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Kitchen martyrs

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I have to confess: I have reason to believe I exhibit martyr behavior in the kitchen. The horrors!

See, from my perspective, nobody knows my kitchen. People ask if they can get me things, but why, when I'd have to tell them in detail where it is? People ask to wash dishes, but why, when I have to tell them what can go in the dishwasher and what cannot. (I tried to get over this one year and sacrificed cast iron, which some people, apparently, think can be washed with soap.) Ostensibly "helping" people set pans off the stove onto plastic cutting boards, load my knives in the dishwasher, and use my rather pricey Rosle cheese knife to chop vegetables. Yeah.

But, I was reading an article on how to handle annoying relatives over the holidays (see how self-righteous I was feeling?) and there I was: the martyr. She's clearly overworked, but will not accept help.

Here is my ideal scenario: I would like help and/or company during the sort of boring early prep stages. During the last stages, I would like all people who are not setting the table, lighting candles, etc. to go away. I would especially like them to not ask me for anything, or to decide to make complicated espresso drinks in the middle of my kitchen a hour before dinner. Is this possible? Can this be arranged without people hating you?

So, how to resolve this? All advice is 100% welcome.

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  1. this is why parlour games were invented, right?

    1 Reply
    1. re: soupkitten

      Or Wii and Netflix in my family... Video distractions work for most of the meddlers. The most persistent cousin is tasked with multiple trips to the basement to retrieve china and glass wear, which all need to be wiped down before he sets the table. Oh, and I'm pretty sure the table cloth needs to be ironed as well.

    2. When everyone is bugging you in the kitchen, open the bar in the living room.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Whinerdiner

        Oh yes, this is a classic. With friends. But my friends are all people I chose, and so don't exhibit any of the above behaviors anyway. They are welcome in my kitchen anytime.

        I should have specified that we are talking about the family. And they don't really drink much. Which isn't to say I didn't try. They like white wine? German? Let's get four bottles and a couple of champagne for good measure!

      2. Here's a solution that worked for me when I was cooking for a large crowd with inexperienced volunteers as my helpers. A week or two in advance, I typed up a list of all the foods to be served, and added a timeline of what had to be done when in order to be able to serve everything at once. Each step was described, including what kind of tools to use (example: slice tomatoes into 1/4 inch slices using serrated knife, put on serving platter, cover with plastic wrap). I then labeled the tools, or sorted them into containers which were labeled. Then I made multiple copies of the task list, and kept the master for me. As people would come in to help, I would give them a copy of the task list, and circle their particular task. I crossed stuff off my master list as it was completed.

        Even this isn't fool-proof. Some folks are more skilled than others in the kitchen, and as I got to know the volunteers better, I realized that some folks just weren't capable of doing any of the tasks to my standards without driving me crazy. So when those folks would ask what they could do, unless I had something very basic like filling ice buckets or emptying trash, I'd just smile and tell them "Nothing right now, please go enjoy yourself"

        It might also help to verbalize your desire to be left alone during the final prep stage. Say something along the lines of " I appreciate all of your assistance, but I get a bit flustered while I'm putting the final touches on dinner. I'd really, really appreciate it if you would all please socialize with one another in any room except the kitchn while I'm getting ready to serve, and then we can enjoy a wonderful meal together!" In my experience, asking for what you need clearly and politely goes a long way toward helping to get it.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Niki in Dayton

          You're either one squared away lady, or I think you need a few glasses of wine ;)

          1. re: BiscuitBoy

            This level of organization was for a weekend scholarship fund raising event, where we fed about 150 people. We fed them dinner on Friday, breakfast lunch and dinner on Saturday, and brunch on Sunday. I was working with volunteers, many of whom I had never met before. But by Saturday night, believe me, I was drinking wine!

        2. "You're a guest! Take advantage of it and put up your feet, that's what I'll be doing at your house!"

          But I also understand that there are those who need to feel needed and useful (whether or not you actually need help). Perhaps delegating tasks you don't like (polishing flatware) or tasks that keep them out of the kitchen (freshening drinks, replenishing nibbles, taking the dog for a walk, figuring out how to get Internet through your TV). As for barring people from the kitchen during the last hour--just make a house rule (it's going to be very BZ, lots of scurrying around and hot things and heavy things and sharp things all over...you don't want to test the extent of your medical coverage, do you?).

