Ever used a live hand grenade as a centerpiece at a dinner party? It’s not conventional, but a lit stick of dynamite can look quite charming tucked next to the salt and pepper shakers. You might also consider placing a landmine next to each table setting.
You won’t find tips like that in etiquette guides because they are terrible. And yet our culture insists that the go-to gift for any dinner host is a bottle of wine. (Disclaimer: former me, a.k.a. drinker me, was as guilty of this as guilty can be, except that I always brought my pro game and tried to drink most or all of the bottle myself.) This week, we hosted a total stranger at our home for dinner because my partner’s new boss said something like, “Can you invite the out-of-town strategic planning consultant out for dinner?” But it’s coastal Maine in the winter and the nearest open restaurant is thirty miles away and we’re really good cooks so we decided to cook for her instead. And because this culture is what it is, she arrived with a bottle of wine and when it was opened and she had a glass in her hand, she said, “Boy, do I deserve some of this!”
I don’t blame her. She had spent the day listening to nonprofit people talking about their vision for the future, knowing all the while that we live on a rapidly dying planet that might not even have a future, plus she’s Canadian and what Canadian can get through a day listening to a bunch of Americans and not need a drink? She had every right to stick a straw in the bottle. She was the only one drinking, and the bottle was only half-empty when we put the cork back in it (lame), so I view her as a paragon of self-control.
I’m not going to say that I got into a stare down with that thing (that gleaming, curved, glittering objet d’art) but I can’t swear that I didn’t. If it was singing to me the way the sirens sang to Odysseus, nobody else at the table heard it because the conversation about the need for better donor recognition continued unbroken. But that bottle spent at hour or more within easy reach of me and my consolation seltzer, and I believe it whispered my name.
In a country populated with 20 million people who have substance use disorders, we might need to think of alternate gifts to offer our dinner party hosts. Here are some suggestions.
Stick of firewood: Granted, this won’t be well-received in every home, but we would have warmly (get it?) welcomed this item. Plus, it comes in many varieties, each with nuances that can be robustly appreciated. Birch. Maple. Poplar. Pine. The aromas and qualities of heat; quickness to ignite; texture of the bark—plenty to ooh and ahh over before that thing goes in the stove and gets appreciated all over again.
Cupcakes: Like wine, the varieties are endless, as are the combinations of cake and frosting flavors. If you would have brought Merlot (do people still drink that?), go with a classic white cake/vanilla frosting combo. If you’re a Malbec person, reach for red velvet. Pinot grigio people such as myself should bring Funfetti cupcakes with rainbow frosting because we are the life of evey goddamned party and don’t forget it. If you would normally have arrived with a box of wine under your arm (the kind with a spigot), maybe pick up a giant supermarket sheet cake with the extra sugary frosting and know that I salute thee.
Butter: Who doesn’t like butter?
Magnum bottle of kombucha: It’s as close to wine as you can get without being wine, and that is to say it’s not much like wine at all but it is snooty and fermented. The flavors range from Martha Stewart–esque options like pear and ginger or turmeric, sage, and acai to selections that bring to mind something with a street value that you might buy from a guy named Skeet, like Pink Lady or High Noon. Nobody really knows what kombucha is or who thought of it, but it comes in a bottle, has a cool label, and looks pretty in stemware. Solid choice.
A handful of your uncle’s Vicodin: This is a terrible idea for so many reasons, but it would make a statement about why the bottle of wine is equally terrible, wouldn’t it? Hold your fist out and sprinkle those little gems around the base of the candelabra. Then plunk a Narcan pump next to your salad fork because safety is important. See what happens next.
A puppy: The only thing better than butter. As a bonus, you won’t be invited back.
Although I survived the evening with my sobriety intact, here’s what I’m still thinking about. We knew the out-of-town consultant was bringing wine to our house, but we were too polite to ask her not to, which says everything we need to know about our weird cultural obsession with alcohol. At the risk of being melodramatic (me? never!), our choice was between making a total stranger feel vaguely uncomfortable for about one minute and putting my health at risk, and the choice felt weirdly clear. My job was to suck up because wine belongs at dinner. You know what doesn’t belong at dinner? People in recovery who can’t face their poison and come out standing.
I wish she had brought a puppy.