decade, and she just located it on the internet after exhaustive research. (Incidentally, I agree with you about mulled wine; due respect to the hypothetical granny, if the wine warrants sugar and spice it is probably not worth drinking, and if the wine is good enough to drink then it should not be adulterated thus. But I digress.)

Option B is to make it finished, definitely the more practical approach, and the only one you have the ability to implement. There are two approaches here. My preferred method is to forget it and move on; if she is over it without reliving the exchange, then (with apologies to the Fab Four) let it be. If the episode needs to be revisited in order to be put to rest, approach your wife and say, "I really didn't mean to hurt your feelings about the mulled wine. I was distracted, I thought you were handing me something else, and I didn't know the recipe meant so much to you. I am sorry that my reaction was hurtful, and even though I probably won't drink it, I will help you grind the nutmeg and cinnamon if you like."

Any girl worth her Grace would forgive you under the circ's. (I mean, for heaven's sake, you were watching the game and she shoved a recipe under your nose.) If she doesn't, well, you may want to seek advice of an entirely different sort.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Gift Giving 101

My advice on gifts is nearly always to bestow something consumable--not necessarily ingestible, but something that can be used up. The theory behind this is that even if the recipient does not love your choice, it is not permanent. No doubt you have great taste, but nothing is worse than bestowing an antique Limoges teapot on a household that is an altar to Philippe Stark.

My mother-in-law, who has exquisite and expensive taste, was the unfortunate recipient of a life-sized countertop monkey statue with an outstretched hand to hold bananas for optimal ripening. This was particularly awkward because the giver was someone who works nearby and visits almost daily. Every Friday, like some religious ritual, the monkey is stored in the mudroom cupboard for the weekend.

We have all received the equivalent of the banana monkey at some point in our lives. We hope that we have never given one. In order to ensure that your gifting is Gracious, I offer the following tips:

  • Don't buy gifts based on what you like. The giftee might adore you, but your affection for Lladro and marzipan? She doesn't share it.
  • Be wary of wearables. There are too many places to go wrong: size, color, cut...
  • Be doubly wary of anything that might be considered "home decor". Remember the banana monkey! No one wants a table runner as a gift, "art" is the most subjective of all subjects, and a friend who thinks you want (or even need) a paperweight is an odd sort of friend.
  • Gift certificates are not a cop-out. My aunt gave me one recently to Williams Sonoma, and I think of her every time I use my new pepper mill. It's such a kick to walk into a store and buy something without spending any money.
  • Still in doubt? Ask the giftee's spouse/significant other, close friend or sister. They're the ones most likely to suggest something that won't end up re-gifted or in the back of the closet.
  • If you still think she's going to love the banana-monkey, at least make sure she can return it. Just in case she already has one.

Enjoy this clip from Will and Grace on the hazards of giving a handmade objet d'art....

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Savory Surprises

My homemade gifts are always of the consumable variety. Doubtless there are people who make lovely ornaments, wreaths, or handpainted plates to bestow as potentially cherished gifts. But glue guns, stencils and anything involving silk flowers or wired ribbon make me hyperventilate and break out in hives. I avoid craft stores like the plague. My creativity is culinary, and I love to spread it around during the holiday season. Food gifts work; they are economical, personal, and best of all, not permanent--like the cake plate adorned with your nephew's face or the purple and gold
wreath that prevents your door from shutting properly.....Here, as promised, are some more ideas for the Graces among you who prefer to bestow a savory treat.

1. Parsley Pesto

When the mercury drops, basil, which is the traditional herb for pesto, is hard to come by. If you do manage to find it, it's ruinously expensive and of dubious quality. Parsley is ubiquitous and cheap, and happens to taste great, so I concocted this delicious, accessible, off-season alternative to our fave summer sauce.

4 cups flat leaf parsley, rinsed
4 cloves garlic, peeled
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tbsp pine nuts
generous sprinkle of crushed red pepper

Equipment: Cuisinart or blender, small jars or containers.

Mix all ingredients in Cuisinart or blender til completely blended and smooth. Distribute into gift sized jars or plastic containers. Pesto keeps in the fridge for about a week or frozen for several months. It's great tossed on pasta, spread on bruschetta, scooped by the teaspoon into minestrone soup, or slathered on grilled/roasted fish or chicken.

Variation: substitute arugula or cilantro for the parsley.

2. Honey-Mustard Dressing

4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup mustard
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup vinegar

Equipment: Cusinart or blender, small jars/containers

Puree til all ingredients are mixed,and dressing takes on a smooth, creamy consistency. Distribute into jars. Honey Mustard Dressing keeps in fridge for about a week. This is great as a salad dressing or as a dip for crudites.

3. Mango Chutney

1 large mango, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 Tbsp white vinegar
1 Tbsp chopped jalapeno pepper (optional; may omit or substitute hotter pepper)
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp turmeric
freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients in 1-1/2 qt microwave safe bowl. Microwave for 7 minutes. Stir, cool, then cover tightly and store in refrigerator. Chutney keeps for 1 week in fridge and is divine on roasted or grilled fish.

4. Dinner

No specifics here, rather some guidelines. Who wouldn't love a cook-free night during the holiday season? This allows you to play to your strengths and give a most welcome gift. Do you make a magnificent mac and cheese? A mean meatball? Perfect Puttanesca sauce? Excellent enchiladas? Superb soup? Ok, enough alliteration, you get my drift. If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to give something that will be really appreciated (just don't give the bacon clam chowder to your Kosher neighbor or beef chili to your vegan hairdresser.) Assuming that you avoid these pitfalls, mix up a batch and deliver it; it can be frozen for future use, or heated for immediate consumption.

Here are some general strategies:

  • Always use disposable containers--unless the dish/pan is part of the gift. Aluminum baking dishes, one-use Tupperwares, or even giant Ziploc bags work just fine. It sort of undermines the gesture if the grateful recipient has to deal with the hassle of returning your soup tureen long after enjoying your delicious minestrone.
  • Choose something that has shelf-life. (Remember, during the holiday season, there are lots of nights out, parties, and events that make traditional dinners at home somewhat scarce.) Your creation should be an item that can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, or is freezer-friendly. Avoid souffles and sushi.
  • Affix heating/serving instructions to the dish--better yet, write it in Sharpie marker directly on the foil or container.

