The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality , by Jesse Browner. Bloomsbury, 198 pages, $23.95.
If Emily Post is the Guru of Gentility and Martha Stewart the Diva of Domesticity, then Jesse Browner is the Curator of Canapés. With none of the cloying mannerisms of those other prescribers of household how-to, Mr. Browner tackles the topic of hospitality. It’s an art form that he believes most of us-and especially urban dwellers-have lost the knack for.
New Yorkers these days are more apt to set dinner dates by asking not “My place or yours?” but “Nobu or Babbo?” And in matters of largesse and kindness, we seem to be in the midst of a nationwide crisis. Around the globe, America is identified as an unwanted caller, or a tyrannical host running roughshod over people in their own homeland, violating house rules, displeasing the gods of hospitality. But Mr. Browner shows no interest in current affairs or the Bush administration’s foreign policy; he stays closer to home.
The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down is not a practical guide: Even though we’re fast approaching peak hospitality season-Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah-you won’t catch Mr. Browner offering to referee a citywide pumpkin pie bake-off. (Not with Citarella three blocks away!) His book is actually an impressive mini-encyclopedia of hospitality through the ages. Mr. Browner is informative and soulful, imparting an appreciation and understanding of the role of hosting through time and how we’ve come to be at odds with it. Fans of this book will likely be history buffs with a penchant for utterly useless facts.
Too bad Mr. Browner felt the need to include a scattering of inane tips (“The first object of any host must be to put his guests at their ease”; or “essential to successful hospitality … is the ability to make [guests] feel special”). Skip the helpful hints and concentrate instead on the author’s psychological insights.
He’s keenly aware, for instance, that generosity often imposes a hidden agenda. A host, whether it’s for an evening or a weekend, wields power over his guests. Hospitality, therefore, can be catnip to control freaks. Mr. Browner illustrates this point by introducing us to Hitler as hausfrau . It’s the most fascinating part of the book.
When guests arrived at Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat, they were often amazed to find the Führer himself welcoming them. Mr. Browner notes: “He was always concerned with their health and ready with medical and nutritional advice … beer, wine and liquor.” Not only did he offer his visitors two menus-one vegetarian, the other not-he also equipped every guest room with a copy of Mein Kampf and French pornography. (A heady mix!)
Mr. Browner believes that “a person is likely to be at his most self-revealing when he is acting as host.” Examining someone in that role, he asserts, is like taking a “privileged peek into [the] psyche.” Hitler dreamed of world domination, and with his Berghof he built a prototype, a personal utopia, and tried, with benevolence as his weapon, to impose it on others. (Back in Berlin, his methods were more brutal.)
If the company of tyrants doesn’t appeal, later chapters cater to bohemian fantasies. But aesthetes, apparently, make for lousy guests: “You may be able to persuade a group of stock analysts to line up obediently before a bowl of iced Beluga and a bottle of ’71 Chateau Pétrus,” Mr. Browner writes, “but artists are harder to wrangle. They do not necessarily respond to the standard stimuli of hospitality.”
Gertrude Stein had the touch and quickly became patron saint of the avant-garde in the early 20th century. Her Saturday “at homes” in Paris were famous, open to anyone hungry to rub elbows with the artists and writers of the day-Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway. Stein was brash and self-confident, unwavering in her goal to become oracle of the modernists. The relationship between host and guest was symbiotic and clear, and therefore she succeeded. Hubris, it seems, not hors d’oeuvres, is what makes a party memorable.
A case study that falls under the “useless facts” category concerns the Duchess of Mantua. Suffering from a fit of grandiosity on a visit to Louis XIV’s court, the duchess refused to sit down when offered a stool rather than a chair. For this easily avoided faux pas, she was banished from court and relegated to throwing lowly card parties. It’s an amusing story that provides an amusing title, and Mr. Browner adds value by likening the unbending guest to that person we all dread, but inevitably get stuck with at gatherings-the social misfit.
The author of two novels, Conglomeros (1992) and Turnaway (1997), Mr. Browner is an impressive amateur historian, sifting through the annals of Western civilization for anecdotes on hospitality, from Roman emperors whose entertainment involved poisoning dinner guests to Lady Ottoline Morrell, history’s most hopeless hostess.
Mixed in are the author’s stories about his own hospitality, such as the time he fleeced his friends in a poker game by serving mouthwatering homemade sandwiches. In the final chapter, Mr. Browner writes about hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in his New York apartment, for which he and his wife do all the work. He notes, rather sadly, that the more sophisticated we become, the more likely we are to lose the simple connection between food and hospitality, and that a “catered dinner party is a theater in a language I do not speak.”
Bet he hasn’t tasted Citarella’s pumpkin pie.
Judy D’Mello is a freelance writer in Manhattan.