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Barbecues Can Be Awkward: Here’s How to Be on Your Best BBQ Behavior

Just because barbecues are often attended in flip-flops and typically involve piling large quantities of red meat into one’s mouth with a beer chaser, they aren’t invitations to forgo basic responsibilities of being a good guest.

“A barbecue certainly speaks to a more casual environment,” says Emily Post’s great-great grandson Daniel Post Senning, who recently shared some best practices on behaving at the beach. “That said, there are rules to observe.”

And while some of these rules seem self-evident — i.e., RSVP and show up on time with an offering — the details were fuzzier. Can you bring an out-of-town friend who maybe you didn’t add to the RSVP? What time are you supposed to leave? And what exactly do you bring as a token of thanks for the invitation — wine, beer, kielbasas for everyone? Not to mention: Are you allowed to touch another man’s grill or take a dip in his pool if no one else has taken the plunge yet?

In order not to go all Larry David this Memorial Day weekend, we recently asked Post Senning to help us with all of our BBQ-related neuroses.

What should you bring as a gift to a BBQ?
The standard is potato salad. But you can never go wrong bringing meat or a salad. Your best bet, however, is to ask what your host needs. It might be a bag of ice. It might be a jar of pickles. That could be the thing that rounds out the meal the most. Then again, you might have a dish you make better than anyone else — like baked beans or a legendary ambrosia salad. If you want to think outside of the box, bring a specialty sausage or a particular seasoning that’s going to turn the barbecue on its head, like a coriander rub.

Some BBQs start at noon and last pretty much all day — if not until late into the evening. If there isn’t a set time that the party wraps on the invitation, how long (or late) should you stay?
Stay for a couple hours. Once the food is served, you want to let people retire for the evening. If a barbecue is mostly happening in a back yard and the bugs start to come out, your host will likely be looking to close up shop and head indoors. If it’s not a situation where they’re clearly prepared to host everyone indoors, that’s your cue to take your exit.

More generally, what’s the rule of thumb for going inside the house during a party that’s clearly an outdoor party?
Typically only for bathroom usage. Ask permission, use the bathroom, but don’t hang out inside or walk from room to room. Otherwise, if the whole party isn’t going to move inside, I wouldn’t move myself inside for any length of time.

What about touching another man’s grill without asking?
Treat the grill like the kitchen if you were at a dinner party. You don’t want to impose yourself without an open invitation. And take no for an answer, regardless of how much of a grill master you are. After all, I can think of a thousand reasons why someone might be sensitive about it. For instance, there might be a portion reserved for vegetarian options. Again, there could be a ton of reasons like this.

How about lighting fireworks you brought?
I love it. Fireworks are so much fun. You’re talking to someone as a kid who used to pour over the Blue Angel catalog. I’d beg my parents to route through New Hampshire on the drive home from Martha’s Vineyard so I could go to the fireworks store. I’m a big fan. But you definitely want to check in with your host and observe all local laws. This is not Bastille Day. Fireworks are legitimately dangerous. You gotta be careful. Safety first.

How much should you drink?
Have a plan before you go. Know your limits ahead of time. In scuba diving, they say, “Plan your dive, and dive your plan.” The same is true for drinking at a barbecue. Once you start changing your targets mid-event, you start getting into trouble.

What about asking for outdoor things you forgot — e.g., suntan lotion, towels, sunglasses, bathing suits, etc.?
You can always ask if someone’s got sunscreen or insect repellant. Be prepared for “no” as an answer, though. The host-guest dance is a delicate one. I think there’s a certain courtesy to minimize your impact as a guest. If you’ve forgotten bug spray and you’re on the side of a lake and suddenly there’s a swarm of mosquitos, ask if there’s some extra DEET in the house. Then offer to run out and buy a couple bottles.

If there’s a pool, does that automatically mean you’re allowed to jump in it?
No. You definitely have to ask about pools because that’s a liability issue. So be prepared to accept whatever their answer is.

Should you stay to clean up?
Not necessarily. You can always offer. But be prepared if they say, “Oh my gosh, that would be so helpful! Can you grab a couple of those platters and follow me to the kitchen?”

Because guess what? You’re on the hook now.