Perhaps you'll take a cooking class this season to glean further inspiration. If so, I hope it does not resemble this one, from Will and Grace--I do miss that show!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sweet Surprises

With the economy in the tank, there is widespread concern about how to express regard and affection for our nearest and dearest, not to mention both the inner ring and outer ring of people on whom rely to make our lives run smoothly--nannies, pet sitters, hairdressers, mailmen, and the like. In lieu of cash or other extravagant material goods, I offer the following suggestions for homemade treats in these lean times.....You'll notice, I'm sure, that fruitcake is conspicuously absent from the list.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things.....

1. Christmas Bark

1 bag Ghirardelli White Chocolate Chips
1 cup crushed peppermints--candy canes or pinwheels work fine. (Put candy in large ziploc bag and smash with a meat tenderizer, rolling pin, or other heavy, blunt instrument.)

Equipment: 1 baking sheet, parchment paper, cello bags and ribbon

Melt the chips in a microwave bowl on 30% power for 4 minutes. (White chocolate has a tendency to burn, so be sure to keep the power at 30%). When melted, stir til smooth. Add the crushed peppermint and mix well. Spread on baking sheet lined with parchment. Refrigerate 15 minutes, til completely solid. Break into bite-sized pieces and put in the cello bags, tie with ribbon. Note: This keeps in the fridge for weeks, so make a few batches and keep on hand for unexpected gift needs--a bag of homemade Christmas bark accompanied by a tip for the postman or dry cleaner is a very nice, personal touch. There are many variations to this recipe. Use dark or milk chocolate, melt 4 minutes on 50% power (it is much less tempermental than white chocolate) and mix with nuts, dried fruit crushed peppermints or shredded coconut.

2. Chocolate Sauce

1 bag Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Chips
1 cup milk
1/4 cup dry, unsweetened cocoa powder

Mix milk and cocoa powder in small saucepan, heat til bubbles form around rim of pan. Meanwhile, pour chips into medium sized, heatproof bowl. Pour heated milk mixture over chips and stir til smooth. This keeps in the fridge for 10 days or frozen for several months. It's great as fondue or atop ice cream--heated in microwave on 50% power or on stove at low heat. A tablespoon or 2 can be mixed with hot milk for a particularly indulgent cup of hot chocolate.

3. Caramel Sauce

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp sea salt

Mix sugar and water in medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat for about 15 minutes, til sugar melts and entire mixture browns. Remove from heat, add cream. Sauce will bubble up. Stir constantly til smooth. Add butter and salt. Cool slightly, pour into jars and refrigerate. This only keeps for a couple of days, so don't make an enormous batch for distribution 3 weeks in advance--advise recipients to heat it gently and stir before serving.

4. Cookies

Everyone loves cookies, and there are literally hundreds of recipes to choose from. Check out, the back of the chocolate chip bag, or the top of the oatmeal canister for ideas. No matter the recipe, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Always use baking parchment. Cookies never stick to it and it eliminates scrubbing.
  • Always have waxed paper in the house. When you make a batch of dough, separate it into 8 inch long, 1-1/2 inch in diameter logs which you can wrap in waxed paper and store in the fridge (for a week) or the freezer (for a month or more). When you need some cookies, simply slice off the number required, bake them and voila--perfect, freshly-made treats. This is great for gift-giving, but also for general consumption--nothing's better than a right-out-of-the-oven cookie, but you may not want 4 dozen of them sitting on your counter. With the dough log approach, you have great quantity control.
  • Use cello bags tied with ribbon for economical, attractive presentation.
  • Choose a basic recipe that offers variety. Make a double or triple batch chocolate chip dough, but before adding the chips, separate the dough into a few different bowls. Add chocolate chips to one, white chips and macadamia nuts to another, dried cherries or raisins to another, 1/2 cup of strong coffee and a few tablespoons of Kalhua to another. This also works with oatmeal cookies--mix some dough with raisins, some with chocolate chips, some with chopped apricots, others with cashews. Also with basic butter cookies--make some vanilla, some lemon, some coconut, some chocolate. This way, you will only have made one type of dough, but a produced a significant variety of cookies.

5. Truffles

1 bag Ghirardelli double chocolate chips
3 oz butter
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Equipment: 5x9 inch loaf pan (or pan of similar size and dimension), parchment or wax paper, cello bags, ribbon.

Line pan with wax or parchment paper on bottom and up sides.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave at 50% power. Stir til smooth. Add egg yolk and whisk til just mixed. Pour chocolate into prepared pan and refrigerate til firm, approx 45 minutes. Remove from fridge and check texture. Chocolate should be firm but still soft enough to cut without breaking. If it is too hard, leave it at room temp for about 10-15 minutes. Unmold chocolate and cut into 3/4 inch squares. Put cocoa powder in shallow dish, dust your hands with cocoa, and roll each square in cocoa to coat. You can leave them square, or if you believe truffles must be round, roll them into balls between your palms and coat them with the cocoa in the dish. These keep for 10 days in the fridge or 1 month in the freezer. Put a dozen or so in each cello bag, tie with ribbon, present to eager and awed recipient.

6. Sweet and Spicy Nuts

Heat oven to 350.

4 c nuts (I use pecans, but this works with just about any single nut or a mixture)
1 egg white
1 c sugar
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice (or more to taste)
1 tsp salt

Beat egg white til it bubbles. Add nuts and mix. Add all remaining ingredients, mix again. Spread on cookie sheet and bake 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even roasting, til nuts begin to brown. Cool completely and pour nuts into cello bags; tie with ribbon.

Speaking of gifts, ya gotta love this clip from Modern Familywhere Phil expounds on his gift giving prowess, and well, other skills.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gift For The Boss

This year's office holiday party reflects our less-than-stellar year and will be at the boss's home. Do I bring a host gift for him? If so, are your typical suggestions of hostess gifts appropriate for this work-related function?

