Daniel Kahneman’s Peak-End rule suggests people only ever remember the high point and end of an experience. The cumulative impact of small wrinkles and features do little to establish our emotional memory.
Having heard hundreds of guests at the vicarage declare Mum’s meals the best they’ve ever had, I asked her what her secrets of success were. Turns out she’s pretty big on high points and endings.
Here are Sue Collingwood’s six secrets to hosting success.
1. Offer your guests a drink as soon as they arrive
The golden rule. None of us enjoys loitering idly, not knowing whether we’ve yet joined the party or not. This sets them at ease quickly. A gin & tonic before dinner, fizz for a drinks party, and always some sparkling soft drinks for those that want it. Whether you’re single or not, with a drink in hand, you’re ready to mingle.
2. Cook too many vegetables
Applies especially to anyone with a flexible approach to guest lists. In the vicarage, Mum would often wake up expecting eight guests for lunch on a Sunday. By the time Dad had left church, having chatted with friends and welcomed strangers, the guest list was twelve. Mum realised that you can’t suddenly buy another leg of lamb, but you can absolutely put some more veggies on. The acronym FHB (‘family hold back’) was made for these occasions. We’d stock up on veg and leave the ‘high point’ protein for the guests.
3. One, two, three puddings is enough
Somewhat of a Sue Collingwood hallmark, this. As main plates were cleared, Mum’s children would bring in a conveyor belt of puds – chocolate gateaux, poached fruits, cheesecakes, ice creams, and snow queens. It was like the dessert trolley at Ballymaloe. “What can I interest you in?” she’d ask dumbfounded guests. “And if you can’t choose, you can always have a bit of everything!”
Linked to this, it seems that the number of accompaniments should match the number of pudding themselves. Plates and bowls were forever surrounded by creams, yoghurts, and custards of multiple varieties. It’s for this reason that our usually restrained Dad is known to complete a bowl of crumble with cream, custard, and ice cream.
4. Make your own sauces
“People are always so impressed when I make my own Tartar Sauce. They obviously don’t know how easy it is!” I think the point here is that people appreciate and admire the effort. For those short of time, Mum has equally helpful advice: “just add something in to jazz it up – port in your cranberry sauce, brandy in your custard, or cucumber and mint in your yoghurt. No one will ever know it’s from Sainsburys.”
5. Ditch the paper napkins
“They’re just a bit naff” says Sue.
6. Do it in advance
This is the real trick. No one wants a host to be squirreled away in the kitchen while strangers make awkward conversation about where to put the cocktail sticks they’ve just relieved of some garlic prawns. Mum’s answer is to prepare as much in advance as you possibly can. This comes down to menu planning more than anything. “Don’t make every course hot. Make sauces in advance and reheat before serving. Always have a spare pudding in the freezer…”
There are those puddings again. Always end on a high.