"Where are the hors d'oeuvres?" asked the guest who had just arrived and was awaiting the drink he had requested immediately upon crossing the threshold.
The host, already on the run, was sent flapping back into the kitchen to reemerge with a tray of crudite's. The evening, which had just started, was out of control and the guest would see that it stayed that way. As the host moved toward the bedroom carrying coats, the guest followed to ask for ice. As the ice plunked into his glass, he waved a sticky hand and demanded a napkin.
The host was kept continually off balance and instead of progressing as planned, the evening kept veering off in directions the guest had chosen.
The guest was proving that Betty Crocker isn't the only one to hold kitchen competitions; friends do it, too.
Asking for things before the host has a chance to offer, tasting the pie`ce de re'sistance, frowning and then suggesting that perhaps you would like their recipe for a similar dish, they manage to imply that you are falling down on the job.
They scurry into the dining room to rearrange the centerpiece, decide that they do not care for the dinner partner they have been assigned and reshuffle the place cards, thus insuring that Miss Y, whom you have cunningly seated next to Mr. X, never will get a chance to chat with that handsome devil. Then, full of bonhomie because of the way they have improved your party, they pop into the kitchen to over-salt the soup.
Sibling rivalry, says a friend whose four sisters do this to her all the time. But would that it were confined to blood relations. No, this kind of party-picking is something that occurs outside the family as well. It is meant to show that the person doing the picking is much better at this than you are.
This is not always the conscious aim, of course, though there are those who are snide enough to let it show. "Ah, I see you have just made the basics," says a guest viewing a Thanksgiving repast of roast turkey, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, squash, beans, Brussels sprouts, creamed onions, chestnut and corn bread stuffing, several kinds of cranberry sauce, and several pumpkin pies. "I wish I could be like you. I always wear myself out making too much," she continues, pretending to self-criticism while she flaunts her own superior efforts.
Similarly, a foreign houseguest damned with praise the hostess whose hospitality she had just enjoyed. Bed had been provided and board in the form of hostess-prepared lunches and dinners, but breakfasts, alas, were do-it-yourself. "How relaxed you Americans are," said the guest on leaving. "I would never have the nerve to ask guests to make their own breakfasts."
The trick is to take these statements at face value. Of course they are politely phrased criticisms, but the hostess who lets herself be goaded by the message beneath the words loses control of her party. The hostess guilty of "just the basics" could silence her guest with sympathy. "You do do too much and then you're too tired to enjoy your parties. Why don't you call me next time, and I'll tell you what to cut out."
As to the foreign guest miffed at being required to spoon her own jam onto her morning toast, the hostess might have condoled, "Well, a lot of it is cultural, of course, but there are several very good self-help books that might make you feel more at ease with your guests."
The guest who asks for things that are not available can be put on the defensive with, "You didn't bring the hors d'oeuvre (wine, vodka, coffee, dessert)? Did you forget that you offered to bring them?"
The person who switches place cards can be thanked. "How generous of you to put yourself next to Mr. X. I would never have done that to you because people might think you ... Oh! You don't know about him. Well, I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell." This is a response that will give you the satisfaction of knowing that throughout the whole long evening, the meddling guest will be writhing in misery, wondering where her meddlesome ways have gotten her.
One should feel sorry for people who make themselves taller by knocking everyone else to the ground, but one should not let them get away with it. The duty of the party-giver is to all the guests, not just to one interfering soul, and a hostess, like a politician, occasionally must be prepared to fight for the good of the party.