Grace Says:

I suspect that given the current economy that your firm's situation is not unique. Under the circumstances, it is actually quite generous of your boss to host and he should be treated as such. Skip the Dom Perignon or truffle oil as host gifts for obvious reasons. Consider bringing a homemade item that plays to your strengths: cookies, candy, seasoned vinegar or spiced nuts can all be packaged beautifully to make lovely gifts.

If you and/or your boss are not foodies, consider a modest purchased item: a Christmas ornament or box of hand-dipped Hanukkah candles, a pound of coffee beans, a book, a bottle of wine, cocktail napkins, note cards, luxury homegoods (soaps, candles, disposable hand towels). Here are some more ruminations on heavenly hostess gifts.

And keep in mind that, while this appears to be a social occasion, it is also a work occasion. You may think that that third shot of tequila will make you the life of the party; more likely it will make you smooch your boss, his wife, or his puggle. Do you really want that on Facebook tomorrow morning?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gifting Grace Style

How did it get to be the holiday season already? I feel like I just got over the allergic reaction to my Halloween makeup and Bam! Jingle bells and sugar plums are swooping down upon me. Kind of like this episode of Frasier..loved that show!

But the fact remains, the holidays are upon us and that means gifts. I have received a number of inquiries in recent days about the ins and outs of gifting--how to deal with it in these tough economic times, what to give your boss (if anything), hostess gifts for the office party, and gift bag full of related items. The next week or so will be devoted to these issues, and I'll start today with a general overview of Gracious gifting....

Giving gifts is not difficult. It can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. What masterful gift giving requires above all is attentiveness. Here are two illustrative tales....

My dear sister-in-law, whom I truly adore, and not only because she constantly insists that if I were to divorce her brother she would be 100% on my side, has a birthday in September. We routinely spend a couple of weeks with her family in August on the New England Coast. (I am happy to report that this vacation is truly a vacation, nothing like the tale sent last week by a readerlast week.) Invariably, Sis will compliment me on something or remark on how much she likes a particular item. And voila! Instant birthday idea. One year it was the socks I wore on our power walk; another Fit Flops. After that birthday, she told me, "Next summer I'm going to tell you that I really like your car."

Last year, we visited some friends in Aspen. During our visit, our hostess was agonizing over the death of their fruit trees. They had planted a few when they moved to their new home, but the incompetent landscaper neglected to liberate said trees' roots from their wire cages. The poor trees strangled, leaving behind a rather barren front yard. Lawsuits aside, we discovered the perfect 'thank you' gift for our hosts. We had two healthy, robust apple trees delivered to their home a week after our departure. Our friends were thrilled, and we felt great for having given them something that they truly wanted and needed.

My latest fave gift is a personalized CD mix. I know, I know, everyone uses Ipods these days, but most car systems still have CD players and most Ipod docks have a CD slot. And even if the CD won't be played, the playlists from the CDs can be loaded into the recpient's Itunes account, thus adding a bunch of new songs to the library. Now, everyone can make a CD of great songs--but as a Grace, I like to put a personalized twist on them. Consider making a playlist of songs that spell out the recipient's name, like so:

Girls Just Want to Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper
Real Real Gone by Van Morrison
Accidentally in Love by Counting Crows
Come On Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runners
End of the Line by the Traveling Wilburys

Or, spell out a message--my Dad got "Happy Father's Day" spelled out in song this past June and was quite pleased with it.

Pay attention to your friends' and families' comments. "I can't wait to try the new Mexican place in town"; or "I love manicures but I can never justify the splurge"; or "Oh, crap. I just spilled merlot on my best white tee shirt!" or "chocolate chip cookies are my favorite by I am a disastrous baker" are perfect present ideas tossed at you like rice at a wedding. Keeping your antennae up will earn you a well deserved reputation as the giver of the best gifts. So tune in, Graces; if you're going to devote the resources to the gift you may as well make it a good one!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Turkey Pot Pie--It's Delicious

I know you are sick of turkey. So am I. That's why I invented this--Grace's very own version of this oldie but goodie. Try it, I promise, you'll like it.

Turkey Pot Pie ala Grace (serves 4-6)

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 whole or 10 baby carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 handful of fresh parsley, chopped
1 10 oz pkg frozen peas
salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste
3 cups cooked turkey cut in small pieces

2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp flour (Wondra brand flour for sauces works best, but any white flour will do)
1 1/2 cups chicken broth

In large skillet, saute olive oil with onion, carrots, celery, peas and parsley til they are just cooked, approx 8 minutes. Add turkey and seasonings.

While veggies cook grab a saucepan and melt butter. Mix in flour to form a paste. Add broth and whisk til smooth and thickened.

Pour contents of skillet into casserole dish or baking pan. Add contents of saucepan and stir; set aside.

Make biscuit topping:

6 Tbsp butter, cut in pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup buttermilk

Blend thoroughly and crumble dough over turkey mixture in casserole dish. Press gently to cover the filling.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes until biscuit topping is completely cooked.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sitting Down with Turkeys?

Well, it's here. Thanksgiving, that is. Home For the Holidays provides an alarmingly accurate portrayal of family dysfunction on this most American observance.

Here are some questions that I have received recently that that deal with Turkey Day.

Dear Grace,
Both my husband's family and mine demand our presence for Thanksgiving. We can only be in one place at one time? How do I handle this without offending anybody...or everybody?

Grace Says:
The easiest solution here is to alternate years. Simple. Probably too simple. If you can't alternate, try one of these alternatives:

-Stay home. Invite friends and family if you wish. You don't have to make excuses, but if you feel "We just decided we wanted to stay home," will cause more probs than it's worth, try, "Travel is just so insanely expensive/difficult this year and our work schedules don't allow enough time to make the trip manageable." or "Our kids are at an age where travel is just impossible." The TSA's new rules support this position for sure.

