For years, the dinners I offered my friends issued out of a tiny kitchen that had neither a dishwasher nor counter space. If I didn't clean up as I went along, I didn't go along. This refusal to tunnel through a slag heap of dirty dishes put me at odds with experts who insist that cleaning up while guests are present is among the cardinal sins of entertaining, but it not only saved me from being cited by the health department around the third course, it made me a permanent convert to picking up while partying.

By letting guests see the mechanics of the party, letting them help make it work, you make them more comfortable. Recently, I went to a perfect party in a house so tastefully done that there was nothing to show it was occupied. There was not a book or a magazine in sight, no shabby, comfortable chair that had been saved by the ultimatum, "If that chair goes, so do I." Taste triumphant had also grabbed hold of the food, which was of the kind currently favored by people who keep up on such things -- a meal in miniature passed around on little platters for guests to graze upon. A great deal of effort had doubtless gone into making the evening look effortless; the guests, faced with such perfection, shuffled their feet and fled. As the last ones left, the host, despairing of the food left in the kitchen, was offering doggy bags.

By making themselves perfect, the host and hostess had made their guests less so. Instead of exhausting themselves to produce a perfect and soulless party, they would have been much better off letting their guests help.

Think of all the plusses, not the least of which is ending the evening with a relatively clean kitchen. Although it would be foolish to break into a good conversation with a request for help, when the talkers are edging their way toward an ugly fight it can save the situation if one of the antagonists is suddenly and urgently needed in the kitchen. Then, too, at every party there is someone who has failed to attach to any group. Recruiting them to help serve or clear gives them a comfortable role to fill.

Another plus of the guest as helper is the kitchen gossip. The host or hostess has given the party to see friends, but, alas, the need to fill them with food often precludes a chance to chat. Ask the person you'd most like to gossip with into the kitchen to help and you can do both. (Never ask a person who's in the midst of a great emotional trauma to help you before dinner. You will be trying to decide whether the lamb is raw or rare and exactly how many more minutes to cook the beans and cannot afford to be distracted with the story of a life gone awry. Save the brokenhearted guest for after dinner. It is easier to sympathize with someone's troubles while washing a plate than it is while making a sauce.)

There are people (mostly of the male persuasion) who pride themselves on their ability to carve. There are those who shudder when they see a bottle of wine jostled about as the cork is being extracted. The man who makes the perfect cocktail, the woman whose salad dressing is famous -- for heaven's sake, find out what your guests do well and make use of those skills. People are rarely offended by being asked to demonstrate their superior way of doing things, and you might actually learn something. If someone does something differently than you do, ask why. It may be a better way. A man who had been asked to peel and cook the potatoes completed his assignment by tossing a towel over the pot to absorb the moisture and prevent the cooked potatoes from growing soggy. Someone else, given the job of chopping chives and parsley, rejected the offered knife and requested scissors. Much easier.

Life being what it is, along with the good comes the bad. When you have had guests help clear the table, count all the knives, forks and spoons before throwing out the garbage. Invariably, some of the silverware will have been scraped away with the food. In fact, let the guest-helpers clear while you keep a vigilant eye on what's being thrown out. Careless clearers have been known not only to dump silverware but to toss down the sink a sauce that took hours to make.

The point of enlisting all this help is that the cleanup should take only a few minutes. Don't drag it out wrestling with a scorched pot or putting things away. You don't want to create a disruption in your party -- just a pause while guests make room for dessert.

And when the meal's over, don't run the dishwasher until the guests have left, unless the noise can't be heard in the dining or living room. There's something about that hum that says it's time to go.