Ah, Christmas Dinner, a family tradition, what a marvelous time. In this blog post I offer some advice to those of you hosting a large dinner of 20+ people, based on my over 30 years of hosting that magical family event. Magical though it may be, as host and cellar master, in this blog I offer you some basic advice on how to survive the event relatively unscathed. Before we get started, let me preface my remarks with a basic disclaimer: the events outlined below represent a collective wisdom, and have not necessarily all transpired in our household. So is this fact or fiction? Maybe a little of both.
- Protect the Cellar – As host of the Christmas Dinner for a large family with several adult children of legal drinking age in attendance, your number one priority will be to protect the wine cellar from plunder and pillage. Under no circumstances should you allow anyone other than yourself to have access to the cellar. If you do not have an alarm system and/or lock on your cellar door, then get one installed.
- Avoid offering cellar tours, especially after the first couple of glasses of wine have been consumed – nothing good comes from those tours, and if you are unlucky you could get a broken bottle,
- or a family member goading you into serving up a bottle of the best. Bad mistake, because one bottle leads to another 2-3, which you cannot control without embarrassing someone, so avoid serving up the best, and make sure what you serve is pre planned, out of the cellar decanting, or in the fridge chilling.
- Guess who is coming to dinner – the next order of business will be establishing how many will be attending, let the circus begin! This number is never precise, and will usually not be known, even at the last minute. There are several issues that create the confusion, such as:
- Bad weather – let it snow, and snow, and snow some more.
- Relatives who do not speak to each other – if Uncle Bob is coming I’m not, he is so embarrassing when he parties, but if he is not coming I’m bringing my boyfriend and my best girlfriend. Okay then, Bob it is!
- Bringing friends to a large family dinner is always testy – half the time they are no-shows because they got a better offer, or their own loved ones with whom they were fighting, caved in after all and invited them at the last minute.
- No dogs please – believe it not, everyone wants to bring their dog. The usual excuse is that the dog cannot stay alone at home longer than 6 – 8 hours. Well isn’t that just perfect, tell them you will be sure to have them on their way in 6 hours or less. Even then, half the time they cancel at the last minute because they feel sorry for the dog, or they do something stupid like bring the dog anyways – big mistake. Try keeping their dog in your garage for 5 hours, it never works.
- Flu and cold season – to stay at home or to haul your sorry carcass to dinner and infect everyone, your choice but everyone else wishes it was not. If it were up to them they would have someone drop off a doggy bag of leftovers at your front door. Do not expect advance notice of this cancellation, you may only get the apology call the next day.
So what you say, well are we serving dinner for 15 or 25, it kind of makes a difference. For starters you need a bigger turkey, a bigger or a second dining room table, and more chairs. And then what about the wine?
- Dinner table logistics – most homes are not equipped for dinner tables that seat 20+ people. So squeezing in a 2nd table plus another dozen chairs becomes a bit of a joke, especially if you set up for 20 and only 15 show, but even worse if you set up for 20 and 25 show. Finding chairs is even more of a joke as every seating device in the house gets pressed into service, ranging from bar stools, footstools, folding chairs, dusty old travel trunks, and some relic you use in the workshop to get to the top storage shelves in the basement.
- Then you throw oversized tablecloths on the tables hoping to hide as much as possible. Now for the wineglasses, you will never have enough (glasses always break during the year), and they will not match, they will be of all shapes and sizes. Nothing like using a champagne flute for that red Bordeaux! Best of all logistics problems is what to do with the grandchildren, you know who I mean, those little ones 5 years or younger. Of course they want to be part of the family dinner too, so do you bring a high chair to the already overcrowded table, or just let them sit on their parent’s lap. Most end up on their parent’s lap, so here is what you need to do – make sure everyone within two seats of the kids wears a bib or splash guard, use a purple or red tablecloth (nothing stains worse than cranberry sauce on a white tablecloth), and make sure the parent holding the kid gets cheap wine in a plastic wineglass, because that glass is going to spill!
- Wine logistics – as host be prepared to supply up to 75% of the wine, so you need to have pre dinner wines, both red and white, dinner wines, both red and white, and a dessert wine or port. At large family dinners such as this, it is customary for everyone to bring a bottle of wine or two, and that always leads to some ridiculous moments which you, the wine host, must manage very carefully, here are just a few:
- Guest brings bottle of plonk – if this is one of your kids, send them out or home to bring a better bottle, after all, if you have brought them up right, they should know better. If a guest then you must be more diplomatic, open the wine right away and serve them a glass immediately, a real rim rocker, and try to get rid of that bottle as quick as possible. This does not always work, often your guest will turn up their nose at the plonk they brought and ask you for something better, are we having fun yet?
- Family cheapskates bring one bottle for four people – this is really not as bad a problem as you might think. You know what to expect, because they are cheap every year, and you know that if they are coming they will drink their one bottle and 4 of your bottles. So your choice is obvious, always have 4 bottles of cheap house wine standing by, or this is your perfect opportunity to get rid of all the plonk your guests brought. As wine host this is your job to manage properly, so stay alert and get rid of that plonk.
