Dinner Party Etiquette: Bring Something, Dammit

"The Dinner Party." It's one of Seinfeld's more classic episodes, from a television series in which nearly every show was an instant classic. Maybe because -- at our core -- many of us agonize as George Costanza did about the etiquette of showing up empty-handed to a dinner party.

ELAINE: These people invited us for dinner. We have to bring something.


ELAINE: Because it's rude, otherwise.

GEORGE: You mean just going there because I'm invited, that's rude?


GEORGE: So you're telling me instead of them being happy to see me, they're going to be upset because I didn't bring anything. Ttst. You see what I'm saying?

JERRY: The fabric of society is very complex, George.

The fabric of society is indeed complex and often frustratingly opaque. And although we as modern Americans have all but abandoned other forms of social etiquette, dinner parties are still one of those areas in which we act like civilized human beings for a night. But not without a bit of internal struggle first.

At its core, Costanza's argument makes some sense: A person who invited you to their home for a meal isn't really inviting you over to score some free wine out of the deal. And, often, figuring out exactly what to bring can be more frustrating than figuring out what to wear or how to politely avoid sitting next to the Kenny Bania of your group. So why even bring something in the first place?

Do you bring a bottle of wine? Is that too trite? What about beer? Is that too blue collar, or -- if it's craft beer -- conversely too elitist (you know those types; anything other than MGD is considered un-American)? If your hosts don't open the booze, do you take it back home with you after the meal?

What if your hosts don't drink alcohol? Then what? You can't really bring a liter of Pepsi, like Costanza wanted to. Do you bring flowers? You can't bring uncut, un-vased flowers -- that's considered rude too. So do you splurge on an arrangement? Or do you bring dessert, maybe a chocolate babka? What if the host has already prepared a dessert?

"I always bring at least one bottle of wine," says Houston blogger Jakeisha Wilmore. "I also ask the host if there's anything additional they may need me to bring. As for the unopened and undrunk bottles brought, I leave them with the host as a gift. I think coming empty-handed is pretty inconsiderate to the host who has invited you."

But believe it or not, there are those who do show up empty-handed or -- worse -- take back the gift they've brought at the end of the night. Finding people who'll admit to it is tough, but we've all met at least one.

"I've only ever had one friend who did that, but he was Scottish and that's apparently a characteristic of their horrible society," says Houston Press columnist Pete Vonder Haar. "Anyway, he lived in the same apartment complex so we'd just break in after he was asleep and take all the beer back."

It's not limited to Scots, of course. Bistro Provence owner Genevieve Guy was appalled to find the same behavior over here: "Once somebody came to my house with a bottle of Port," she writes. "We had some for dessert and when they left, they just picked the bottle from the table.... Maybe it is an American thing?"

When it comes to deciding what to bring and what to do with it, however, there are a few simple rules to live by that can and will make your life easier. My buddy Doak Procter sums it up nicely:

"Bring something that the host(ess) enjoys and that could be kept or served," he writes. "Wine is traditional, but not required, but do not bring something that needs to be served, unless asked to do so or unless you've cleared it with your host(ess). Do not expect it to be served, in any event. Leave it, unless asked to take it."

And if you really want to be a considerate guest, bring something that's of significance to either you or your host.

Houston Press reader Natacha Torres, who's from Chile, brings "Carmenere Chilean wine," while fellow reader Areej Khan from Pakistan brings "either a Pakistani dessert or biryani. Either makes people very happy," she writes. If your host really loves beer, get a growler of good stuff from Whole Foods Market. If your host loves to garden, bring a potted herb that flourishes in your local climate. If your host has gluten-intolerant kids, bring them some treats from a local baker like Sinfull Bakery. If you're not sure what to bring, do as Doak does and simply ask your host.

Above all, just don't show up empty-handed. Or with a liter of Pepsi.

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Katharine Shilcutt