What a lovely surprise!

FOOD & DRINK Or is it? The table is ready, the guests assembled. And then the doorbell rings. Michael Bateman on welcoming the unexpected
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The Independent Culture
DO COME round some time (any time, but not in my lifetime). I really mean that (I really do, not in my lifetime). The niceties of offering hospitality are never so desperately put to the test as at Christmas.

The test of handling the unexpected guest is a case in point, though my own most chastening experience involved a group of expected, not unexpected, guests. One Christmas Eve, acting in the spontaneous spirit of Noel, we asked a dozen people round to a Boxing Day lunch.

Our friends seemed to accept the invitation readily enough. We accordingly prepared food and drink, laid the places, and waited. And waited. But no one came to the feast. How could our good intentions have been so misunderstood, we groaned?

Then it dawned on us that nobody in their senses would take such an invitation seriously, exhausted after their own festivities. Five rather jolly people did make it for tea, in fact. But we hadn't really grasped the fact that we were breaking with the Christmas conventions.

For enlightenment on these conventions one may consult the author of The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser, historian and chronicler of etiquette. "Hosts and guests," she says (noting that the words curiously derive from the same Indo-European word, ghostis), "even in the most casual gatherings, play very different roles. The host is at home and giving. The guest is away receiving. A decided imbalance is set up and deliberately maintained, the purpose being that the repricocity and equalisation which is forbidden at present will have to be achieved later - there will be a return invitation. It follows that being a host can be a bid for power, a way of placing people under obligation, very possibly unwanted. If the host, for example, gives a party which is so lavish that it cannot be returned by the guest then the debt will have to be paid in other ways. The host will decide what he or she wants in return when the time comes to collect his or her due." Ha! Now I can see why my Christmas guests ducked out.

She also offers an insight into our anxieties about the arrival of an unexpected guest, the "stranger" in our midst. "The laws of hospitality deal firstly with strangers, how to manage their entry into our inner sanctum, how to protect them from our own automatic reaction, which is to fear and exclude the unknown, how to prevent them from attacking and desecrating what we hold dear, or from otherwise behaving in a strange and unpredictable manner."

Margaret Visser's conclusions are based on studies of older cultures, so it may not be surprising that in a very modern culture, such as the American, they are remarkably hospitable and welcoming to the unexpected guest. "It is the concept of frontier society," suggests Loyd Grossman, the food authority who hails from Boston. "We're all on the move, we're all in the same boat. You'll find it in Australia, in Canada, in central Argentina. In a mobile society we're all on our way to somewhere else."

He's always enjoyed generous hospitality in England, he hastens to add, but he accepts that Americans are more willing to accept casual guests. "It's in more established, stratified societies that the stranger may be considered a threat. Who is this person: enemy or friend?"

Opening your doors to the stranger is the very essence of the Christmas spirit, and it was with no hesitation that Derek Nimmo invited a Japanese guest to his table. It occurred to him during the proceedings that a creature from outer space would make no better sense of British Christmas rituals. "Mr Matsuko took it in his stride when we exploded crackers, and read out jokes of extraordinary banality. He looked deeply puzzled when we unwrapped paper hats and put them on our heads. But when we put out the lights and set fire to the pudding he became quite hysterical."

The stranger, someone from outside the family, is the essential ingredient in Prue Leith's Christmas entertaining, a week of fun and games. Her strategy has been to have one of her children invite "a colonial waif", perhaps from university, to share the experience. "The presence of someone from outside acts as a catalyst in a family situation," she says. "It adds a bit of spice and it makes your children behave so much better. The guest is always inclined to don rubber gloves and ask, can I help? I don't need asking twice. I say yes, you can."

As head of Leith's catering company, perhaps she could offer some advice on feeding extra mouths at this pressurised time? It is often the sudden escalation in the scale of catering that confuses people, she suggests. "No fridge is big enough," she says. "So I collect all the cold boxes and picnic boxes I can find (especially storage boxes used to keep fish cold) and use them as temporary fridges for extra bottles of milk and cream, and wine and water."

She's obviously the last person to be fazed by the prospect of a crowd materialising from nowhere. You don't need to have provisions to feed a garrison under siege if you stick to simple meals, she advises.

"I believe in serving masses of salad," she says. "After Christmas, when people have eaten too much, it's the best food. You just need to make sure you have something warm to cook up with it. I always keep masses of home-made fish cakes in the freezer [see recipe, right]. And pizza bases. And pasta. Comfort food. Make sure you have plenty of wine of the glugging variety. And enough fizzy water."

Robert Carrier, being both American and generous, might have some guidelines on catering for extra guests. He didn't. "Feeding the five thousand," he grunted. "If you've bought six pigeons how do you divide them up for seven?"

His own sharpest Christmas memory was as a guest, not a host, he said. Not even a guest, because he thought he'd been invited to a grand Christmas dinner but suddenly found there had been a misunderstanding. He wasn't expected. There was no food in the house at all. But if you happen to own a restaurant, as he did at the time (Carrier's in Islington), you need not starve. "I had a spare set of keys and got in and raided the fridge. There was duck a l'orange, pineapple and lemon posset. It was the best Christmas meal of my life." If the loneliest.

Almost as alarming as an unexpected guest, I suggest, may be the unexpected request. I prepared a pre-Christmas repast one year (using a wonderful Prue Leith recipe, boned turkey stuffed with ham, removing last-minute pressure on carving). The balancing act of bringing turkey, potatoes, sprouts and gravy to perfection had been all but achieved, when I was alerted to the presence of three vegetarians. Only a fool would rush out in the cold without a jacket to the nearest shop on a Sunday to buy a dozen eggs to make omelettes while the rest of the meal spoiled.

Cas Clarke, who wrote the best-seller Grub on a Grant and is now writing Vegetarian Grub on a Grant, was sympathetic, but deplored my sense of panic. "Don't worry. Pour yourself a drink." She recognises that many people find Christmas hospitality stressful, but thinks there's no excuse for it any more. "Twenty years ago you didn't know if you'd have enough food for an emergency, and you'd stock up with tins of this and tins of that. But everything's changed. The shops are open all the time, you can get anything you want, any time, from the corner shop, from the deli. Or there's a takeaway. If a whole crowd turns up, don't panic, take them all down the pub."

PRUE LEITH'S FISH CAKES

Serves 4-6

350g/12oz smoked haddock

300ml/12 pint milk

350g/12oz potatoes, peeled

salt and ground black pepper

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon chopped parsley, plus extra to garnish

1 tablespoon chopped chives

40g/112 oz butter

112 tablespoons oil

green salad, to serve

Put the smoked haddock into a frying pan, cover with the milk and cook gently over a low heat for 10-15 minutes, or until the fish is firm and cooked through. Remove the fish from the milk, cool and then remove any skin and bones and flake the flesh.

Cut up the potatoes roughly and boil in salted water until soft. Drain and mash with the butter until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the flaked fish and add a little egg. The mixture should be soft, but not too sloppy. Stir in the chopped parsley and chives. Chill.

When firm, heat the butter and oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add the mixture and press it down with the back of a fork.

Fry over a moderate heat for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. To turn it over, place a large plate over the pan and, holding it down with the palm of your hand, flip the fish cake on to the plate. Slide it back into the pan and cook the other side for 10 minutes.

Slide it on to a serving dish, garnish with parsley, and cut the cake into wedges. Serve with a salad of oak-leaf lettuce and endive.

To freeze: shape the uncooked mixture into four rounds. Open-freeze on a baking tray, interleave with freezer tissue, place in a container and label. Use within three months. Cook from frozen over a low heat, 12 minutes each side. !

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