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The art of good hostessing isn't about perfection. Here's how to host a party without getting stressed out.
I have never spray painted corn to make a centrepiece, served an individual tomato tarte tatin that looked like a flower or lined my walkway with paper bag lanterns. I don't even have a walkway; it's more of a crumbling cement path that I'm going to get to one of these days.
Is it too hard to host a party?
But coming of age in the Martha Stewart era makes these kinds of hostessing grand gestures feel like prerequisites for entertaining. Having noticed that the bar is way up there, I fear I have stopped reaching. Yes, my husband and I entertain, but not as often as we should, and when we do, I leave the bulk of it to him because he's an excellent cook and a warm personality. (Me? Decent and introverted.) Thus, I am that terrible person who rarely hosts but loves to be hosted. I read magazines like this one, oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures, then order a pizza. Yet I know there's nothing lovelier than being in the home of a gracious host, wrapped in conversation, fed and watered by candlelight. Coming together in the flesh, as opposed to over a tweet, is the stuff of life. Good hosts perform a secular ceremony – the breaking of the bread.
So why don't I do it more? First and foremost, at the end of the workweek, I'm brain-dead, charmless and tired. But I also admit that part of me (the feminist, formerly Doc Martens–wearing, cynical part) feels a little snide about the word "hostessing," with its historical, pre-Friedan connotations.
Certainly "hostessing" conjures up "Mad Men"–era domestic servitude and, therefore, feminine misery. The seminal 1941 book Entertaining Is Fun! How to Be a Popular Hostess, by the aptly named Dorothy Draper, advises women that every event revolves around the husband's stomach: "Feed the Brute," reads the title of one section. Draper also has high standards for pre-party cleaning: "Is the front door freshly painted? Get busy and surprise your husband and the neighbors." In The Perfect Hostess, published in 1950, Maureen Daly advises the hostess to keep the bathroom stacked with ashtrays and to lie crosswise on the bed with her head dangling over the edge for four minutes before guests arrive to get a rosy glow.
The art of hostessing still valuable
But as anyone who has sat at a lively dinner table knows, bringing people together really isn't silly or trivial. While women were not always invited into the boardrooms, hostesses have historically exercised impressive backdoor power. First ladies made things happen in what historians call the "white glove pulpit," advancing their husbands' professional agendas at social functions. Here, in the early 20th century, Nellie King, wife of Liberal senator James H. King, was known as "Canada's Hostess" for helping bachelor prime minister Mackenzie King (no relation) host such luminaries as Charles Lindbergh and King George VI, forging Canada's reputation on the international stage.
In the Reagan era, Vanity Fair called Toronto journalist Sondra Gotlieb Washington's hottest hostess for the soirées she threw with her husband, Canadian ambassador Allan Gotlieb, including one shindig where Pierre Trudeau danced with a barefoot Margot Kidder in the living room of the embassy.
Now women run for office rather than run their husbands' social lives, and what it means to be a hostess has changed – but into what, exactly? The duties of the modern hostess may not be as strictly defined as in the fed-brute days, but the gig can still feel oppressive. Vestiges of the midcentury "perfect hostess" show up in examples of modern domestic aspiration, such as cooking channels, design magazines, foodie websites and celebrity chef empires. The latest unattainable ideal involves a tongue-in-cheek revival of Grandma's talents: witness the rise of pickling and baking cupcakes, and stores such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie selling frilly aprons and cocktail sets. Crafting and DIY entertaining trends like canning jars filled with handpicked flowers and martinis infused with organic green tea are sweet, but they can be an intimidating, time-consuming prospect for a wannabe hostess – the latest spin on the same stress.
Emily Matchar's book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, $30), investigates the embrace of retro domestic skills. Matchar loves whiling away a Saturday afternoon preparing for a party, but knows that women can be too hard on themselves. "There's a real tyranny where people feel like their self-worth is measured by what kind of perfect organic, non-GMO, gluten-free cake they can make," she says. "This is what women in the '50s wanted to escape from: being judged by their homemaking."
Satisfaction in a well-hosted party
It would be terrible if the domestic goddess standard made anyone (that is, me) feel too paralyzed to host. There's a kind of satisfaction in a well-executed dinner that most people don't get from sitting in front of a computer all day. In tough economic times, we retreat to our homes, not only because it's cheaper than eating out but also because it's comforting to use our hands to set a scene of human connection and, maybe, even beauty. Isn't the pageantry of the dinner hour in "Downton Abbey" the real reason we tune in to watch the show?
The compulsion to host feels, in part, like a reaction to a prepackaged, takeout society; many of us don't cook that much anymore. While every family and culture is different, many Canadians are scattered far from their birthplaces, with no grandmother in the kitchen offering pasta-making lessons. So when it does come time to entertain, we panic and go full Martha, missing our guests while we're in the kitchen stuffing thumb-size phyllo shells (never again).
"We're starting to fetishize food and treat it as a status symbol," says Corey Mintz, author of How to Host a Dinner Party (House of Anansi, $20). Mintz's message is simple: "Entertaining is about the people, not the food. The whole idea is to have a good time with your friends, not to impress them."
Interestingly enough, the etiquette books of the past, even with their outlandish standards, hinged on this same edict. Writes Dorothy Draper: "A delighted hostess is a delightful hostess." It's true that no one can have fun if the hostess is worrying about the paper bag lanterns catching on fire or the feminist sociological overtones of her apron. Host anxiety is, in a way, a form of narcissism: After all, the event isn't really about you at all.
In downtown Toronto where I live, no one has a better hostessing reputation than Sara Angel, a Trudeau doctoral scholar and visual arts journalist. Most Fridays, Sara, her husband, Michael, and their three children have people to dinner, mixing relatives, colleagues, parents of their kids' friends, and acquaintances old and new. "I feel as if we are connected to our community because we host," says Sara. "We're also really in touch with our friends."
Sara tries to do all the preparation days in advance. Her rule is to be low-fuss and totally present (full disclosure: The floral tarte tatin that haunts me was served at her house, so she does go high-impact too). As you step into her living room, warmly lit and filled with her grandmother's antiques and kids laughing, the outside world drops away. The food is excellent, served on mismatched vintage dishes – elegant but a tiny bit askew – though it's not the thing you remember. I ask her what she would be missing if she wasn't a hostess: "Love," she answers, which makes hostessing sound not old-fashioned, but urgent.