Too many cooks not only spoil the broth, they can spoil a holiday as a group of chefs fight for control of the kitchen.
The problem is not one of numbers but one of attitude as the resident chef repulses efforts to help while resenting the extra work. Four weekend guests is twice as much chopping, twice as much shopping, twice as much steaming, twice as much cleaning and unless a host learns how to marshall the sous chefs, entertaining houseguests becomes a martyrdom.
The first principle of sharing a kitchen with a guest chef is that the visiting cooks will not do things your way. They may, however, do them better. One houseguest went to the garden and returned with a handful of mint to strew over the bluefish to cut the oiliness. Another, helping to prepare a large outdoor buffet, called the local butcher and when the ham was cooked, took it down for him to slice. Another made an instant pate' out of leftover shrimp by marinating a vanilla bean in melted butter, removing the bean and whirling the butter and shrimp in the Cuisinart and then chilling the mixture.
The one chore that usually is better to reserve to the host is putting away the dishes. A set of measuring spoons can disappear until November, while wine glasses wander off to reappear in the most unlikely places.
The host also should be braced for the fact that while all offers are made with a good heart, some are the product of a weak head. The man who made the birthday cake that successfully repelled every candle -- its crust as hard as an armadillo and its inside as tasty -- was making his first solo flight, though he had neglected to mention the fact. At least no one woke up the next morning feeling fat.
Even guests who specialize in armored cakes, however, can be given a task to perform. They should be guided gently away from the mixing bowl and put out on the porch with a sack of peas. Summer is the season for shelling peas or shucking corn, for snapping grean beans and handing some patient soul a mortar and pestle to grind herbs into pastes to flavor the sauce.
There are many similar tasks that do not need to be carried on in the kitchen proper, and the host with a tiny work space can send the help outside. Even the most inept guest can set a table, or open the wine, or replace the candles. And meals where all hands have helped are happy times.
Ask any child. There is nothing children like better than helping in the kitchen, and they are surprisingly adept from an early age. A 4-year-old given a stool and a large apron can while away a happy hour washing dishes. A 3-year-old can measure flour and even a toddler can tear up lettuce into a salad bowl.
Older children actually can make all or part of the meal. Perhaps it won't be done on time -- an overly ambitious 10-year-old, confused by timing, had the cream puffs ready at 7 p.m., though the chicken didn't make it out of the oven until 9. Or perhaps he wasn't confused at all.
You can amuse your own children, or the children of guests, by giving them the kitchen for an entire afternoon -- the hours between the luncheon clean-up and the dinner start-up. They can be asked to prepare a dessert for dinner and if they are short of ideas, you can inspire them with a charming cookbook that will particularly delight any child who watched the PBS series, "Anne of Green Gables." It is called, naturally, The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook, written by Kate Macdonald, with wonderful illustrations by Barbara DiLella (Salem House Ltd., $8.95). With a brief bow to proper meals like Thick and Creamy Vegetable Soup and Saucy Chicken, the book soon gets down to the important things: Miss Ellen's Pound Cake, Coconut Macaroons, Maritime Gingersnaps, Chocolate Goblin's Food Cake, and Tantalizing Raspberry Tarts, all accompanied by appropriate quotes from the book (" ... to eat those raspberry tarts all alone or even to share them only with one's best chum would have forever branded as 'awful mean' the girl who did it. And yet, when the tarts were divided among 10 girls you just got enough to tantalize you," said Anne.)
A raspberry tart may not be divided to happy effect, but summer cooking can be. When a guest asks to help, say yes, and yes, and yes.