DEAR MISS MANNERS: I host all holiday celebrations. This is because I have the space and the cooking skills, and for the most part, I enjoy spending time with family and friends and preparing a huge, elegant meal for them. With one exception, the crowd seated around the table always seems to enjoy the feast very much.
However, we have one family member, an older woman, who acts like a spoiled toddler at the table: making faces, gagging and spitting out any food that is not to her taste, then loudly announcing the specific reasons she does not care for the food, and what I should have made instead. She has even gone as far as to remove family favorites from the table, throwing plates full of food in the trash, yelling that she is protecting everybody else from being made ill by that horrible slop!
What she does like are instant foods and canned goods that are doctored up with sugar, garlic, prepackaged seasoning mixes and sometimes bacon. I cook from scratch and have a lighter hand with the seasonings. I try to make sure there are things on the table that she will eat, but she is the only one who wants that stuff, which also makes her very angry. Otherwise, I do my best to ignore the insulting and childish behavior.
My immediate family and I have had a terrible year, full of grief, stress, physical pain and illness, with more troubles on the horizon. I am having difficulty dealing with this extended family member’s outspokenness at times that are not so emotionally loaded as holiday celebrations, and have, on a couple occasions, snapped at her. If it were possible to be out of town for the holidays to avoid the unpleasantness, that is exactly what we would do, but we have obligations at home.
How do I keep my temper in check and create some boundaries while still being a good hostess? Do I somehow find the energy to cook her a big, separate meal in an attempt to keep the peace? Do I do it her way to shut her up, and let everybody else complain? Do I suggest that she go to the Asian restaurant down the road, the only business open over the holidays, if she cannot eat what is on my table? Do I confront her about her behavior? If so, how do I do it in a way that does not make others uncomfortable?
I need a plan, or I am afraid I will be unable to keep from sharing a few honest opinions of my own, and things will get ugly!
GENTLE READER: Take the family member aside -- privately and well before the appointed meal -- and ask how you can help. “I do not seem to be able to please you. I know you have your favorite dishes, but the rest of the family does, too. Perhaps you can help me with a few things that everyone will like.”
There are no guarantees in managing someone whose bizarre hostility has gone untreated. But in Miss Manners’ experience, there is nothing quite so disarming to a tantrum-prone individual than to be spoken to calmly and rationally -- and more important, to be taken seriously.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)