          1. Raids, what you describe does not sound like martyr behavior at all. Martyrs are the barely smiling, deep-sighing drones who tell the rest of us "go ahead to the parade/party/theatre, someone has to stay home and watch the turkey/roast beef/ham/scrub the floor/set the table/peel the potatoes, etc" while they exhibit the classic poor-little-me behavior accompanied by deep sighs and rolled eyes.

            You are just trying to keep your kitchen in the same condition it was when the "help" began (knives still sharp, cutting boards unmelted, cast iron unsoaped, etc).

            Martyrs suck the fun out of everyone around them as well as the gathering itself. The rest of us just want to get the dinner on the table so we can get on with the fun.

            I will admit to having the same feelings about "help" when it intereferes with my schedule as you do. Someone taking over the kitchen to make a pitcher of blue Margueritas when I'm slicing the bird is not my idea of "help" but turning it away doesn't make me a martyr either.

            I am of une certaine age so I simply ask for what help I need and direct the rest of them to vacate the kitchen until I call. In every gathering, there are those who are great kitchen help and others who are nothing but a hindrance. Give the second group something to do which capitalizes on their strengths. It may take a bit of thinking on your part to come up with the make-work but you'll be a happier hostess knowing they're not underfoot causing your homeowner premiums to increase.
            NB: I give one of the PITAs a hand-held phone with instructions that they are to field all phone calls because someone ALWAYS gets lost, needs the gate code, etc. Another is in charge of flowers, which takes place in a different room than the kitchen. Have one open wine and man the bar in a different room than the kitchen. Getting them out from underfoot is key.

            None of this is martyrdom. Think of it as parenting for the older crowd. You wouldn't dream of letting young children run directionless in a crowded, busy kitchen. These often well-meaning dolts are just like children, only they're taller.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Sherri

              See, this is why my open floorplan is a huge, huge problem. The kitchen is totally open and right in the middle of one big room that also includes the living room and dining room space. This is magic for cocktail parties, but a freaking nightmare for prepping a large formal dinner.

              This year they all stood hovering around the island until I just asked them to get a drink and to sit down for a few minutes to give me a chance to put the final touches on everything. It worked for about precisely three minutes, and then they were back. You can't help it - there's that "must be near the kitchen" thing that occurs in all houses, and then it's just right there in the middle of the room.

              I blame my apartment.

              1. re: Raids

                Perhaps rethink your meal to have some more casual elements rather than a fully formal dinner? Do passed appetizers and then buffet main, to keep people occupied with the food. Work with the layout you have... as you describe it, these guests may never be comfortable letting you do all the work while they sit and watch you. It would make me a little nervous too, to be honest.
                Actually. come to think about it, it's not even about letting you do all the work. I'm pretty lazy and I don't like feeling in the way in other people's kitchens; I have to remind myself to go help the host in situations where it is expected or truly needed. I think it's about nervous energy and yeah, the kitchen as party hotspot thing. I would work with it rather than against it and do more formal events for those guests that get it.

                1. re: Raids

                  Everything is better if you just have something/someone else to blame!

                  Invest in a holiday-theme jigsaw puzzle and challenge your guests to get it done before dinner is ready.

                  Remember that one reason they are there is to visit with you.

              2. Oh my god. This is me!!!

                I hate washing lettuce and making salad (except for the dressing) so that's one task that I am happy to delegate.

                If I need someone to do something more involved, I pull out all the equipment they need and hand it to them so that they aren't using the wrong knives, cutting boards, etc. Depending on who it is I will sometimes start the task for them and let them take over so that they know how I want it done.

                Usually though, I tell people that I'm all set and that they can save their help for when it's time to clean up.

                1. This is one of my massive pet peeves! I find that keeping a smile on your face and looking (and acting!) non-flustered is a good start - if you look calm, people are more likely to believe you don't need help. I am having an very hard time at the moment - I have a very badly injured left arm and hand (shattered elbow and significant nerve damage) which I have not been able to use for the last four months (it will get better eventually). I am managing quite well with my right arm and hand (lots of behind the scenes prep with my darling husband assisting is the key, leaving only one handed tasks for when the guests arrive), but well meaning people just don't get it, and insist on helping, which frustrates the hell out of me!! I am finding that a bright happy smile, coupled with "I really am perfectly fine, but if I need help, I'll ask for it" is the best trick. Christmas Drinks at my house for about 50 people in a few weeks will be an interesting test of my method!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: AussieBeth

                    I have been continuing to think about this issue since making this post, and think I have hit upon a good strategy - if someone insists that they want to help - I think I might give them the task of keeping everyone out of the kitchen - two birds, one stone!!

