I have been boiled, peeled, grated, sliced and steamed in my cottage kitchen, all wounds self-inflicted while I was distracted by guest-chefs.
These chefs crowd the sink, the stove, the fridge and the countertops. I can’t blame them. It’s a small kitchen. I could chuck them out, but there is a conundrum in the cottage kitchen and it is this: We can’t get by without them.
Unlike the abbreviated joy that is hosting dinner guests in the city, our cottage guests will be feasting with us for 48 hours and multiple meals: Who has the stamina to cook for all that?
And so, my kitchen is run with a crew. This is a complicated business that makes Gordon Ramsay spit-screaming at his Hell’s Kitchen minions look like a fine cottage-cooking show.
The cottager’s goal is to avoid hospital runs for food poisoning, stitches or burn treatment, although that might change if the weather is dreary and the cottage crowd craves amusement.
The cottage guest’s goal is to get invited back.
Cottage guests that gaffe in the food department usually labour under one of two fantasies. The first is that the cottage is a resort, because it comes with canoes, and so the guests lounge around complaining about the food service. The second is that the cottage is a commune because it sleeps 17, leading guest-chefs to approach cooking as a concensus-decision-making committee. Neither works.
A guest-chef can steer away from the pitfalls easily enough. Here’s how:
- Ask your host about her kitchen protocol, then follow it. I could write 20 more points on why this is so important, but instead I will just name two realities around which the cottage kitchen is organized: Bears and mice. Until you’ve had a cottage kitchen, you cannot comprehend the strictures it takes to keep these critters at bay.
- If your host declines your offer to help, she is a solo chef. Repress the urge to follow the social convention of offering help twice more. Ask once. If she says no, get out of the kitchen. You are in the way.
- Alert your host to food allergies and issues at the first invitation, so that she doesn’t go to the expense of stocking food you cannot eat. Your host doesn’t want to kill you with her cooking. If, however, you told your host that mere peanut butter vapours throw you into anaphylactic shock and you arrive to find her pulling peanut butter cookies out of the oven, you should reconsider the qualifications on which you choose your friends.
- When asked to prepare a meal, eschew dishes that require hours of preparation. Your host invited you for your company, not your cooking. Keep it simple.
- Pescatarian politics, vegan virtues, religious restrictions, fair-trade fanaticism, a picky palate, whatever dietary guidebook you follow, we don’t need to know, unless it is cannibalism, in which case we need to know very badly.
- If you find your host’s food unacceptable for any of the reasons listed above, simply say no thanks and pass the platter on. Do not curl your lips at the grilled tenderloin or wax poetic about the multi-national corporate, colonial and free-market evils of the beef industry. Refrain from calling meat dishes “flesh.”
- Five minutes before dinner is not the time to put another pot on to boil for your cantaloupe-lime-saffron-garlic tea. The cook is in the final stages of landing the meal and you will upset her apple cart.
- If you must cook your meal separately, bring food that eases into the regular scheme, such as a vegan kabob that can be tossed on the grill alongside the steaks. The cottage is not the place to simmer and sieve legumes. It will stink up the place.
Scared? Don’t be. Blundering isn’t all bad and may even provide fodder for cottage legends. After all, your cottage-owning friend invited you down not because you graduated from a Swiss School of Superior Etiquette, but because they already like you.
From a cottage chef who has cooked kosher, halal, low-fat, diabetic, cardiac, gluten-free, vegan, pescatarian and otherwise for her guests.