If my father could barbeque in the sleet and snow, he would. We love to entertain, and host dinners in the family. So when Canada was blessed with a mild winter, my father was ecstatic to fire up the BBQ in late February. Yes, late February. Our neighbors don’t have to look outside to see where that wonderful smell of cedar plank and petrol is coming from, so early in the year. We love to eat, and cook, but what about hosting the dinners? And setting the tables? How exactly do we entertain? Well, like any other family: it takes good company, music, a few drinks, and a full table. The other day, I had a friend over, and after countless rounds of monotonous Halo, we decided to spend some time outside. My sister took a break from studying and asked if we wanted to go somewhere to eat.
“We could go Downtown, or something. Or, I know! Let’s go get some meats and random stuff to throw on the BBQ!” Steph said.
We thought it was a good idea, so we made a quick stop at Longos to pick up some food items. Once home, we unpacked and started prepping everything. Steph picked up steaks, hot dogs (don’t judge, Schneider’s Naturals are the best), some bread, and my favourite Santa Cruz organic lemonade. It was a spontaneous endeavor, but calmer than the usual ruckus of family gatherings. My friend leaned against the counter asking to do something. She cleaned the corn and cut the pitas into quarters for the tzatziki. Whether it’s friends or family though, we try to make any guests feel at home, and feel comfortable enough to help out (if they want to). What entails good hospitality? Especially in a full house, how do you make sure everyone is having a good time? Read on.
On Christmas morning, my father is the first one up, by 6:00 a.m., if not earlier, to cook our traditional Voliotiko breakfast: skillet-broiled pork, boiled eggs, and tomatoes. Within an hour, my mom is up, marinating chicken, and potatoes. The roast beast is marinated the night before; because of its size, it needs a few hours in the olive oil, oregano, and lemon marinade. My sisters and I sleep until 12, around the time when dad starts singing at the top of his lungs to Nikos Kourkoulis, playing on the kitchen boom box.
By 2:00 p.m., we are all in the kitchen, setting the table, pouring alcohol, taste testing, and bumping into each other. Yiayia and Papou are usually the first to arrive by 4:30, followed by Thea, Theo from around the corner. The other twelve show up by 6:00. Then the chaos begins. So to keep some peace-of-mind, here are five steps to help you smooth your way into a successful evening.
1. Prepare and Marinate ahead of time
As I mentioned above, we usually start preparing and assembling the dishes the night before. If you’re going to make tzatziki, you definitely need to start the night before. With a busy morning and last minute details, you don’t want to forget an entrée. Have the meals ready to throw in the oven or on the stove. More hands in the house means things will get done faster, given that there is space in the kitchen to accommodate everyone.
It’s common courtesy to offer someone a drink when they enter your home; at least that’s common courtesy in my house. So we keep the glasses filled, and people happy until the food is ready. Bring on the tsipouro. (Random digression: it’s like drinking liquid fire. Shocking and unexpected at first, but a great licorice after-taste. Warning: don’t smell the alcohol before you drink it.) If someone declines a drink, pour it anyway and set it on the table, they’ll get thirsty after a while. Ask your guests, or their friends, what their favourite drinks are in advance. Make a shopping list, and have the drinks chilled and ready for the get together.
Preferably loud. It not only lifts the spirit of the party, but it’s some nice background noise while eating, and after the meal, the party animals will want dance.
4. The Bread Basket and a cheese tray
This little basket, whether wire or wicker, is the most important thing. This basket, sits on a pedestal of importance at any gathering, even if the food is so close to being ready, bread and feta tie over alcohol induced hunger.
5. Talk about them
People love to talk about themselves! And since you cared enough to invite your guests over, you obviously care to hear about what’s new in their lives. So, “How did that Euro trip go?” “How is your boyfriend/girlfriend?” “How is your pet weasel?” are some great conversation starters. Avoid conversation about relationships; it only instigates pressures regarding marriage.
I learned these steps by observing and helping. When I was little, most of the time I would stand off to the side, watch relatives filter in, and watch my parents fuss around everyone. The hosts (my parents) are the last to be seated. Today this frustrates me, so I argue and steal platters from them until they sit with the rest of the family. Anyways, at the end of the night, your guests should go home feeling full. Not just from food, but satisfied with conversation, drinks, and above all enjoyment. It’s a social happening and whether you are Greek or not: you want to get together over a good meal to share memories, and make new ones. And whether you’re Greek or not, at the end of the night, you will be.
Now that I’ve shared some thoughts, I’d like to hear more from you. What’s it like at your house? Is it chaotic or calm? What are traditions in your family, whether it’s a dish or a dance that make their appearance at every gathering?