                    1. re: AussieBeth

                      Now that is just diabolical, and perfect. I love it!

                  2. I do Thanksgiving for anywhere from 8-14 people each year and basically cook the whole thing solo. I do absolutely as much of the prep as possible the weekend before--that way I know that things will get chopped to my satisfaction--plus huge amounts of scheduling and organization (checklists on paper, so that the 2-3 glasses of wine I have on the day while cooking 8 different dishes will not screw up dinner). People always ask to help, but there is basically nothing for them to do, because it's all done already or easily do-able by me alone.

                    I am quite happy to have people clear the table, wash dishes, etc. while I relax and pick pie crust crumbs out of the dish after dessert. It helps to have kitchen stuff that you're still using 25 years after you bought it at farm auctions during college, and not be quite so fussy about what kind of sponge people are using on your $250 saucepans. Actually, I only have one sponge. My food still tastes fine even coming out of a pot that cost three bucks in 1987.

                    As I write this I am also thinking that the intensive pre-party organization, which allows me to drink wine on the day, which allows me to be a little more relaxed about the whole thing, is really the key. Maybe you can give that a try.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: travelmad478

                      That's exactly what I do too, I never consciously planned it but that's the only way. How can they help when there's nothing to do? I make the stuffing and pies the night before, and throw together the vegetables in the morning before the turkey goes in. Yams or things that must cook more than a half hour I do halfway the night before too, this way the 20 or 30 minutes after the turkey comes out everything gets popped in the oven. Appetizers I keep simple and can throw together just before I throw myself together. I do the mashed potatoes and gravy at the end, which is a little frantic, but I've read here all kinds of ideas how to do ahead also. Thanksgiving is not the day for fussy cooking.

                      The drinking of wine (etc) is also key, it is more important to be happy and relaxed than to have everything Martha Stewart-like, and I have also discovered my state of mind directly affects the state of the food for whatever reason.

                      Everyone insists on helping with the dishes afterwards to make up for the pre-game, and I never say no except... for my SIL who is really bad about putting wooden objects and knives in the dishwasher (and gets mad when I tell her not too! Since she does it at home it must be fine) and also breaks at least one crystal glass, but I've stopped her so many times mid-wash that she stays out of the kitchen completely, to my great relief. I have to rewash anything the next day anyway, it's so funny I should just laugh about it. She is also constantly chanting "What can I do to help" and I love the suggestion of telling her, next time come over at 7AM and vaccuum the house for me. She is a perfect example of what the OP is describing, as she has no intuitiveness about where any kitchen item would be located. I relate totally even though she's the only one I'm thinking of. Everyone else is welcome after we eat, I too like to sit at the table picking at dessert and having a cordial or two, and they usually clean up better than I would.

                    2. I discussed with mom today (82 years of life experience). No turkey, no ham, I am doing a "roast beast." In my old hosue I could accomodate 12-14 people; now house can accomodate 40+. I am now told I must have 1)turkey: , 2)ham 3)roast beef. Can I return this house?

                      1. Admit its a tad more about control. We all like our plans just so, hell it's the CH credo to care "deeply" but we can also be the problem :) Too much control over kitchen tasks, party planning, hosting can kill the fun for everyone. Lighten up the control knob.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: HillJ

                          I don't think so...that's too easy. And if you think about, all the ahead of time preparation (great ideas there, by the way, coll, thanks) is controlling the kitchen tasks to a very high degree, but in a way that makes the party/dinner better for everyone.

                          If I decided to exercise less control, we'd eat at 9, I'd be drunk, and I wouldn't have any unrusted cookware or knives left. You can definitely go too far in that direction.