- Wineglass shortage – if you have 20 or more for dinner everyone will have to stick with their own wineglass for the entire evening. This is a pain because there are always “snack slobs” who get the hors d’oeuvres smudged all over their fingers and their wine glass, so it needs to be washed. You also need to watch out for the “wine glass bandit”, the guy who puts his glass down somewhere, wanders off, then forgets where he left his wine, so he goes to the kitchen to get another. This guy is a real pain because he can make you short of 4-5 wine glasses before you know it, you have to find his abandoned glasses (check the bathroom, beside the sofa, the door to the wine cellar, etc.) and you have to wash them for your other guests, usually right away. This guy is a pest, he needs to be watched, and he wastes a lot of wine, so make sure he gets the plonk.
- Hoarding the good stuff – a good host will have an organized bar, and that can mean having a plan for the order in which you are serving the various wines brought to dinner. We have already established that the plonk goes first, then your cheap house wines, keep the good stuff for dinner. Now here is where some advance planning is necessary, you need to have an organized seating arrangement approved by your spouse (so he or she does not upset your plans for hoarding the best dinner wines). Try to get the younger crowd at one end of the table (or better still on a completely separate table, that worked well for us once or twice), and put the old timers together at your end of the table. Old timers generally bring better wines, they have been to a few rodeos before and know the routine. Make sure the kids have all the cheapest stuff, and that it is all parked on the table in front of them, lots of choice means they are less likely to look towards your end of the table to see what you are drinking. Meanwhile, at your end have no more than 2 bottles on the table, one white and one red, hold everything else out of sight. This plan will not work forever, eventually the kids catch on and then you are done.
- The pre drink, when does the host start up – as host this is your decision, subject of course to spousal approval. If you do most of the work (and managing the wine consumption can be a big job), then you should be entitled to a late morning or early afternoon tune up as you get ready to host the event. After all, you do not need to drive, and if you know your crowd and there will be no plonk to manage, and no wine glass bandit to supervise, no wine glass shortage and simple seating logistics, and no hoarding of the good stuff required, then go right ahead. Relax and enjoy the afternoon and take the edge off with a glass or two. However, be advised that this may backfire on you. You may get too relaxed, forget to lock that wine cellar door, be unaware as plonk gets by you unnoticed, and while you are washing dirty wine glasses casually left all over the house by a “wine glass bandit”, guided tours of your cellar are underway and a six pack of good stuff is being uncorked and decanted by a well intentioned, and not so close relative, who figures the host won’t mind. No worries though, this is your choice, so you make the call, just remember to get spousal approval.
- The Cleanup – not much chance of avoiding this one, this is your baby. My best recommendation is to recruit a couple of old timers to clean up the kitchen and dishes while you work on the dining room, getting rid of the extra table and chairs, etc. You recruit your old timers by telling them you have a special bottle of port to share with those who help with the cleanup. That always gets results, and you were going to give them a glass anyways. But now you have the added benefit of being able to hoard it between the 3 or 4 of you in the kitchen, which means more for you guys. While you clean out the dining room, you get to review what, if anything, is left of your best wines, and recork the excess for tomorrow. There will usually be 4-5 half empty bottles left on the kid’s table. With a plastic funnel pour them into the best bottle(s) of the bunch. These go back to the bar area for round 2 for the kids, and don’t worry about blending different bottles, the kids will not be able to tell the difference any more, and if they do and they don’t like it, then they will likely leave earlier, and that works too.
- The Damage – this gets realized the next morning, when you tally up how many bottles the house went down, how many wine glasses didn’t make it, and whether or not any of your best china dishes got broken. Red wine stains, where to put away all the special Christmas dishes (don’t try to figure this one out, I never could), leftovers everywhere. Hopefully nobody broke a dining room chair or put holes in the gyprock walls. A Dinner for 20 will often require between 20 – 24 bottles of wine, with half coming from your guests. Of the 12 bottles that you supply, only 3 should be good bottles (dinner red and white for the old timers, and after dinner port). Your other 9 bottles should be house wine, or of house wine quality. Your 3 good wines may cost you $100 total, your nine house wines will run you about $15 each or $135 total. Your total wine bill will run about $225 – $250. This of course is just the wine bill.
- Passing the Torch – after hosting this event for 5 consecutive years or more, you become the host of choice, this becomes your event, your cross to bear. Words like “but we always have Christmas Dinner at your house, its a family tradition” are hard to get out from under. I have tried everything to move this tradition onto someone else, and nothing seems to work. I tried serving all plonk wines, I tried keeping the house too hot, then too cold. I tried running out of everything, not enough chairs, no gluten free turkey, nothing works!
So kids take note, when it becomes your time to host Christmas dinner for 20, I hope to be there as an invited guest. I will bring a bottle of plonk, I will ask for a glass of wine from your good stuff, not what I brought, and I will expect an above average dinner wine and a seat at the old timers table. Please make sure that the after dinner wine is a properly aged vintage port, and that you host the dinner before my 80th birthday.