-Offer up another holiday. This is an old tried-and-true. Do TG in one place, Christmas or Easter or Passover or Tet in the other. If a particular holiday is not up for consideration (for instance, Christmas to us means waking up in our house with our children and opening presents together), be clear about it from the onset and, if it's truly non-negotiable, be firm.

Dear Grace,
I'm a to-the-bone liberal Democrat; my parents and siblings are staunch conservative Republicans. Needless to say, putting us all around one table with too much food and drink can be a dangerous situation. How can I get through the evening without wanting to stick a serving fork into someone?

Grace Says:
The easiest solution is to avoid all political, religious, moral, etc. topics. A family that truly wishes to be together and happy will abide by this ban. You are well within your rights to demand civility at the TG table. If someone starts snarking it up, call him on it--you can do it with some levity: "Joe, I am calling unnecessary roughness on you for that comment; five yard penalty."

Dear Grace,
I don't like/won't eat what's being served. Can I ask the hosts to change the menu?

Grace says:
And no.

A good host asks potential guests if they have any allergies or major food issues and either makes sure there is a dish or two they can eat, or asks the guest to bring something for general consumption that also answers his/her dietary needs. If you are invited to dinner and the hosts don't ask, you have two choices:

-Cope. There's almost always something you can eat, even if the meal is heavy on the stuff you avoid. Either eat what's there or put a little food on the plate and pretend. A missed meal never hurt and the company is often far better than what is being served. Now, if you have such allergies or ethical issues that eating what is provided isn't an option, you may:

-Quietly and discreetly bring a small meal for yourself. Nothing large, complicated, smelly, or likely to make the other diners envious. Nothing that requires involved onsite preparation or special utensils. Tell the hosts as soon as you arrive, giving them the opportunity to serve your meal with the rest with as little fanfare as possible. Explain, apologize for any inconvenience, then keep quiet unless another diner asks why your soup is orange while his is purple. If pushed, say, "I am on a restrictive diet for a variety of reasons but I wouldn't dream of boring you with the details; how is your stamp collection/new home/French Poodle/recording career?" Whatever you do, don't be the guest expounding on the virtues of a vegan diet while the turkey is being carved.

Keep in mind, this is meant to be a day of gratitude and celebration. Try being thankful. For things large and small. Remember that even if it's apocryphal, the story goes that Pilgrims and Native Americans set aside their differences for a day, sharing food of their cultures and a few hours of peace and goodwill. If you can't do this; if you can't be flexible or impervious, or the situation or group you're going into is too difficult, stay home. It's just a day, folks. Better to spend it peacefully alone than in turmoil.

What a Turkey!

Last Thanksgiving, my friend Grace B sent me the email below. At the time I was aghast, amused and appalled by its content, but upon further reflection it made me thankful for my own crazy family and the TG dinner that we will share. In contemplating the holiday that celebrates gratitude and gustation, I thought it was worth posting. I predict that it will do the following for you, as it did for me:

1. After reading it, you will doubtless revel in the fact that while your family may drive you bonkers, you can thank your lucky stars that none of them is the 'Emily' in the email.

2. Your mother may overcook the turkey so that it resembles nothing more than shoe leather or sawdust but she won't send you a SHOUTING EMAIL demanding minimum expenditures on wine for the table.

3. Your siblings may put the worst features of the Roman Empire to shame in terms of debauchery, but you can be grateful that they are not ISSUING ORDERS about serving spoons and premium ice cream brands

(I have changed the names to protect these poor souls; being a member of this woman's family has to be enough trauma and I saw no need to spread their misery through cyberspace.)

So enjoy, Graces. If this doesn't make you grateful for your family, nothing will.


As you all know a fabulous Thanksgiving Dinner does not make itself. I need to ask each of you to help by bringing something to complete the meal. I truly appreciate your offers to assist with the meal preparation.

Now, while I do have quite a sense of humor and joke around all the time, I COULD NOT BE MORE SERIOUS when I am providing you with your Thanksgiving instructions and orders. I am very particular, so please perform your task EXACTLY as I have requested and read your portion very carefully. If I ask you to bring your offering in a container that has a lid, bring your offering in a container WITH A LID, NOT ALUMINUM FOIL! If I ask you to bring a serving spoon for your dish, BRING A SERVING SPOON, NOT A SOUP SPOON! And please do not forget anything.

All food that is to be cooked should already be prepared, bring it hot and ready to serve, warm or room temp. These are your ONLY THREE options. Anything meant to be served cold should, of course, already be cold.

MOM AND DAD—Dinner wine. Make sure there is chardonnay and pinot noir, 3 of each, and make sure you get something decent. A good rule of thumb: spend at least $12/bottle.

1. Turnips in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. Please do not fill the casserole all the way up to the top, it gets too messy. I know this may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but most of us hate turnips so don’t feel like you a have to feed an army.
2. Two half gallons of ice cream, one must be VANILLA, I don’t care what the other one is. No store brands please. I did see an ad this morning for Hagan Dazs Peppermint Bark Ice Cream, yum!! (no pressure here, though).
3. Toppings for the ice cream.
4. A case of bottled water, NOT gallons, any brand is ok.

1. Green beans or asparagus (not both) in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. If you are making the green beans, please prepare FOUR pounds, if you are making asparagus please prepare FIVE pounds. It is up to you how you wish to prepare them, no soupy sauces, no cheese (you know how Mike is), a light sprinkling of toasted nuts, or pancetta, or some EVOO would be a nice way to jazz them up.
2. A case of beer of your choice (I have Coors Light and Corona) or a bottle of Clos du bois chardonnay (you will have to let me know which you will bring prior to 11/22).

1. Angela, as a married woman you are now required to contribute at the adult level. You can bring an appetizer. A few helpful hints/suggestions. Keep it very light, and non-filling, NO COCKTAIL SAUCE, no beans of any kind. I think your best bet would be a platter of fresh veggies and dip. Not a huge platter mind you (i.e., not the plastic platter from the supermarket).