                          1. re: Raids

                            LOL, point taken. I was commenting on the "folks in my kitchen" "people under foot" "stop undermining my plans" approach I often hear about. My kitchen layout is completely exposed nearly from the main portion of the house to the back end; there is no hiding from helpers. There are plenty of areas where the host sets the tone of the party planning beforehand but once the party begins I want to enjoy myself as much as I want my guests to so if that means less control, so be it.

                          2. re: HillJ

                            > Lighten up the control knob

                            Or go the other direction and take control of the "sharing" - pre-plan which things you can delegate to the MIL, which things you can delegate to Aunt Maude, etc., and make sure that it is not in the critical path, so if they fail to complete the task it won't impact the meal. Busy work I suppose. Folding napkins. Garnish each dish with a sprig of parsley.

                          3. I'm in the 'be organised' camp on this one. I usually can't organise anything but there are 2 places I exhibit terrible control freakery - my workplace and my kitchen. (Oh, and the Christmas tree). I appreciate people wanting to help me, but I generally have a system of organised chaos that works for me with the food.

                            When planning for a dinner I shop for everything 2 days in advance, except for things I need as fresh as possible on the day, which limits getting flustered on that day when missing 'stuff'. The evening before I prepare all deserts - I always choose desserts that can be prepared in advance, like a gorgeous truffle torte, to limit stress. On the day in the morning I go out to shop for the fresh items I need, I give the house a once over and in the afternoon prepare my entree (I think they're called appetisers in the US?). I then do all the prep possible for my main (entree to the US counterparts?), cover it all up and store appropriately until it needs cooking and/or assembling.

                            Once I've done that I completely clean the kitchen, and I find this is one of the key elements of not getting unwanted help in the kitchen. People believe you're under control if there are no dishes in the sink or spills and flour on the floor (Ok, I'm very messy). There is no prep to do, no dishes to wash and I always time it so the table is laid and I've straightened myself up (as I'm usually covered in more food than what I intend to serve), giving the inviting impression of an under-control domestic goddess (I am neither, but I sometimes wish I was Nigella Lawson) when the guests arrive. Which then means it's well and truly wine time when they get here and I task them with that arrangement.

                            If all else fails get the 6 year old to YouTube some funny clips for them to see (the current favourites are the panda sneeze and anything by Eddie Izzard) while your doing the final arrangements. It provides a neat distraction for everyone, regardless if they're laughing at the 6 year old in hysterics or the actual clips. Otherwise just polish off the wine, try to enjoy and hope for the best.

                            6 Replies
                              1. re: TheHuntress

                                I do this for parties - everything is done by the time the guests arrive, but what do you do for family holiday dinners? Do you just not have guests until dinner is ready? We always get together hours before dinner - like noon, if we're having dinner at 5pm.

                                1. re: Raids

                                  Ah, I can see your issue. Being Australian our cultural thing for big gatherings tend to be BBQ's. Get everyone outside, put out some excellent nibbles, give everyone a drink and heat the BBQ. Prepare salads and sides in the morning, I'd still do dessert the night before. Doesn't work for everyone, but there is the bonus of guests (and yourself!) having had a few drinks before the last minute assembly and prep and therefore being a bit more relaxed. And you always have the plausible excuse of sending a helper out for some extra ice when you're at a crucial moment.

                                  @HillJ: Death Star Canteen is a huge favourite in our household. 'I'll have the penne a la arrabiata'. Classic!

                                  1. re: TheHuntress

                                    There is nothing that creative genius does that's wrong.

                                    1. re: HillJ

                                      If you really want to get people out of the kitchen, just keep reminding them that you can kill them with a tray.

                                  2. re: Raids

                                    Raids, this sounds like my family. I have the apps on the table by the time they arrive (and the wine) the candles lit and music on in the room *where I want them to hang out*. If they step into the kitchen I shout "out, out" and make swooshing hand signals. I have dinner mostly done though and the kitchen fairly clean so I can spend time out of the kitchen too. I have only been organized enough the last two years to pull off the clean kitchen in advance though. It takes concerted effort if you are a bit of a sloppy cook like me. I also have the dining table set up the day before. I have a rule now, if I have 6 or more guests (8 total)...the menu is planned for me to do much of it in advance and to keep it simple. I only get wildly complicated when cooking for 4 anymore (6 total plates). It is what I can handle and still have fun and socialize at my own party.