Back when people gave their own dinner parties rather than recruit guests to cook and clean, Thanksgiving was a traditional exception. Since legend has it that the Pilgrims and the American Indians both contributed to the feast, cooperation is often the order of the day.
Miss Manners is not claiming that this exactly works. She is forever being asked to referee squabbles about excessive or peculiar demands and unsatisfactory or unsavory results. But it should at least work on Thanksgiving, when the menu is largely set and the guests on intimate terms. But Thanksgiving food evokes emotions that are paradoxically incompatible with the spirit of the occasion, and the familiarity has an unfortunate way of loosening everyone's hold on etiquette.
At ordinary dinner parties, hosts should accept only minimal help from guests who volunteer, and not expect to return to pre-cooking cleanliness while the guests are still present to be entertained. But at Thanksgiving, there is a feeling that cleanup should be cooperative. And everyone has an idea about who should do it:
* The gentlemen think the ladies should, because they have always done it.
* The ladies think the gentlemen should, because it is high time they took a turn.
* The younger generation believes the older generation should, because the latter has always done so.
* The older generation believes the younger generation should, because it is time for the younger ones to take this over.
* Those who contributed to the cooking believe it is only fair for those who did not to clean up.
* Those who did not cook believe it is only sensible for those who did to finish the job and clean up.
* Those in whose house the dinner takes place believe it is only fair for others to pitch in for the cleanup.
* Guests believe it is the domain of the hosts to clean up.
* Those who want to watch the football game believe that doing so is more important than cleaning up.
* Those who don't want to watch the football game believe that doing so is less important than cleaning up.
This is not to say that everyone is foisting the job on everyone else, because there are notable exceptions. There is always the elderly hostess who insists on doing everything herself and goes huffing and puffing around while everyone else listens awkwardly to the clank of the pots so as not to miss the possible thud of an exhausted body. And there is always the energetic guest who insists on cleaning up as he sees fit, violating all the hosts' rules about when to remove plates, how to deal with the garbage and where to put things back.
Miss Manners hates to interfere in all this robust family life but would like to suggest an equally inequitable but possibly less emotionally hazardous system:
Everyone volunteers. The host chooses a few, apparently at random, but probably those who seem awake and are least likely to get in the way and most likely to provide amiable kitchen conversation. And if this doesn't work smoothly, the hosts let someone else volunteer to give Thanksgiving dinner next year.
Dear Miss Manners:
My sister-in-law always serves white potatoes for Thanksgiving. She knows that my husband and I don't eat white potatoes, and we don't eat stuffing because it contains white bread.
When I offered to make whipped organic sweet potatoes at her house, she acted all offended and said she didn't have room for another cook in her kitchen (this is just an excuse).
We think it is incredibly insensitive to serve a dish she knows we don't eat, and then not let us contribute something in its place. My husband thinks we should just cancel and not go. Please say something to end this family dispute!
How about "No, thank you"? But that's for you to say -- and in regard to the potatoes, not the family occasion.
If your sister-in-law's entire Thanksgiving menu is white potatoes with bread stuffing, Miss Manners might agree that she was being spiteful. Otherwise, there ought to be something, if not plenty, for you to eat, which is hospitable enough, even on Thanksgiving. If you must pick a family feud, Miss Manners hopes you will find a better excuse -- and a better day.
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.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin