Please Bring an Elaborate Dessert

Dear Helena,

When I’m invited to dinner, I always ask, “What can I bring?” Last time I asked this question, the hostess replied, “Can you bring bread, like some nice artisan sourdough?” Forty-five minutes before dinner, right when I was about to jump in the shower, she called and said, “Would you mind picking up some tonic water?” I felt she should have called one of the other guests (and let me choose what kind of freakin’ baguette to buy). But then again, I did ask. Who was right, and who was wrong? —No Time for My Toilette

Dear No Time for My Toilette,

Most people think it’s polite to ask “What can I bring?” before a dinner party. But as Chowhounds demonstrate on this thread, people disagree on what the host can politely request in reply.

Some, myself included, feel the right answer is “Just yourself”—or, at most, “Wine or beer would be great.” (Although even if the host says, “Nothing,” well-mannered guests shouldn’t show up empty-handed; always bring wine or a small gift.)

However, some people feel differently. Amy Sugin, an educational administrator in New York, says most of the dinners she attends are to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath: “There is a tremendous amount of cooking and sharing meals all the time. ... People are constantly making meals and being invited to meals, and so it’s very accepted to help out as much as possible.”

If asked to bring something besides wine, here are some easy compromises.

Dessert: Buy It. Sometimes, if a host knows you’re a great cook, he’ll hint that he’d like you to produce one of your specialties. Aran Goyoaga, creator of the blog Cannelle et Vanille, says that as an avid pastry chef, she’s happy to bring dessert, but hosts shouldn’t expect her to whip up something from scratch. She keeps a few things ready-made in the freezer for such occasions: “I always have macaroons or a log of cookie dough.” But otherwise, it’s fine to pick up ice cream on the way.

Salad: Make It Simple. It doesn’t have to be a seasonal masterpiece with grilled apricots and homemade brioche croutons. If the host has a problem with bottled dressing, then you won’t be asked to bring a salad again next time.

Artisanal Sourdough: Ignore the Specifics. Even if your host happens to mention that cute little bakery by name (the one with no parking), just bring a baguette of your choice from a store that is convenient to you. Similarly, if you’re asked to bring “Argentinean Malbec,” simply bring some red wine.

If you get roped into bringing any of these items, that should count as your host gift; you need not bring designer chocolates as well. And if you’re unwilling or unable to do any of the above, there’s a simple solution: Instead of asking what you can bring, ask, “Would you prefer red or white?”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.