1. Stuffing in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please make the stuffing sans meat.
2. 2.5-3 qts. of mashed squash in a casserole with a lid and serving spoon
3. Proscuitto pin wheel – please stick to the recipe, no need to bring a plate.
4. A pie knife

1. 15 LBS of mashed potatoes in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please do not use the over-size blue serving dish you used last year. Because you are making such a large batch you can do one of two things: put half the mash in a regulation size casserole with lid and put the other half in a plastic container and we can just replenish with that or use two regulation size casserole dishes with lids. Only one serving spoon is needed.
2. A bottle of Clos du bois chardonnay

THE JULIE BLAUVELT FAMILY (why do I even bother she will never read this)
1. A pumpkin pie in a pie dish (please use my silver palate recipe) no knife needed.
2. An apple pie in a pie dish, you can use your own recipe, no knife needed.

Looking forward to the Thanksgiving with all of you!!


Happy Thanksgiving, Graces!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Grace on Her Face

I got a lesson in the kindness of strangers over the weekend.
I went to the theater to see Harry Potter 7 (which was quite good) and was making my customary trek to the very back row where I have to sit to avoid a headache. As I reached the necessary summit, I went to step into the row toward the seat, unaware that it was a step down, not just across. Imagine my shock and horror when I pitched forward, tumbling headlong into the lower rows. I am thankful for the vacant seat back which served as a barricade when it came in contact with my thigh. Sadly, this was excruciatingly painful, but happily it did stop the forward and downward motion. When I came up for air and re-righted myself I was greeted with a profound demonstration of the milk of human kindness.

The people seated around my pratfall jumped to my aid. They asked if I was ok. They picked up my purse and handed it over. They offered assistance. And most surprisingly they did not laugh. I confess, were I in their shoes, I would not have been able to contain myself. Truth be told, I am one of those arguably sick people who guffaw when people fall down--not Gracious, I know, but I simply can't help it. I was laughing at myself even in my agony. I felt a bit sorry that my family did not witness my swan dive (they were in the rest room), since they would undoubtedly have found my stunt riotous.

So, I salute those kindly folks at the theatre and will strive to emulate them in the future. I should state for the record that even when I laugh at someone's clumsiness, I do offer whatever assistance seems necessary: band-aids; a cell phone to call the paramedics; shout wipes to remove errant spills. But I admit that these gestures would be better received without the chuckle. And as I ponder the upcoming observance of gratitude, I express my thanks to the Good Samaritans who helped me in my hour of need and didn't even snicker once.

The punch line? A grapefruit of a bruise, multi-hued in purples, blues and greens that is both painful and unsightly. But I consider myself lucky. Had my momentum continued, I would be in a body cast right now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Friend's Evil Ex is Back and I Trashed Him!

Dear Grace:

When my friend finally separated from her awful, verbally abusive husband of 15 years, I took the opportunity to tell her just what I thought of him--having held my tongue until then. Big mistake. Several months later they reconciled, and now I am feeling awkward about having shared my (unsolicited) opinion. Any thoughts?

Grace Says:

Ah, other people's relationships...

We want to be completely supportive during a friend's break-up (pouring wine, handing over tissues, supplying vats of Ben & Jerry's, lending an ear for rants against the evil ex), and we want to be as accepting and inclusive of our friends' partners as we possible can be. If only the world were perfect, alas.

I suggest going on as if you never made the comments. If she brings it up, try, "Yes, I was harsh, but he hurt you, you were very, very sad, and I wasn't pleased with him at that moment. As long as you're happy with him, he's good in my book. You know I’m here for you no matter what." (The last bit leaves the door open for her when the inevitable next time occurs.)

When friends rant about their evil exes or current cads: Listen, nod, hug, provide the ice cream, even agree, "That was a rotten thing for him to do!", but try to refrain from calling the jerk a jerk, or indulging in rants of your own. Reconciliations happen.

In the throes of heartbreak (or reconciliation) your friend may not appreciate the humor in the following spoof, but after a week of shoveling ice cream into her sad self, picking up her used Kleenex, or clenching your jaw over her decision to reunite with Captain Creep, you might:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Breakfast at Misery's

An ancillary consequence of marriage is the desire to murder your spouse occasionally. This is by no means a rant against the conjugal state. I am fortunate to have been married to a Grant for quite a few years, he's a good one and in general, we are quite compatible. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't want to hack me to pieces when I forget, for the 2997th time, to record a bank withdrawal or refill the gas tank.

Every relationship has them--call them hot buttons, trouble spots, raw nerves or minefields. There are areas of controversy and disagreement in even the most nauseatingly peaceful households. I am not here to stamp out these bumps in the marriage road (I couldn't if I wanted to), but rather to emphasize that Graces and Grants do not air these grievances in public.

Case in point:

We were invited to Sunday breakfast at the home of a couple we know from the gym. It was one of those times when we couldn't really say no--they've invited us several times and it was starting to look rude so we bit the bullet and accepted. While timing is not my topic of discussion for today, I feel obliged to mention that 9am on Sunday morning is not an hour to be anywhere but your own home, drinking coffee and settling in with the NY Times Magazine. Unless of course you had an adventurous Saturday night, in which case you remain in your (or some lucky other's) bed. But I digress.

We arrived, en famille, at the appointed hour, and were greeted warmly by Husband (though that is not his real name.) We entered the kitchen, where he was toiling away with pancakes, bacon and other appetizing vittles. Wife (name also changed to protect her anonymity, though she doesn't deserve it) was no where to be found, nor were their offspring, with whom my children were eager to play. After several minutes of small talk with Husband, we heard a shrill directive from above, "Husband, I hope you have started cooking because these kids are starving!". How's that for a warm welcome? Clearly she heard the doorbell, heard us enter, and was aware of our presence, but her priority was not a hearty hello to her guests but rather a harangue of beleaguered Husband. The remainder of the morning proceeded thus. She raced into the kitchen, barked at Husband for his slow culinary progress, grabbed the food and distributed it to her children (not mine) with such alarming alacrity that she appeared to be under the influence of some type of high octane amphetamine.

What's a Grace to do?

