Since the biggest entertaining season of the year is now well upon us—starting with Thanksgiving, now past; proceeding into Hanukkah, well underway as I write this; with Christmas and New Year’s upcoming—I thought I’d write about everyone’s looming but generally unspoken seasonal dread. That would be The Guest from Hell.
Guests from hell come upon us in different shapes and guises, but they all have one thing in common: You never want them to darken your door again. Unfortunately, sometimes the dictates of family and friendship require that you do.
I should note that I have never actually entertained a guest from hell. (I must be lucky; my relatives and friends know how to behave at dinner parties. Or maybe I just have good taste in friends and relatives.) I have, however, attended a fair number of dinner parties at which a guest (or two) from hell was present.
Generally, guests from hell can be broken down into four categories: The bore from hell; the drunk from hell; the teetotaler from hell; and the pugilist from hell.
- The Bore from Hell. My most memorable encounter with one of these was at a dinner party I attended several years ago. Among the eight guests were a very cosmopolitan English couple who had arrived in the United States loaded with juicy gossip about the royal family and various members of the peerage. Everyone was totally dying to hear about the latest high-profile hijinks of Charles, Camilla, Anne, Fergie, Andrew, Edward, and whoever other of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s spawn and grandspawn and other assorted relations had been doing something scandalous recently. After we were seated, and enjoying the first course, the wife of the couple began relating a saga that involved, if I recall correctly, the Royal Navy, some polo ponies, and an orgy. We were riveted. Except, of course, for the bore from hell, who decided he wanted to discuss…Schubert Now, I bow to no one in my regard for the canon of western classical music. But I don’t need to hear about—over dinner—alternate titles, numbers assigned in the catalogue, conflicting versions of the first line of any given song, or the history of various instrumentations of any of Franz Schubert’s works. Well, anyway…we finally managed to get back on the subject of royal orgies. Just as the resident story-teller was reaching the good part, Bore from Hell interrupted her with: “Getting back to the subject of Schubert lieder,” and treated us all to a non-stop droning monologue about the chronology of part songs for male and female vocalists. Everyone at the table glumly subsided into resigned silence. You could see the thought bubbles over their heads: “Oh, shit, let’s just get this meal over with.”
- The Drunk from Hell. My worst experience with a drunk from hell was at a very flossy Harvard dinner party thrown by a dean and his wife. I was seated at the table next to a very senior professor who had gotten himself insanely drunk during the preceding cocktail hour. He kept pawing me, which was extremely disconcerting for numerous reasons, one of them being the fact that his glowering wife was seated directly across the table from us, staring daggers at him. (I don’t blame her in the least.) Things got worse when he put his hand under my dress, and—I still don’t know how he accomplished this—managed to rip my pantyhose into shreds. (He must have had claws instead of fingernails.) I was considerably younger than I am now when this happened, and I had no idea what to do other than sit still and feel horribly embarrassed and uncomfortable. I know what I’d do now: I’d remove his hand from under my dress, place it on the table, impale it with a fork, and smile serenely at the rest of the company. I pass this advice along to any young women who might find themselves in a similar situation.
- The Teetotaler from Hell. This is the kind of person who, if you ask him or her if he or she would like a drink before dinner—martini, Scotch on the rocks, bourbon, wine, whatever, responds by saying: “No, thanks. I don’t believe in polluting my body with toxic substances.” This is not a person who is interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is a person who takes pleasure in being a morally superior killjoy. Rational people—good guests—who don’t drink alcohol, for whatever reason, simply ask politely for ice water, a soft drink, or fruit juice. I am always very happy to accommodate them, as I am when cooking for people with real, special dietary requirements, whether dictated by religion, culture, or genuine health issues such as gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, or the need to restrict salt or sugar consumption.
- The Pugilist from Hell. This is the guest who will start a fight with anyone, any time. Both sides of the political spectrum produce this creature. The fight is always about some hot-ticket cultural, religious, or political issue that can’t be reduced to simple sloganeering, which is what the pugilist always does. The pugilist always thinks he’s in the right, and everyone else is completely wrong. Not just wrong, but evil. This does not make for a jolly evening.
Well, that about wraps up my list of Guests from Hell. Certainly there are sub-categories, such as the Drunk Horny Guest from Hell (which I believe I described above); or the Drunk Pugilist Guest from Hell (not uncommon); or the Teetotaler Pugilist Guest from Hell (a ghastly permutation of the breed); or the Drunk Bore Pugilist from Hell (I think we have some cross-breeding here), but you get the point. I’ve been there, seen that. And I wish they could all go to dinner by themselves and leave the rest of us alone.
That said: I wish you all the happiest of holidays, a very good New Year, and…a Guest from Hell-free guest list. With respect to the Guest from Hell-free guest list: Am I asking too much?