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.

Friday, November 05, 2010

What Not To Say

Pop Quiz. Which of the following true stories would put a serious chip in a Grace's manicure?

1) A certain Grace, sartorially splendid in this season's gauzy, Empire top, is just settling down for a pleasant lunch in her fave restaurant with a fellow Grace. An acquaintance breezes in, waves in greeting, and loudly announces, "Omigod, I had no idea you were pregnant!" She isn't.
2) Dinner party, four friendly couples, good food and great wine. The subject turns to a mutual friend's new image consulting business. One diner turns to the speaker and says, "Well, you won't be engaging their services; you obviously never care what you look like."
3) At kickboxing class one Sunday morning, a spandex clad gym bunny takes a break from lifting her leg, lunges at a classmate and says, "I saw your boyfriend last night out dancing. He looked like he was having such a great time! Where were you?"
4) A horse-healthy mother-of-three is scheduled for her first ever, purely precautionary mammogram. When she mentions this in passing to several other moms while they are collecting their children from school, one cheerfully informs her, "Remember Debra from playgroup? She went in for her precautionary mammogram and found out she was Stage 3. Have a great weekend!"
5) At a summer block party, the new neighbor saunters up to a fab family of four and blurts out: "Wow! Your kids don't look a thing like you." Both are, as it happens, adopted.

Answers: 1) Yes. 2) Yes. 3) Yes. 4) God, yes. 5) Yes.
If you answered all correctly: Congratulations, Grace!

What a Grace might say, should she be on the receiving end of the above conversational bludgeons:
1) "Nope. Just a fab facial. I must be glowing."
2) "Well, I certainly wish them well as they launch the business. Aren't these crabcakes delicious?"
3) "How terrible for Debra. Maybe we should all pitch in, see if she needs babysitting help or some freezer dinners."
4) Smile mysteriously and say: "I never tell."
5) "Lucky for them, they look like themselves. They could have gotten my ears!"

Graces were taught at a young age that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. (Yes, I've professed before to love the version attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, too: "If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit by me," but that policy only applies to a select handful of discreet inner sanctum Graces.) When in doubt, adhere to another oldie but goodie from Will Rogers: "Never miss a good chance to shut up."

And speaking of what not to say, I got a serious kick out of the following song, a riotous parody of Green Day's Time of Your Life

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Dear Grace,
My brother-in-law is a complete chauvinist. He believes and behaves as though the female members of the family are his servants. Dishes, child care, cooking, and all household tasks are deemed 'women's work' and he sits on his throne of a recliner while we toil away. I am very close to my sis and we spend a lot of time together. This really gets my goat. With the holidays coming up, I foresee trouble.

What's a Grace to do?

Grace says:

Oh, dear. In this day and age, the idea of 'women's work' is a term best left unuttered, even if the medieval mind of your brother outlaw thinks this way.

Truth be told, this is probably not your war to wage. That is really up to his wife, your poor, scouring sister. We never know what goes on inside of other people's relationships, and your sis may well have made peace with this situation even if you haven't. And remember, she has played a role in creating this monster. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, "What you accept, you teach." But I am not here to give marital counsel, rather to help you identify a Gracious way to blast the lazy bum out of 1955 (and his recliner). To keep your sanity in check and your blood pressure in a safe range, I suggest the following strategies:

1. Preempt the problem. As dinner is ending announce, "Sis, you cooked the dinner, so you are excused from cleanup. B-i-l and I will do the kitchen, won't we, B-i-l?"

2. Lead by example: "Sis, B-i-l, you two could both use a break. Why don't I watch Junior for an hour or so and you go get a coffee or take a walk?"

3. Ask directly: "B-i-l, Sis and I are cooking dinner. We're elbow deep in mashed avocados at the moment and we seem to have run out of cilantro for the guacamole. Would you be a dear and go pick some up at the grocery store?" or "B-i-l, we are cooking the dinner and Junior is bored out of his mind strapped in the high chair. That's why he is screaming bloody murder. Would you take him outside so he can play while we finish up the meatballs?"

I had a similar scenario several years ago among the males in my extended family. Some were very helpful but a couple were of your B-i-l's ilk. Finally, one of the guys, who was drying his 25th dish, got exasperated as one of the loafers skulked past the kitchen in search of another beer. He shouted, "Hey, Fred! This here's the kitchen. A lot of cooking and cleaning goes on in here. But you wouldn't have any experience with that, would you?" The lazy brother-in-law took the rather unsubtle hint, and he has become generally more helpful over the years. Guys can get away with that type of heckling, you see, so if you can find a willing male relative to shame B-i-l into picking up a sponge or child from time to time, then your story may have a happy ending.

None of these is fail-safe, but they are all worth a shot. Good luck.

I found the following spoof on the mid century housewife rather amusing....I certainly hope your sister's situation isn't this extreme.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

My New Friend the Stalker

Dear Grace,
A relatively new acquaintance has been circling around me in an apparent attempt to become my BFF. We have some natural social overlap--she recently became a member of the studio where I do Yoga, we both serve on a neighborhood committee, and our kids are on the same soccer team. I'm all for carpooling, maybe even grabbing an occasional coffee after yoga, but she has taken these minor social interactions to mean that we are practically joined at the hip. She now insists on checking in with me before each Yoga class, makes unnecessary offers to take my kids to and from soccer, and if she can't get me via cell phone she calls my house, then emails and texts. She is now making summer plans and has asked about our swim club. I don't want to be mean, but I'm starting to run away from her as it is. I don't want to have to dodge her all summer--or fret about it for the next 6 months. Help!


