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Food Fight!

Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page D02

The ancient and noble tradition of hospitality has come to this: Hosts and guests are squabbling over who gets possession of the leftovers.

Miss Manners is aghast. How sordid it is for people who have broken bread together to fight over the disposition of the crumbs. If she had not received countless letters from angry combatants, she would never have believed that this is a widespread problem.

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The catalyst for this spectacle is the downgraded "potluck dinner," which has become a commonplace of modern society. Potluck once signified a cheerful willingness to share whatever was in the family pot with the unexpected visitor and an implied apology that something special would have been offered if only there had been more notice.

Now it means that the visitor is expected to show up with a pot full of food for the host's table. This is all very well when a group decides to meet for cooperative meals, sharing the responsibilities rather than taking turns entertaining. But so many who believe themselves to be hosts assign their invited guests to cook that it has come to be believed that to attend a dinner party, you must help cater it.

It may sound gracious for guests to take the initiative by asking "What can I bring?" But truly hospitable people complain that they can't plan a menu because guests whose offers were refused persist in bringing items they expect to be integrated into the meal.

Miss Manners would have thought that the upside of this confusion would be a generous spirit among those who want to share the work along with the fun. Instead, the meal is hardly digested before things turn ugly.

There are hosts who consider that all items contributed to the meal, mandated or not, count as presents. They are appalled when a person who brought an item takes the leftovers home along with the platter. There are even hosts who resent being expected to give back the platters.

There are a corresponding number of guests who consider that anything they bring continues to be theirs to offer and are appalled when the hosts put the leftovers away in their kitchens, with or without their pots.

Then there are third parties who contributed nothing but manage to appall everyone by asking for leftovers to take home. Or who, without asking, simply shovel them into containers. Yes, it's come to that, Miss Manners weeps to say.

It would be easier if people did their own entertaining, making however many subsequent meals out of it they wished, and were rewarded for these efforts by being subsequently invited with nothing to do but be charming.

Failing that, we need to establish some rules. And some sense of proportion.

Portions would be a good place to start. In the hope of solving the problem by eliminating leftovers, contributing guests should be told or ask how much to bring. Beyond that, scraps should be left where they are: those in the guest-cooks' pots or platters to go home with them, and those on the hosts' platters and plates to be disposed of by them, with the understanding that either can offer theirs to the other.

But anyone who so much as mentions getting another meal out of the one still being eaten should be sent home without dessert, no matter who made it.

Dear Miss Manners:

Recently I overheard a conversation in which my boss used the term "irregardless" several times. It is obvious that she does not know that "irregardless" is not a word. What would be the most respectful way of correcting her?

Miss Manners suggests that you think about another word: "disregard."

One meaning of "to disregard" is to show a lack of respect for other people, which is what you would be doing if you corrected one of your boss's overheard conversations. Another meaning is to ignore something, which is what respect requires you to do here.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

©2005, Judith Martin


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