Dear Misery Loves Cookery,
I do all the cooking for Thanksgiving and am no slouch in the kitchen. We invite family members for the meal, including a couple who does not like to cook. Because we know that they do not like to cook, we ask them to bring something very easy each time that we don’t have for the table (dinner rolls, etc.).
They ignore that suggestion each year and bring a 1.5L of the worst rot-gut white zin or paint thinner “Table Red,” a box of plastic-wrapped cakes (the kind we ate as kids) from the bakery “outlet,” and a box of nasty chocolate-covered goo-cherries that have been darkening the pharmacy’s bottom shelf since the Kennedy administration.
I politely take them with thanks, but they seem miffed when they don’t make it to the table, front-and-center. My spouse goes to great lengths to set a beautiful table. I go to great lengths to create an amazing meal. They go to the corner store and get whatever’s cheap, even though they are well-off.
I mean, really, do I have to decant bad wine so that I don’t have to look at a handle of turpentine on my Thanksgiving table?
Yikes! I have to admit, your letter made me laugh when I first read it, as you very humorously describe your difficult situation. I bet you are a very fun host.
I empathize with your plight: when you work hard at a making a meal, and go out of your way to accommodate your guests’ desire to contribute something for it, it is frustrating when they a) don’t bring what you ask, and b) bring something you really don’t enjoy/something that doesn’t accompany your meal.
We could assume that they simply don’t care about honoring your request, even though you specifically pick something that should accommodate them. We could assume that they actually really like goo-cherries and snack cakes. We could assume that they don’t drink enough wine to really know the difference between one type or another, and think they are getting great bang for the buck with a full 1.5 liter.
One could assume a lot of things in this situation, but I’d suggest you assume nothing, give them the benefit of the doubt, and simply take this at face value. Why? Because this is family, you love them, and actually making judgements about their motivation (e.g., frugality, lack of taste, lack of attention to your request) will only make you resentful.
They will bring whatever they want, it likely will be something you don’t like, and you should find a way to serve it.
With that in mind, here’s my recommendation:
Expect nothing, be happy: When you speak to them about their invitation, and they inevitably ask what they can contribute to the meal, turn the question back to them. “What would you like to bring?” Hopefully, they will make a suggestion, but if they say something like, “Oh, whatever you need,” do not give them any “assignment” that is actually required. If you ask for rolls, buy rolls, just in case. If you already know that they will bring wine and packaged desserts, ask them to bring wine and desserts (just be sure to have your own favorite wines and homemade desserts ready to be served, too.)
Rely on “knock-out” punch: A few hours prior to their arrival, chop up two-to-three cups of fresh fruits: apples, pears, berries, citrus—whatever you like that looks fresh. Macerate that fruit with a few teaspoons of sugar or honey, the juice from one-half a large lemon or lime, and one or two cups of a favorite spirit or liquor (e.g., bourbon, whisky, cointreau, grand marnier, brandy, or a flavored vodka), then refrigerate.
When they arrive, have your most lovely punch bowl thoughtfully displayed and loaded with the macerated fruit/alcohol, as well as a few cups of fruit juice or cider. Gratefully accept their bottle (i.e.. “This is perfect, exactly what we needed!”) and pour at least half of the wine into the punch bowl. Top off the punch with some sparkling water or ginger ale, and add ice. Check sweetness, and adjust with more citrus juice (or liquor), as necessary.
If this knock-out punch doesn’t elevate the wine, at least it will make everyone a little tipsy as you eat appetizers. Save a glass or two of the wine in the bottle in case they would like some with their meals, otherwise, serve your own stash when the turkey comes to the table.
Kids make everything adorable: Who can resist a dessert tray artfully decorated by tiny children? If you have a few children handy, ask them to decorate a plate with the pastries and cherries your guests bring, then make a point of having the kids show these guests their creation.
For a childless event, just bite the bullet, be polite, and arrange their desserts on platters alongside your other baked goods. A spouse who can set a gorgeous table can also display the most humble of pastries in a beautiful way, and it’s a challenge worth accepting if it makes your guests feel welcome.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude, so as you place the store-bought goodies next to the pie that took you four hours to make, try to focus on being grateful that your family is there to enjoy this lovely meal. Their contribution of sticky cakes and old cordials—while not your style—is a reminder of their presence at your table.
I imagine that, years from now, you will smile when you think of them and their reliably unappetizing choices of beverage and dessert. You may even find yourself getting misty when you walk past a bottle of bad wine, or a box of pre-packaged sugar bombs. The strongest family memories so often center around the weirdly awful stuff the most, and eventually solicit laughter (even as we tear up with nostalgia.)
Give your guests the benefit of the doubt, assume all things are done with the same love and care with which you make your meal, and enjoy each other’s company. Even the bad (tasting) stuff will someday make for the sweetest memories.