Polite Society in the Hamptons

Dear Helena,

I’ve been asked to stay at somebody’s house in the Hamptons for the weekend. What can I do to be a great houseguest? Should I bring wine or flowers? Do I offer to cook a meal? And what’s a classy way to say thank you afterwards? Not to sound overly calculating, but their house is right on the beach, so I’ll definitely be angling for a return invite. —Three-Day Weekend

Dear Three-Day Weekend,

I showed up at a Hamptons “cottage” once clutching a $15 Sauvignon Blanc. My gift seemed a little paltry when the host’s personal wine dealer showed up with a case of boutique wines. Flowers may not impress your host much either, says Sophie Donelson, editor in chief of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine. “Many people have lush, amazing gardens in their backyards.”

Avoid bric-a-brac. It’s always hard to judge what will fit in with someone’s aesthetic. Kimberly Kimball, a mother in Long Island, says guests at her second home in Miami have bought “glass salt and pepper shakers or a teeny little hand-painted bud vase that was not my taste.”

Instead, consider a homemade gift—it will look thoughtful and have the added benefit of being inexpensive. Tie a ribbon around a jar of jam you made, or deliver a bottle of DIY bitters to jazz up cocktails. If your host is figure-conscious, it’s better if your gift is healthy. “A lot of people keep fit during the summer and don’t want a big box of fudge lying around,” says Donelson. For instance, make granola (which really isn’t all that healthy, but people think it is, and it happens to be trendy right now). Or bring a pretty tin of homemade spice mix like dukkah, or a condiment like shallot-tarragon jam that your host can use to dress up her tofu and steamed veggies.

As with a dinner party, you should always offer to help, even if you know the host would never let you. If the host declines your offer, don’t push it: When someone’s busy in the kitchen, he might not want to stop and explain how to devein shrimp.

If you really want to be of use, offer to take on your own discrete task over the weekend, like making pancakes for breakfast one morning or a special summer cocktail. You can certainly volunteer to prepare an entire meal; just know that while this will delight some hosts, others might not want to relinquish kitchen control.

In general, it’s good manners at the end of the weekend to strip the bed and offer to throw the sheets in the washing machine. But in wealthier homes, it’s best to ask first. Donelson recalls, “Once I removed the sheets from the bed and put them in the laundry basket thinking it would be a big help, but it confused their cleaning lady.”

Flowers are a classy way to say thank you. Though your host might not need them at his summer house, he’ll appreciate having them at his office. Send them on Monday, so he can enjoy them for a few days. Don’t send them later in the week, like on Thursday, says Donelson, because if your host is successful enough, he’ll already be on his way back to the summer house.

If you don’t have extra cash for flowers, it’s also perfectly OK to send an email, provided your email is thoughtful. As with any thank-you note, be specific about what you enjoyed—perhaps something you can’t do in the city, like admiring the stars.

Finally, if the summer house in question is in the Hamptons, Donelson says, the biggest thank-you of all these days is “finding a buyer for the house you’re staying at. A lot of people are desperate to find a broker that can sell their house.” Of course, if you’re angling for a return invite, that’s shooting yourself in the foot.

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