Dear Etiquetteer: My partner and I love to cook and entertain. We also love to be cooked for and entertained, yet it seems we've attracted friends who like to enjoy our hospitality more than extend theirs. I haven't exactly kept count, but we know couples who've been our guests much more than we've been theirs. I enjoy their company, but I'm feeling resistant to inviting them over to our house yet again since I don't wish to continue a non-reciprocal pattern. I know their house is neat enough and their cooking is good enough, so I don't know what's holding them back from inviting us. Their alternative to eating at our house always seems to be eating out. But we prefer a home-cooked meal-- and we don't always want it to be ours! I know it's probably rude to say, "couldn't you invite us over to your house for a change?" but I don't know what to do.
Dear Harriet Craig:
Your letter reminds Etiquetteer of the redoubtable Marie Dressler as faded stage star Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight. Reminiscing about her long string of past lovers and their gifts, she complained "I could only take what they had."
Here, you can only take what hospitality your friends offer, even though it isn't quite what you'd prefer. It might not be Perfectly Proper to speculate on why they would rather dine out with you than in their own homes. The most neutral assumption is personal preference. It might also be that what you think of as a joy they find a chore; they could be preserving their own hostly equilibrium by staying out of the kitchen themselves. All that said, they aren't out of line inviting you out to dinner, as long as they're picking up the whole bill at least some of the time.
When the imbalance of hospitality becomes inseparable from the idea of welcoming these friends into your home again, then your invitations need to cease. Those feelings will only poison your heart against them; Etiquetteer has seen it happen before. You could also suggest activities that don't involve food, like going to the movies or other cultural attractions. But like you, Etiquetteer values a home-based social life. When worse comes to worst, make new friends who share your values of home entertaining.
It cannot have failed to have come to your attention that the economy is, um, not as robust as it used to be. New, reduced circumstances are affecting hundreds of thousands of people who may be retreating from social life because they can't afford their old standard. Etiquetteer would argue that a social life is even more necessary now; we must band together in adversity! But heading off to Mocambo, Romanoff's, Chasen's, the Stork, 21, or the Cocoanut Grove four nights a week for dining and dancing won't do, nor will laying out filet mignon, Scotch, and all the delicacies for a dinner party at home.
Never has there been a better time for Etiquetteer to trot out that familiar quotation from the real estate industry, "If you can't hide it, paint it red and call it a feature." In this case, make Poverty your theme with a Poverty Pasta night. Assign ingredients one per guest: pasta, sauce, garlic bread, red wine, cheese, etc. (The presence of non-essential items like green salad and dessert automatically upgrades the evening to Gentility Pasta.) Nobody should have to spend more than $10, and everyone ends up with a delicious pasta dinner, convivial company, and no tipping. Etiquetteer recommends the traditional red-and-white checked tablecloth surmounted by candles in straw-covered Chianti bottles, décor once standard in Italian restaurants and now only seen in black-and-white movies. Opera fans can put on a recording of La Boheme to complete an atmosphere of genial poverty.
All Etiquetteer can add to that is a hearty "Bon appétit!"
Etiquetteer has a beautiful new address for all your queries about manners, morals, and Perfect Propriety in the 21st century, queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com. Etiquetteer eagerly hopes to hear from you soon!