Some guests may tremble at the prospect of picking just the right holiday offering for that sophisticated host. But one recent visitor to the home of Colin Cowie, a Westside party designer and caterer extraordinaire, was not intimidated.
"I know you told me that you love the apple tart from Michel Richard," the guest told Cowie, proffering the treat at his host's front door, "but I must apologize--the maid took a big bite out of it."
Cowie, who was charmed by the flawed tart, tells the story to emphasize that at holiday parties, it's your presence, not your gift, that counts.
"The whole idea is to get together, not to wait in anticipation to see what people are going to bring you," he said.
Given that assurance--and the equally comforting advice from prime party-goers and etiquette sages that, in most cases, it's fine to show up empty-handed--it still holds that an invitation to dinner during the holidays will leave most people groping at the last minute for the proper token to tote.
The age-old instinct--to bring wine or flowers--has come under scrutiny in recent years.
Charlotte Ford, author of an etiquette book and a manners column for McCall's Magazine, said guests should never bring flowers to a dinner party, although it is acceptable to send them later. Why? Because if presented with such a gift, "the hostess has to leave her guests and run and find a vase."
Ford's is not the final word on this issue, as some other knowledgeable folk still prefer flowers to other gifts.
Charlie Scheips, whose holiday schedule sends him scrambling for a gift as many as five nights a week, says flowers make an evening of food and conversation less ephemeral.
"The next day, you're gone but the flowers still are there," said Scheips, organizer of Art L. A. '89, an international art fair at the Convention Center Dec. 7-11.
As for wine, still one of the most popular dinner gifts, many in the know now urge against this offering because it may undercut or befuddle the host who already has the beverage selected for the evening.
Here, too, the naysayers are not going unchallenged. Ford, for instance, says it's fine to take wine, just don't expect the host to uncork it that evening. That way no one has to worry about the selection clashing with the meal.
If the function is formal, it's better not to take a gift at all but to send something before or after the event.
Cowie's favorite pre-party gift is a box of Teuscher Champagne truffles flown in from Europe once a week and available for $18-$72 at the Teuscher store in Beverly Hills. He calls the chocolates the best in the world.
"If I have the time to do it, I make a basket and put in Christmas mince pies and almonds," Cowie said.
But if he's rushed, Cowie might go with a tin of Williams-Sonoma Scottish shortbread (about $10), tied with a red or green ribbon. Party-goers en route to dinner engagements also breeze by the Williams-Sonoma stores around town for mustards, olive oils and Fini vinegar ($9 a bottle).
Another Cowie suggestion is the popular champagne and caviar gift baskets from Wally's Liquor Store in West Los Angeles. They run anywhere from $50 to more than $500.
But what is most endearing to hosts these days is not the guest who drops $500 on caviar but one who bakes a bundt cake, glazes walnuts, or hand paints an ornament.
"In 1989, time is of the essence and what really is very special is if someone has taken time on a gift," Cowie said.
Sandra Ausman, chief of protocol for Los Angeles County, agreed, adding that the most cherished party offering these days is anything homemade.
A good source of do-it-yourself ideas is Martha Stewart's new Christmas cookbook, she said. An item from Stewart's book Ausman recommends is the pomander, a scented orange made to be hung in closets or hallways during the holidays. You take an orange, stud it with cloves (adding the cloves is hard on the thumbs, Ausman said) then hang it up to dry and later roll it in cinnamon and other spices.
Another inexpensive gift from Stewart's book is potpourri. Ausman said she saved all the flower petals from her daughter's wedding this year and now has lots of dried petals to stuff in potpourri pouches along with spices and scents.
Joan Weiss, who attends many social functions in her dual roles as director of special events at the Music Center and president of the board of directors of the Downtown Women's Center, said a sure-fire gift is wrapping paper designed by artists. Some recipients find the paper so beautiful that they can't bear to use it as wrapping, she said.
Ausman and others also mentioned the Los Angeles County Museum store as a good source for this and other gifts.
Weiss cautioned that because of the tradition of giving to the host, anyone who entertains often during the holidays "can really end up with a bunch of weird things." Because of that, she noted that it has become more popular for guests to send a donation to a charity with a note to the host saying the offering has been made in honor of a particular holiday get-together.
"Most people are changing their feelings about conspicuous consumption," she said, adding that means a donation might be the best visitor's gift of all this year.