I’m a terrible hostess. I hardly invite friends over to my place. When I do I get so distracted by their presence that I’m barely able to ask how their grandma’s been doing lately and pour a beer at the same time. My meals are haphazard and I never have the right condiments. I invited my cousins over for a BBQ last year, declaring that I would have hotdogs and hamburgers, but then forgot that I don’t own ketchup (I don’t eat it, so I don’t buy it), much to the surprise of my guests. You don’t have ketchup?!
Despite being hopeless when it comes to entertaining and feeding others, I have learned that I do enjoy rules for feeding guests. And I enjoy being fairly certain of what to expect when eating in someone’s home. I have written about the differences in eating with my French relatives compared to eating with my Assyrian relatives. But they do have something in common, there are clear rules to feeding others, and guests know what to expect.
Every single time I’ve eaten at a French person’s home, they offer an aperitif. This is a little alcohol to stimulate the appetite and it is usually served with some nibbles. Sure, the quality of what is served varies a lot based on how old the host is, his taste, how much money he likes to spend on such things, etc. It could be malibu rum and lays potato chips or it could be champagne and home-baked bread with Sicilian olives and lardons. The point is, you know that upon arrival you’ll get to nibble and chit chat in the living room. Then you move to a table where you get entrees, then there’s the main dish, followed by cheese, dessert and a digestif. As a guest, you can bring a bottle of something or offer to bring a dessert, but rest assured you will leave satisfied.
At an Assyrian (or we’ll more broadly call this Iranian) household, it’s the same thing. You can bring a bottle, dessert, or flowers as a guest, but no worry, you will leave with a full belly, leftovers in hand, and probably a little tipsy…or a lot tipsy. The rules are different, however, than the French rules, but in both cases as a guest, you pretty much just show up. As a kid at my aunt’s house, I’d be offered, or rather told to have some “pepsi mepsi” and munch on “chipseh mipseh.” Almost scolded, as if my refusing to eat and drink is a criticism that I don’t think their food and drink is good enough. Now as an adult, I get booze and the same appetizers. There are tons of dishes to snack on, and it’s easy to get full on this. Pace yourself! After a couple hours of grazing, comes dinner, which is always family or buffet style, including giant pots of stew, rice, salads, mounds and mounds of food for days. Same with desserts, there’s often more than two kinds to choose from, and you’ll be offered tea with your dessert.
At a “my great-great grandfather is German, his wife was Italian, my family’s been here for many generations” European mutt white-American house, there are no rules. It’s very inconsistent. You never know what you’re going to get or not get, and I’ve left more than one American party hungry. Hungry! The shame! I went to one party recently where we were instructed to not bring anything but booze. So that’s what everyone did. All liquored up, we realized, oh, there’s no real dinner. There were probably 20 adults and 10 kids at this thing, and enough food for half of us. I perched in the kitchen area and managed to grab 1/3 of an ear of corn and some chips but completely missed any salads and BBQ. The plates emptied before they hit the table. We were starving. “Aren’t they ashamed?” I asked my guy, horrified that the hosts would not have enough food to feed their guests. But I don’t think they knew that they should be embarrassed. Also, the parents at the party had no shame in grabbing food, “it’s for the kids,” they smiled sheepishly, sneaking bites into their own mouths. I know I’m whining, but I was stunned, and starving. I whispered to my man friend, “can we please go get some dinner and come back?”
All this to say, I like going to someone’s house and knowing I won’t go hungry.
“It’s so stressful,” my cousin said to me once, “going to a white person’s house, it’s all potluck, byob, you have to buy and prep stuff ahead of time. With Persians, it’s so easy, you go and you know you’ll be taken care of.”
So, come on my white folk, let’s pull ourselves together and buy too much food, or at least enough food. And I’ll promise to buy some ketchup.