DEAR MISS MANNERS: How long from the time you're invited to one's home for dinner should the dinner be served? Every dinner invite from my in-laws or sisters-in-law tends to cause an argument.
Generally we are lucky if it is under 90 minutes after the invite time. I refuse to think that somewhere north of 30 minutes is acceptable unless there are finger foods supplied or it's stated what to expect. There have been times upward of two hours that people just sit there while the turkey or roast continues to cook -- once two and a half hours, when they forgot to turn the oven on. I do not even have to go as far as saying the turkey was done 70 minutes prior to the actual time dinner was served; that would be another story.
My remedy is to show up 30 to 45 minutes late; however, that could be taken as being rude. Furthermore, if we do not show up on time, they call at one minute past the invite time to make sure we are on our way. Generally we are very prompt for every invite, but we see the caller ID when we get home and find out they called.
Then we get there and dinner is still 90 minutes late. I've been polite, making minor jokes, or even not so polite, but it doesn't seem to faze any of them. Dinner at our house for guests is generally within 30 minutes or less so we can socialize in a relaxed environment after dinner. All it does is cause more arguments. This isn't about who's right or wrong, but what is the proper etiquette.
GENTLE READER: No, it's about who is right or wrong. Family questions always are, in Miss Manners' experience. Contented relatives don't stake their good-natured bets on matters of etiquette.
Propriety requires only that guests should know when to expect to be fed so that they can adjust their stomachs accordingly. Ordinarily, this should not have to be spelled out. It is supposed to be understood that dinner is served in about half an hour after the stated time, just as you say, allowing a bit of leeway for last-minute adjustments ("That's not what you're wearing, is it?") and traffic.
Unfortunately, this understanding has been seriously damaged by the cycle of guests arriving late, dinner thus being served late, impatient guests vowing to arrive even later next time, and so on. Nevertheless, the rule remains in effect, and guests who violate it should expect to find dinner in progress and to be told, "We knew you wouldn't want us to wait."
However, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are often served in the afternoon. Football schedules aside, this is a custom left over from the early 19th century, when everyone ate the main meal during the day. It is still necessary to schedule time for relatives to sit around needling one another, but this could be after dinner, when they are cross because they feel stuffed, or before dinner, when they are cross because they are focused on the food to come.
The only way to mitigate this is to alert people when the meal will be served -- "Come at 2, and we'll eat at 4." This does not allow you to skip the socializing and arrive when you can get straight to the food, but it does allow you to fortify yourself with lunch before you set out.
And are you sure that those missed calls were not to say, "If you haven't left, hold off, because we're running late"?