Since there aren’t any holidays involving large meals in this stretch of the year, people love to come up with any old excuse for having a party. Inauguration viewing (sure, why not?!), Super Bowl parties, Awards show parties, St. Patty’s Day… I, for one, enjoy hosting. Despite all of the preparation, stress, and the requisite extra trip to the store for something forgotten on the first visit, in the end I always feel satisfied from providing a good time for my friends and fam. At some point I hope to be set up enough to throw fancy parties, but as any good host knows, the game is all about throwing the best event with the means available to you.
The rules of hosting have pretty much fallen to the wayside in an age of potlucks and BYO-anything, but once upon a time there was a formal set of guidelines the party-thrower was expected to follow. Two mid-century guides, Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts and Betty Crocker’s Guide to Easy Entertaining, highlight not only the mid-century hosting expectations, but how they differed depending on the gender of the host. The tones are quite different, with Esquire feeling like the information is being bestowed upon you from a boss or elder statesman who is showing you the ropes, while Betty Crocker feels more like the information is coming from a peer who happens to know more about the subject.
Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts was originally published in 1949 and saw a reprint in 1999. With the resurgence of the cocktail movement, the sizable bartending section and cocktail recipes have gotten some attention in recent years. The Handbook for Hosts has an astounding 71 full pages of drink recipes, including a section on non-alcoholic punches titled “Tipples for Teetotalers.” Obviously Esquire is a men’s magazine, and this guide is noticeably geared towards men, as it leans more heavily on big picture of main courses and entertaining with drinks, games, and conversation than party preparation and recipes. “Esky has concentrated on food of, for and by MEN.” Even the term “handbook” makes it seems more like a reference, something akin to a book for looking up sports rules, than a how-to guide for something the reader might not know about. It also gives a refresher on etiquette and tips for how to help a hangover – something the ladies wouldn’t dare talk about!
“The world’s greatest cooks are men. Since the beginning of time, he-men have always prepared the savory dishes that caress the palates of epicures of every nation.”
It seems contradictory to say that men are the best chefs with such bravado and then turn around and assume they don’t know how to serve. But I suppose that was a woman’s work anyway – he was just hosting until he landed a wife to do it for him! There are a fair amount of bawdy cartoons depicting topless women and unfaithful partners dotting the pages of this handbook.
While the Handbook for Hosts does talk about setting the atmosphere and creating a polished and comfortable environment for guests, the tone is a little different when directed at the male reader:
“IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO SHOWMANSHIP!”
All caps. It’s as if being given a stern directive from an mysterious authoritative figure: you’d better impress them, Mister!
The pages were a little hard to photograph so the color tones are kind of wacky, but the art was too good to skip!
The salad course is listed way at the end, right before dessert. Almost like an afterthought once all of the courses like steak, game, and stew were out of the way.
Side note: his outfit is back in fashion!
Though it’s true that Esquire focused much more heavily on the etiquette and social aspects of hosting than Betty Crocker, it must be said that propriety was still the primary concern. A host could drink but was not supposed to actually end up drunk in the presence of his guests. “The sober duty of the host.” Apparently the talk of hangover cures is for his guests’ benefits? There is a guide of signs to look for to decide if you have imbibed too much, including telling inappropriate stories in mixed company, talking about celebrities at length, and dancing with a girl twenty years your junior. (!)
The Handbook for Hosts gives tips on how to speed a parting guest, joking that breaking out the home movies usually does the trick. The book has a more humorous and sarcastic tone than books of the period geared towards women, consistent with the Esquire brand. It also discusses how to facilitate good conversation, and what conversational sins to avoid. (Long-winded tales, foreign terminology, using obsolete words, asking someone if they get the point or if you are boring them.) The entire chapter devoted to how to begin and carry on a conversation might be a bit much, but if you are a host that is so bad at conversation that you actually need that chapter, fear not, there is also a large section on games and quizzes to save the day!
By contrast, Betty Crocker’s Guide to Easy Entertaining (How to Have Guests – and Enjoy Them), published in 1959, is full of hosting tips and recipes. It originally caught my eye because of its charming illustrations, though it proves to be a pretty comprehensive guide to throwing not just dinners, but cocktail parties, teas, luncheons, and other gatherings. Surprisingly, unlike most mid-century cookbooks, a lot of the recipes actually hold up today. (They went easy on the aspics.) This guide gives notes on how to plan, invite, and set-up a hosted meal or party and also touches on tips for guests – how to accept or decline invitations and what to bring. For example, Betty Crocker tells the guest to avoid bringing flowers – although a nice thought, they might overshadow the flowers the host carefully selected for the occasion or clash with the party’s decor. Who would have thought such a kind gesture could backfire so horribly?!
Enter mid-century gender roles:
“The wife, who extends invitation, also answers them. When an invitation is given to a couple, both are expected to refuse if one happens to be otherwise engaged, especially if that one is the husband. It is disconcerting to the hostess, who may be having her troubles finding enough men anyway, to hear, ‘Bill has a committee dinner that night – but I’d love to come.'”
Well, well. Good luck with your social life if your husband is a busy guy. I’m just reading in between the lines here, but it seems that you must have had a pretty sparse event calendar if you happened to be a single person. Or at least a single woman, unless you wanted to end up in one of those awkward, totally not forced at all type matchmaking situations. “Ohhh, strange how we are the only two single people in a dinner party of 12…”
When is the last time you received a personalized invitation? Seems so quaint in the age of Facebook invites and mass texts.
While the Handbook for Hosts refreshes the host of etiquette rules, the Guide to Easy Entertaining reminds guests of their manners:
“Must I always give a specific reason for refusing? It is not necessary to explain in detail why you cannot accept an invitation, if you do not wish to do so, but it is important to regret in warmly cordial terms, such as, ‘We would love to accept, but we have another engagement. I do hope you will think of us again soon.’
I am never flattered when a guest says, ‘I have another date, but maybe I can get out of it. I would so much rather come to your party. Let me try to escape and call you back.'”
It’s true, that does always leave me wondering if that person says the same thing about my gathering to someone else.
The Guide to Easy Entertaining also includes one of the most valuable and timeless pieces of advice for guests:
Make no mistake, the Betty Crocker host was no servant. She was the queen of the castle, and no one should start until she lifted her fork or gave express permission to begin. That said, she was still expected to decline any offers for help in cleaning up and do it all herself later. Unsurprisingly, there was no section on clearing up in Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts – they just skipped right to the drinking and the games.
The Guide to Easy Entertaining closes with,” Remember then, that hospitality is as we said earlier ‘being disposed the entertain with generous kindness.’ With planning you can be ready for entertaining in practical detail as well as in spirit; and don’t forget to entertain yourself as well as others. Best wishes for many relaxed and happy hours with your guests.”