Diffuse, diffuse, diffuse. When we heard the shriek from above, we called up the stairs, "Hello, Wife. We're here!" We complimented both parties on the food, the table setting, the coffee and the beauty of their children. (Recall that White Lies are important social tools and should be used liberally in situations like this.) We encouraged Wife to tell us about herself--not that we wanted to hear it, of course, but it was less offensive than the abuse she lavished on poor Husband. We made our escape as soon as we could and made strong, boldface notes to selves not to accept further invitations from these unfortunates at any time of day or night.

It is treacherous terrain out there. The girl you befriended in Yoga could turn into Medusa when her husband or boyfriend arrives and you have no way of knowing that before you commit to a long evening with them. Safety first, Graces. The surest way to avoid the crossfire is to do a short term trial outing. Plan to meet for a drink or coffee before you launch into a full day or evening. If things go well, you can stay together for dinner or brunch--if not you have an ironclad escape hatch.

Not like the folks in the film Couples Retreat, who were shanghai'd for a week of hardcore therapy....though one might argue that our hostile hosts needed something equally drastic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vacationing with Another Family May Not Be a Vacation

Dear Grace,

My sister and I rented lakeside cabins in New England for a fall getaway. The idea was that the families would spend a long weekend together, share meals, do all sorts of outdoor activities and let the cousins bond. As it ended up, I had her kids for three solid days--took them fishing, hiking, apple picking, horseback riding, fed them and had them sleep in my cabin. My sister and her husband spent the week on their deck reading. And she had the nerve to say at the end of the week, "Bill and I haven't had any quality time together. It's been a bit of a disappointment." It took all of my self control not to toss her in the lake.

Your thoughts?

Grace Says:

Congratulations on your self control; this is a true hallmark of a Grace. And, given the laziness she seems to have demonstrated, you would have had to fish Sis out of the lake, lest she expend any energy to swim ashore.

Here's my take: you basically achieved your goal. You hoped to do outdoor activities with your kids and have them spend time with their cousins. Sure, the vacation fell short in your estimation since you served as camp counselor, babysitter, fish hook baiter, activities planner, chief cook and bottlewasher, while your sister sat with her feet up relaxing. But, your kids probably had a blast, your nieces and nephews probably had a terrific time--much better than they would have if left to the devices of their own sedentary parents--and you learned a lesson about traveling with Sis. Next time make it a day trip, or consider taking her kids and leaving her home. I suspect her conduct would have been far less egregious if you weren't staring at her repose whilst you consulted trail maps and scaled the trout.

One more thought--there would have been nothing wrong with sending Sis's kids home after a morning (or day and a half) at your house. Doubtless you wanted to maximize your kids' fun with cousins, but martyrdom does not become anyone, least of all a Grace.
For an amusing portrayal of familial cohabitation on an alleged vacation, watch the following.....hopefully your long weekend did not rival this:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Romeo and Juliet Meet the Fockers

Dear Grace,
My teenage son has recently started dating a young lady. They have been spending a fair amount of time together, and all is well. (In other words, I approve.). I have not met her parents, nor has my son, and I think it odd. Should I approach them in some fashion with a version of "Are you aware that your daughter is dating my son?" I don't know whether she is even permitted to date and do not want to be an accomplice if she is violating a parental rule, but I also don't want to be intrusive or offensive and most critically, do not want to alienate my son.

Grace says:

I'm delighted to hear that young Romeo has found a nice Juliet to keep him company, and am even more delighted that you are in favor of his choice. I am quite keen on meeting the parents of my kids' friends and encourage you to meet the folks at your earliest opportunity. Avoid the "are you aware" phrasing--it implies that they are out of touch with their daughter and seems vaguely accusatory. Here are some Gracious ways to connect:

--At the next drop off or pick up scenario when the other parent is present, jump out of your car or your front door and Graciously push your way toward an introduction. Say, "Mrs. Capulet, I'm Maria Montague. I'm so happy to finally meet you. It has been wonderful getting to know Juliet through her friendship with Romeo and I hoped I'd get a chance to meet you soon." [Note: If Mr. and/or Mrs. Capulet are never around for an encounter like this one, you may want to relocate Romeo and Juliet's tryst site to your own domicile. Unsupervised teens can get into some star-crossed trouble if left unchecked for vast swathes of time.]

--Speak up. Let your son and his beloved know that you would like to meet her parents. Offer to invite them to dinner/coffee/brunch with the assurance that you will not expect the ingenues to stay with you for an extended period. Promise not to parade baby pictures out at said gathering.

And if the kids are trepidatious about the meeting, show them this...Meet the Fockers offers a hilarious take on what happens when two wildly different sets of parents become in-laws.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kids Are Not Invited

Dear SG:
We are having a big Christmas party, this year with my father as co-host. I chose an invite with a deliberately grown up design--no dancing santas or gingerbread men, set the party for cocktail hour and am still innundated with: can our kids come? In my parents generation NO ONE would have assumed that children are always welcome. What happened? I would love to welcome kids, but we are on a budget, my father is old school and frail, and I don't want the house turned into a romper room. Do I need to send out an email announcement?

Grace Says:

First of all, kudos to you for hosting! I'm sure your party will be fabulous, once we tackle this thorny problem....

Your letter brings back a painful memory for me along these very lines. Two years ago when the economy was just starting to tank, we noticed a glaring lack of holiday invitations--seemed that everyone was scaling back in preparation for the tough times ahead (prescient of them, huh?). The celebrations were few and far between. In response to the troubling trend, we decided to throw a nice but also budget-sensitive holiday party. It was last minute, so we used e-vitations to save time, money and trees. We, too, believed our invitation to be crystal clear as an adult gathering, down to the "heavy cocktails and light supper" description of the evening, but were similarly dismayed as we received requests to bring Juniors. Rather than risk a trickle of these inquiries arriving in my inbox each day, or worse, the hideous possibility that guests might not ask, but just bring their tiny tots to my elegant soiree, I sent out an e-blast to everyone.

