In my years as a mother, I have frequently turned to the I Hate to Cook Book when seeking reassurance in regard to birthday parties for small children. There are a lot of good tips and ideas in there. Not hacks, people: tips and ideas. And this chapter, Chapter 12, the final chapter of the housekeeping book, is to some degree a grownups-only rehash of a lot of the ideas in Bracken’s cookbook. She says this herself; she knows that her fans will recognize cleverness no matter how many different times it is rephrased. She knows that we know about her Hootenholler Whiskey Cake, we know about faking our way through a chicken curry dinner, we know about serving Irish Coffee for dessert. (I never DO serve Irish Coffee for dessert, but I know that in a pinch, I can do it. I mean, if I’m suddenly not in the mood to make a pear cake out of three slowly rotting pears I happen to have on the counter.)
But this chapter, in the I Hate to Housekeep Book, is important in a way that I find is seldom addressed in your Real Simple magazine articles about Getting Ready for Your Homemade Sushi Hoedown, or your Superbowl Sunday Soiree, or whatever kind of party you find yourself in the position of hosting at your house. Everyone knows that you don’t want to serve your guests a meal at a table that’s still covered with sticky spots from the time your wee angel spilled grape juice, and everyone knows that it’s sort of preferable to have the bathroom in decent shape (i.e., it shouldn’t look like you just bathed the dog in there). I like to think that, as civilized people, we keep our toilets reasonably clean, our sinks reasonably clean, and so on.
It is pleasing to have the place where the food is being presented be, well, presentable. If it’s your dining table, either wipe the sticky crud away or cover it with a tablecloth. If you’re like me, you use the kitchen counter as a staging area. We have a very long kitchen counter which serves as the “buffet” when we have parties, and I like to have that counter be a) cleared of clutter and b) wiped clean before I put platters of food out. Because it’s depressing to serve food off a dusty counter which is also home to the stacks of unpaid bills and overdue library books. Unpaid bills and library books are put into a grocery bag and shoved into a closet until the party’s over, and then it comes back out and is put back on the counter, where the stuff sits until I deal with it or until my husband gets so annoyed at my not dealing with it that he deals with it, whichever comes first.
Where Bracken really makes herself valuable is in pointing out the stuff that you’re likely to forget about. One forgettable housecleaning task that she emphasizes — by putting the whole paragraph in italics — is this: WIPE DOWN YOUR TELEPHONE BEFORE THE PARTY.
I know, you’re going, “huh?” Because some astonishing percentage of people no longer have landlines anymore. Wipe down the phone? Why would you clean your phone before a party? Well, I’ll tell you: there are still, in the 21st century, in the days of cell phones, still good reasons for you to clean your telephone before having company over. Because, even though folks have cell phones, someone might need to use your landline anyhow. Maybe their phone battery dies, and they want to call a taxi. Maybe their cell phone battery dies, and they need to call the babysitter to say they’ll be running late. These reasons, which were reasonable in Bracken’s day, remain reasonable now, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a cell phone: the fact is, you should still keep your landline phones clean. Because they look disgusting after a while. Spit and grease and dust and crud accumulates on telephones like you wouldn’t believe.
“But my friends would just charge their phones or borrow someone else’s cell phone,” you say. All well and good. But you know what? It is my own experience — and maybe this is just because we not only have a landline, but we have an interesting collection of old telephones here, and grownups and children both enjoy playing with them — that it is good to keep the phones cleaned, because even if they don’t need to use a phone, strictly speaking, people seem to find it fun to pick up a phone and pretend to talk into it. Which means it’s worth it to not have it be disgusting. So take a cloth you’ve dampened with a little rubbing alcohol, for god’s sake, and just wipe down the phone. Handset, dial, side, the little bits where the handset rests. Just wipe it down. Then look at the cloth, and see the schmutz on it? You can thank me later.
Bracken’s explanation of why you should clean the phone is also where we find one of my favorite bits in this entire book: “You know how often the telephone is used at a party — to check babysitters or call taxis or — depending on how good the party is — to say Hiya Booper Ole Socks to somebody’s old college chum in Akron, Ohio.”
Having recently re-read this paragraph, I’ve begun to address our cat by saying, “Hiya Booper Ole Socks.” He doesn’t react to this at all, but my daughter finds it uproariously funny.
The thing about the phone, though, reminds me of a point I’d like to make, all on my own, which I don’t think Bracken mentions anywhere, but maybe she does and I just don’t remember, which is this: while you’re busy wiping down the phones, you might want to give a swipe at things like the light switches and light switch plates in the house, and the doorknobs, and the bits of door right around the doorknobs in your house. Because those are things that get astonishingly disgusting while you’re busy leading your life. And no, you don’t think about it, precisely because you’re living your life, and what’s more, it’s YOUR filth, so you don’t really care. I get that. I would feel the same way, more or less. But when you’ve got people coming over — and maybe one or two of the guests are people who might someday be instrumental in your getting a new job, or helping you get your kid into college, or something, or, you know, maybe you just LIKE THEM AS PEOPLE AND WANT TO KNOW THEM AND BE FRIENDS WITH THEM, without any ULTERIOR MOTIVE (it could happen) — as I say, when you’ve got people coming over, it’s kind of nice to not have the people get skeeved out when they go to turn on the bathroom light.
I want to add: you don’t have to do this kind of fine-tuning to the entire house, at least, I don’t insist on it. But I will say that if the place you live in is anything like mine — say, there’s a first floor where people tend to congregate, and hardly anyone except small children (who are walking filth anyhow) will go upstairs — you want the living room, the dining room, and the guest bathroom (or the one bathroom, if you have only one) to be presentable. You want the phones in the public spaces to be not-disgusting-to-behold. It doesn’t matter if the floors are filthy, because the evening’s event will only make them filthier. You might vacuum the rug beforehand if you think people will be sitting on the carpet, but other than that, why bother? There’s no point in having your house be utterly spotless right before a party. But yes, there are certain things that should be as clean as possible. Fortunately, this isn’t hard, and it requires no fancy cleaning supplies (as we’ve already learned, almost nothing really does, no matter what Mad Ave tells you), and you, too, can host a humdinger of a party without breaking a sweat. You might break maybe a glass or two, but that happens. (And when you do, I think you can get up shards of glass by pressing slices of soft bread onto the floor, or something like that. I forget.)