Dear Mary

Dear Mary: How can I help the host at a socially-distant dinner party?

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

Q. As we attend socially distant events, we expect of our hosts a scrupulous accommodation of our preferences around physical interaction. What distinguishes a good guest right now is less clear For example, I know an offer to help clear the plates would be refused, and might even make other guests anxious about my getting too close. Yet remaining entirely static while the host works their magic around me does not feel right. So, Mary, how can I express my gratitude?
— C.L., Cambridge

A. Express the gratitude on arrival. Congratulate your host for having staged the much-needed social event in the first place ‘at a time when you, as host, effectively have to do double the work as none of the guests can help — for distancing reasons. I expect you would rather I didn’t even offer?’. This pre-emption will allow you to set fellow guests at their ease. ‘We feel bad letting you do all the work,’ you can remark as your host starts to fuss around you. ‘But — as you and I discussed — you would rather none of us help.’

Q. I have much enjoyed lockdown with my girlfriend who is a terrific cook. Our proximity to good walks on the South Downs means I can tuck in as much as I like with little fear of an expanding waistline. The problem I have is that my girlfriend uses every imaginable cooking utensil to rustle up her culinary delights. I am now finding myself filling and emptying the dishwasher three times a day. Each utensil has to be put back in its exact place. This may seem small beer in these trying times, but I wonder if you have any suggested shortcuts to this tiresome routine?
— P.G.Z., West Sussex

A. Pre-feminist women (those now in their eighties and nineties) traditionally clattered noisily while cooking. It was a way of ensuring their efforts did not go unnoticed. Utensil mountains are the post-feminist version of clattering — they signal that cooking should not be confused with drudgery as it involves so many sophisticated tools and is therefore an art. However, you can relieve the boredom of your thrice-daily chore by setting the timer on your iPhone so it will ring shrilly every 15 minutes while you work. Explain to your girlfriend that you are competing against yourself by trying to shave off a few seconds each time you load or unload. She may soon tire of your upstaging her by this method and start to cut back on utensil numbers involved.

Q. Mary, what should I do when someone I know texts me about once a week saying: ‘I am going to the Waitrose near you, can I pop in afterwards?’ She knows I now work from home but has never worked herself so cannot really understand.
— Name and address withheld

A. Text back the truth: ‘So sorry! I’ve got a client at that time.’

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