Dear Stalked,
Well, it's nice to be in demand, but smothering is another thing entirely. Your stalker sounds like she is a bit insecure and needy. Perhaps even lonely. She has misjudged your good manners and accidental togetherness as an offer to be her bosom pal and that is simply off base.

Graces are never unkind--and really, your new acolyte hasn't done anything worse than crowd you. You want to choose a strategy that is maximally effective and minimally hurtful. In other words, evade her. If possible, switch up your yoga schedule a bit so she isn't always there with you, or arrive in class just before it starts and bolt when it ends. Wave, but don't engage. Gesture at your watch indicating that you have to dash. Rearrange the soccer logistics so you don't meet there every time--have your spouse, sitter, or another parent take your budding Beckham a few times to break up the pattern. With luck, Cloying Chloe will latch onto someone else who turns up at Yoga and soccer a few times in a row and take you off the hot seat.

As far as the swim club situation, clam up. Change the subject, remember an urgent errand, or fake a seizure. If that doesn't work and you are pressed, be vague. "We're not sure what our plans are yet." If pressed harder, say "Yes, we have been members of the Porpoise Club for awhile. One thing we love about it is that it allows us to kind of 'check out'. We really tend to separate from the usual crowd during the summer and don't hang much with the people we see all year."

Your question made me think of the U2 song "I Will Follow." I was shocked to see that it dates all the way back to 1981. You won't believe how Bono looked (or danced!) back then.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Appropriate Attire Requested

Dear Grace,
We have invited my cousin's family for Thanksgiving. In years past, when she has visited, she has brought sweatshirts, jeans, and nothing remotely dressy. I am a celebratory soul; I dress up for holidays and festivities. Invariably, when I descend in my finery, she reacts in such a way that I feel almost guilty for sprucing up. In addition to our Thanksgiving dinner, we will attend at least one slightly formal event, to which cousin and husband are invited. We had this same situation once before and had to cancel at the last minute because they did not bring appropriate attire. (There is no possibility of her borrowing something of mine; we are completely different sizes.) Should I suggest that she bring a dressy outfit this year or is that rude?

Grace Says:

First of all, kudos to you for hosting. Secondly, I am sorry that Raggedy Ann cramps your style. As far as addressing this awkward situation, here's your strategy:

Well in advance of the visit (like today), send Cuz an email detailing the goings on for Thanksgiving weekend. Give her some guidance on the events, and offer her the chance to join in the festivities or not. Here's a prototype:

"Ellen, We are so looking forward to you and your family's visit over TG. Here's an overview of the weekend: Wednesday evening is very casual-- pizza at home. Thursday morning is the homecoming football game--be sure to bundle up! After the game, we'll head home for Turkey Day; it will be us, you and yours, my parents, and Uncle Joe. Since it's a holiday, I'll probably wear a skirt, but whatever you like is fine. Friday we have been invited to the xyz event. It's sort of dressy--I will wear my LBD and pumps, Evan will be in a coat and tie. We have tickets for you and Pete to attend and hope you will; it's really fun. If you prefer to give it a miss, that's fine, too. There'll be plenty of leftovers in the fridge, we have a good selection of dvd's and we shouldn't be out too late. [This statement makes it clear that you will go regardless, and gives her the out if she is uncomfortable joining you]. As far as everything else, casual lounge-y clothes are fine."

There are countless reasons why your cousin does not pack dressy clothes--limited wardrobe, weight/appearance issues, shyness, cluelessness, disorganization or laziness--but the why doesn't really matter. As a Gracious Hostess, you are charged with making your guests feel comfortable and, as much as you possibly can, making sure the weekend is enjoyable. Just because she looks like she is on her way to clean out your garage does not mean that your holiday is on the line.

Giving Cuz the information ahead of time is the best you can do, but this is not foolproof and she may still show up unprepared. It sounds like your cousin may some demons, and you are not going to exercise them by pointing out her wardrobe errata. Be patient, be kind, be understanding. Be glad you don't have said demons.

And remember, even celebs with staffs of stylists occasionally misstep on fashion choices.....

Monday, November 01, 2010

Make and Take

I have riffed before on hostess gifts. There are countless store bought items that are perfect choices for Gracious Guests, but today I offer you a homemade how-to on chili vinegar. This is a unique, inexpensive, and impressive gourmet item that will delight any cook with an adventurous palate.

Why, you may well ask, is The Grace making chili vinegar on camera? I was recently asked to create a food blog for a local non-profit, so Philly Food Lovers was born. We are experimenting with video demonstrations, and you, my dear Graces, are a captive audience. have a look...

A handcrafted comestible is a welcome offering, and really adds a personal touch. If you make a mean pesto, honey mustard dressing, or peanut butter cookie, by all means make and take. Pack nicely in an attractive jar, container or cello bag and tie it up with a pretty ribbon. Be sure to inform the hosts on refrigeration requirements, shelf life, and serving/usage instructions. Contamination is not an ingredient in a Gracious hostess gift. Nor is anything containing gelatin, Lipton soup powder, canned fruit or mini marshmallows.

But you Graces already knew that, didn't you?