This was a wrench because I loathe unnecessary email and strenuously avoid clogging up inboxes, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I worded the follow-up thus:

My apologies for sending another missive about our upcoming soiree, but I seem to have erred in my first draft. I neglected to clarify that this is a grown-up party. We will look forward to celebrating the holidays with children--ours and many of yours--at another time during the season, but for this one evening, we can all enjoy being kid-free. Sorry for any confusion, and we'll see you on the 17th!

I recommend the same remedy for you in your current situation. Note that you are taking the blame for this confusion, even though the ridiculous assumption of others is not your fault. By using this tack, you are letting your child bearing guests off the hook for being presumptuous. (The way of the Grace is not always easy or fair, but the high road is a better place to travel, I promise.) While the e-blast is not ideal, it will work, and in all things I advise Safety First.

In speaking of assumptions, I couldn't resist sharing Benny Hill's take on the practice:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Navigating E-vites

Dear SG:
Would you please comment on e-invites? I just used paperless post for a party and it was a real joy. I love the written word, the look of an even stamp and a crisp invitation. But I am trying to be a greener Grace and I am dismayed at the lack of RSVPs while using snail mail. I found out that people do RSVP more with e-invites. When should I use paper and when should I go e-friendly?

Grace Says:

Pragmatic considerations must be weighed in all things, etiquette included. Green is definitely Gracious, so that's a big plus. Grace becomes a Grump PDQ when forced to roll the dice about counts for catering, and e-vites do generate prompt and reliable RSVP numbers. Another bonus. Finally, e-vites cut costs. (Maybe the money you save on invitations and stamps opens up space in your budget for a case of champagne?) So, in general, e-vites are A-OK in my book.....with a few caveats:

1. Elegant occasions call for elegant (paper) invitations. This includes most weddings, Christenings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and any other ceremonial affairs that would be regarded as formal (black or white tie charity balls, silver anniversary parties). In general, parties in your home--even those involving dressy clothes (my favorite kind)--qualify for e-vites.

2. Be careful with your guest list when using e-vites. It's much easier to miscue on the email address with an erroneous click than when writing out the invitees on envelopes in pen and ink. Imagine your horror when a frenemy RSVPs with a yes and you didn't intend to invite her. Check and double check before you send.

3. Invitations are between the hosts and the guests regardless of their format, so there is no need to post RSVP comments for all to see. Somehow this always feels like people are sizing up the guest list to decide whether or not to come, or competing to prove who is the most enthusiastic, the most fun, the most helpful, the most thirsty, or the least interested. Not Gracious At All. (Would you call the hostess and ask who else is coming? Would you stand around a public square blathering on about attending someone else's party or how many cocktails you intend to consume while there? Not if you're a Grace you wouldn't, and the same rules apply in cyberspace.) Lots of Graces use Evite--we just choose the option that says "hide guest list when we draft the invitation so we're not subjected to the horrors described above.

Glad the e-vite worked out well for you. I have no doubt that your party will be equally fabulous.

Remember the episode in Seinfeld when George skimps on the envelopes for his wedding invitations and the cheap glue poisons his intended? Loved that show!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gracious Reciprocation

Dear SG:
Would you please give some guidelines about hospitality reciprocity? My mother taught me never to accept a personal invitation to someone's home unless you were willing to reciprocate. Has this rule of thumb vanished with the times?

Grace Says:

Feeling kind of like Cinderella, huh?

Your mother's edict is correct--with an asterisk. It is absolutely necessary to "give back" to your hosts, but this can be done in a Gracious way that doesn't require seats at your dining room table.

As one who entertains with alarming frequency, I can tell you from personal experience that I do not host in order to become a guest. I love to have people in my home, am usually thrilled to be invited to parties, but it is not a scorecard. And if it were, I would be winning by a lot (or losing, depending on your point of view.) Truthfully, if I only hosted people who invited back in the traditional sense I'd be limited to a tiny social circle, and that just wouldn't suit me.

Some people are wonderful guests but hosting isn't their bag--maybe they can't cook, maybe they have small children, a studio apartment, an unfriendly Doberman, or an OCD that requires too many Valiums when intruders enter their clean zone. Maybe they are in a tough financial position--an epidemic these days. Though I'll warrant, a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a plate of cookies would not break most of us--if your friends are in that position, they have far bigger worries than outstanding social obligations.

Reciprocating does not mean a "tit for tat" balance on every invitation, nor does it require economic parity. It means that you reach out to your friends in ways that are meaningful, thoughtful, and pleasant for everyone.

Candidly, I would favor a fairly direct response--if you are invited to dinner at someone's home, then most Graces would return the identical favor in a relatively timely fashion. But for those whom this type of hospitality impossible, here are some suggestions on Gracious Reciprocations that do not involve hosting in the home and/or significant financial outlay:

  • Take your hosts out to eat. Say, "Grace, we had a wonderful time with you and Grant last week and would like to take you out to dinner. Shoot me some dates and I'll set it up." This conveys that you intend to pay; make sure the server knows this ahead of time to avoid a tabletop wrestling match.
  • Coordinate a night out at the movies. If your budget is tight, aim for the night the art house has "2 for 1" tickets and pony up if possible.
  • Host a picnic at a local park. Skip the caviar if your wallet is light.
  • Organize an outdoor activity such as a hike, bike ride, or trip to a public garden.
  • Support the arts; theatre/concert tickets absolve you of hosting at home. A lower cost option: many museums offer free admission on certain days, plan a visit.
  • Invite the hostess out for coffee or a drink. Pay.
  • Reach out in other ways--water the garden when they go on vacation, drop off a batch of chili, babysit/house sit/pet sit.

Remember, this is a friendship, not a balance sheet. If you're the chronic host and are bothered by this lack of reciprocity, cease and desist inviting the freeloaders. And if you are one of those freeloaders, scan the list above and choose the option that fits you best. In the meantime, stop keeping score and enjoy your time with your pals.

