It was 1922 when the tragedy of Mrs. Newwed's disatrous dinner first appeared in print. In a chapter called "How a Dinner Can Be Bungled," Emily Post, making her debut as arbiter of American manners, told the story of that unhappy evening: guests sitting tearfully in the haze of a smoking fireplace, a maid behaving in most incorrect fashion, a dinner too long delayed that finally begins with a watery soup and collapses into a mousse described as "a huge granulated mound . . . with a narrow gutter of water around the edge."
Poor Mrs. Newwed! Her reputation was ruined. She marched off the page in tears, as Emily Post cautioned that "no dinner is ever really well done unless the hostess herself knows every smallest detail"; let there be "one dull button on a footman's livery, and her eyes see it at once!"
In the intervening years, Emily Post has become not just an institution but an Institute, and somewhere on its walls that admonition must be cross-stitched, framed and hung in a place of horror, for in "The Complete Book of Entertaining" the ghost of Mrs. Newwed scuttles from page to page.
If attention to detai will retrieve her reputation, she will find it here. The authors tell how much ice a hostess should allow per guest for a dinner party (1 pound) as opposed to a cocktail party (2/3 pound) and how many cocktail napkins will be needed for each person (three: "Guests will often take a fresh one with each new drink").
There is an equation that will give you the amount of floor space needed to accommodate guests at a sit-down dinner, and a chart calculating how many dancers will fit on a dance floor. (Eight slow dances can two-step their way around a 9-foot-9-foot floor, but if the band heats up, watch out! There will be room for only five.)
There are 21 1 1/2-ounce drinks in a quart of liquor, or 16 2-ounce ones. You will need to build a pit 2 feet wide by 10 feet long by 30 inches high and hire four or five chefs if you plan to have a cookout for 200 to 300 people.
Do not offer alcohol to a Hindu or a cigarete to a Christian Scientist.
Do hire a bouncer for large teen-age parties.
But not only teen-agers are unruly. "Another problem that many hostesses face today is that of the guests who want to smoke marijuana. If the hostess approves of the practice and is untroubled by the fact that it is illegal, of course she has no problem. But if she does not approve . . . she should say so firmly."
With just such a note of assurance did Mrs. Worldly conduct her dinners "In a Great House," where "a butter always stands throughout a meal back of the hostess' chair, except when giving one of the men under him a direction or when pouring wine."
If the style of entertaining has changed, the idea that good manners include kindness has not. Emily Post wrote, "To accept a dinner it Mrs. Nobody's and then break the obligation upon being invited to dine with the Worldlys proclaim anyone capable of such rudeness an unmitigated snob." Elizabeth Post, her granddaughter-in-law, cautions, "Don't leave out your single friends, especially women . . . Nor is it necessary to have an even number of men and women."
But if the book contains everything you could conceivably want to know about entertaining, from a wine and cheese table to place-card designations at a formal dinner, in the second half the repentant Mrs. Newwed has run amok.
The authors make suggestions for specific parties, accompanied by a schedule for the host or hostess to follow. Someone planning the Chinese New Year's dinner for 12 will find that on Party Day Minus 2 Weeks, it is time to practice napkin folding. If you've chosen the BYO Halloween Party for 20, be prepared on Party Day Minus 1 Week to "Get books of ghost stories from library."
For the Labor Day Luau for 24, the hostess must remember that on Luau Day Minus 3 Weeks she is to order a 35-40 pound pig, which will be cooked in a pit 3 feet deep, 4 feet long and 3 feet wide, to be dug on Luau Day Minus 1 Week. "Without it [the pig] a real luau is not possible," the authors explain.
But if too much attention is given to that "one dull button on a footman's livery," the book is useful for people who entertain frequently and formally or for those who suddenly find themselves responsible for planning a wedding or other large gathering.
The rest of the time, the book can go back on the shelf while friends drop by for burgers and beer.