But bear in mind: unless you have a Fairy Godmother, a slew of animal friends or a truly special brand of Prince Charming on hand for cooking and cleaning, hosting is work. Given that, you may want to pare down your hosting calendar, or at least disperse your particular brand of fairy dust (i.e. your Gracious hospitality) amongst a smaller, more appreciative lot.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clarence Darrow Is Rolling In His Grave

My Grant of a husband is not often the source of material for this blog. In general, he comports himself with sufficient decorum, at least in my presence, and has the stout good sense to avoid insufficient decorum unless he is far from my watchful eyes so that he is rarely featured here. He turned up aces yesterday, however, when he sent me a summary of a lawsuit that has an etiquette component to it.

The case is so ridiculous and hilarious that I couldn't resist sharing it with you, my Dear Graces.

In short, a diner is suing a restaurant because of a mishap with an artichoke.

Here's the story: The chap in question ordered grilled artichokes, a comestible with which he had no experience. When said dish arrived, this goon proceeded to eat the choke in toto. This included the prickly leaf ends and the fuzzy cap that must be removed before revealing the coveted heart. Whether he enjoyed this delicacy is unclear; the aftermath, however was decidedly not enjoyable. He suffered severe abdominal pain, landed in the emergency room, and required surgery to remove indigestible artichoke leaves from his lower intestines.

Unfortunate, certainly. But the restaurant's fault for not instructing the patron on how to eat the artichoke? Certainly not. What's next, suing Tolstoy's estate because Anna Karenina's suicide upset you? Or your manicurist when you arrive home and chip your polish opening your mail? (If only....then I'd be one wealthy Grace.)

Some of us learned to eat artichokes at our nanas' knees. Others learn on Youtube:

Still others manage to go through a relatively fulfilled life without ever learning. The bold among us ask the waitron. But didn't we learn in kindergarten one of those hard, fast, ironclad rules: "When in doubt, DON'T put it in your mouth." Granted, this largely applied to gluesticks, crayons, legos and pigtails, but if the Manolo fits wear it. If you are eating something that is shearing off the roof of your mouth and shredding your esophagus, chances are it is not designed for human consumption. Spit it out (discretely, of course) and wait for the next course.

But this brings up another lesson from Kindergarten: "If you don't ask questions you won't learn the answer." So, Graces, there's nothing wrong with asking. If a dish arrives that you find confusing or intimidating, speak up. The server is there to ensure that your meal is a success; his tip depends on it. The momentary embarrassment you suffer in trying to handle the snail tongs will shrink when you taste the first bite of escargot with hazelnut garlic butter, I promise.

Should you be interested, find further details on the artichump lawsuit here.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Grace Gives Credit Where Credit Is Due

Just because someone has behaved like a Grunt doesn't mean that he cannot display Grace. I would have bet my Tiffany soup spoons that I would never be commending Michael Vick's good manners. But after yesterday's Eagle victory over the Colts, well, let's just say that I'm glad that I never wagered the Provence Pattern Silverware, or we'd be slurping our pumpkin bisque with straws come Thanksgiving. I have remarked on Vick's Gruntly 'Tude before. But I am here today to report that Vick's willingness to share credit with his teammates, his (relative) humility, good sportsmaship, and his courteous respect and regard for his opponents was an impressive and marked improvement. Watch:

This doesn't mean I'd engage him as a pet sitter, but this is a 180 turn for the better from his self-tooting bloviation after Game 1--which, you may recall, was when teammate and starting QB Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion. Vick entered the game under these circ's, performed very well, but ruined it in The Grace's book by remarking that had he played all four quarters the Eagles would have won. (I readily admit that most NFL fans do not share my scorn on this particular conduct, but here's hoping.)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Transport the Food, Not the Heirloom Platter

Dear Grace,
For Thanksgiving, my family tends to do a pot luck meal, and I am invariably assigned to bring two or three side dishes. I want to present the offerings in the way that looks attractive and is convenient to my hostess, but I also want to make sure I get my dishes back before next Thanksgiving. Any suggestions?

Grace says:

In general, Graces deliver food in containers that they don't want back because of the hassle factor. Aluminum trays, paper plates, disposable tupperware and even ziploc bags are much more user- friendly, and can be easier on both cook and recipient. Of course, we wouldn't dream of serving in said vessels save for the most informal picnic settings. For holiday dinners you want to make sure that the table is attractively arrayed with pretty dishes, not EZ Foil.

To that end, Graces keep a supply of inexpensive plates on hand for times like these. You can pick them up virtually anywhere--buy the odds and ends left on sale at a department store like Macy's or a get a set at a place like Target. I have a stack of plain white plates in my basement, and I am never concerned if they break or do not return home. And, in the likely event that your hosts have serving pieces of their own that they prefer to use, you can return the plate to your stash for future use.

Your question reminded me of a mortifying situation that I found myself in last year....It started with a serving tray. I hosted a brunch and a friend brought a tray heaped with bagels and all the fixings. She left early, but told me I could drop the tray with her doorman later. I should have just dumped the bagels onto another plate , but I was engrossed in the party. Following the brunch, I cleaned the tray, and planned to drop it to the doorman the next day. But one of the folks helping me in the kitchen put the tray away in my cupboard without my knowledge. I subsequently had reason to drop a few items with my friend's doorman, so when she asked me about the tray I had a vague memory of having delivered it. She never received the tray and was a bit concerned that the doorman had absconded with it.

We discussed possible malfeasance scenarios. She complained to the building superintendent, but no tray turned up. Months later, the friend's uncle passed away and she was asked to bring cookies to the reception. The missing tray had belonged to the late uncle's mother, so they particularly wanted it used. Sadly, it remained MIA. Imagine my shock and horror, when, several months after the funeral while preparing for a party of my own, I climbed up to the tippy-top of my china cabinet and pulled down an unfamiliar tray. Lo and behold. The doorman's name was cleared. The APB on the china thief was called off. And I had egg the size of Montana on my face. Fortunately, my friend is a Grace with an excellent sense of humor and she found the entire episode hilarious.

Speaking of thieves, real or imagined, I got to thinking about this film....If you haven't seen it, you should, it's a classic. The stars, the scenery, and the clothes alone are worth the price of the Netflix rental.