Downton Abbey addicts know that the PBS period drama, whose fourth season kicked off last Sunday, is delicious in more ways than one: the gorgeous clothing has influenced runways, the romantic entanglements have quickened hearts, and the dry one-liners regularly uttered by Dame Maggie Smith, as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has inspired a number of viral Internet gags. But we realized when it comes down to it, the main sources for drama and intrigue on Downton come from two places that are particularly dear to us: the bustling, hot, crowded downstairs kitchen, and the elegant, crystalline dining room upstairs.
It's no surprise, really, that interesting things start happening where food and company are involved. Having learned from seven of the most riotous Downton dinner disasters, we put together a helpful primer for what to avoid when you're hosting a night in -- and what to do when what you desperately want to avoid happens anyway. Ring the gong and read on. (One minor spoiler ahead; skip no. 5 if you must!)
Disaster no. 1: Clash of Personalities: Sybil's former paramour Larry Gray spikes Tom Branson's cocktail with the 1920s equivalent of a roofie, causing him to start ranting about the merits of socialism at dinner. Gray humiliates Branson, calling him only "a grubby little chauffeur chap," and Lord Grantham is overcome with embarrassment.
The Lesson: Whenever you invite people over, especially family (never to be trusted!), always have diversionary methods planned for problem guests. For example, if the vein in your conservative grandfather's neck starts pulsating when your cousin begins discussing her recent pansexual experiments over winter break, loudly announce your bets for this year's Super Bowl pool.
Disaster no. 2: You're a Control Freak: Alfred, on duty as footman at dinner for the first time, drops a piece of meat on the Dowager Countess's plate instead of lowering the dish to let her serve herself. Good god, this isn't a hotel!
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The Lesson: Being controlling isn't the only way to maintain control. You needn't handle absolutely everything; guests can exercise their own free will as well. You don't even have to cut their roast chicken into tiny pieces that are all exactly the same size -- unless they're five years old, or they ask you to first.
Disaster no. 3: Dinner Is Ruined: Mrs. Patmore confuses sugar with salt and sends up a horrifying, bracken dessert while the Crawleys are entertaining important guests. Lady Cora desperately tries to "take the taste away" by demanding cheese and fruit.
The Lesson: Extravagant meal planning doesn't always result in dishes that look like they've come straight from one of Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbooks, so stick to preparing dishes that you know well and are guaranteed hits. In case of disaster, be sure to keep your fridge stocked with a few palate-cleansing snacks.
Disaster no. 4: Sabotage!: May Bird, Matthew and Isobel Crawley's first cook, takes over the Downton kitchen for a night while Mrs. Patmore is away. Out of loyalty to her boss, kitchen maid Daisy tries to ruin Mrs. Bird's cooking for the Granthams by slipping soap shavings in the pot.
The Lesson: It isn't really a dinner party (or a party at all, for that matter) if there isn't some kind of drama, whether it's happening in the kitchen, in your guests' head, or in the food itself. Once everyone arrives, your job isn't to worry about every little thing -- just keep the plates and glasses filled, and trust that the flavors of your food will wisely penetrate the atmosphere. In the case of soap shavings, well, see Disaster no. 3 above.
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Disaster no. 5: Not Enough Seats at the Table: Former housemaid (fired, but then rehired and -- minor spoiler! -- promoted as a ladies' maid in season 4!) Edna Braithwaite flouts convention and invites Branson to eat dinner downstairs in the servants' quarters, and he takes her up on it. Carson always knew that wretched chauffeur would bring shame upon the family.
The Lesson: The sudden arrival of late, uninvited, or unwelcome guests could ruin the entire evening if the tension isn't dispelled quickly. Take a page from Carson's rigid rulebook: Do your best to squeeze them in at the table and include them in conversation -- even if it means swallowing a little pride.
Disaster no. 6: A Scandalous Past Is Revealed: Isobel Crawley puts together a ladies' luncheon for Cora, Mary, Edith, and the Dowager at her home -- with treats prepared by her cook Ethel, a former Downton maid turned prostitute hoping to rehabilitate her image. A lady of the night pouring tea in Crawley house? Impossible!
The Lesson: Listen, open kitchens are one thing, but the majority of your gourmet meals out on the town are prepared by incredibly talented kitchen staff -- incredibly talented, sweaty, tattooed, foul-mouthed cooks of questionable backgrounds. Who cares what they do in their own time if their food is majestic?
Disaster no. 7: The Underdressed Guest: Branson turns up at dinner wearing a three-piece suit instead of the customary dinner tails. True to English style, everyone pretends not to care by making him feel horrible about it.
The Lesson: Even if your invitation to dinner specifies black tie or Twin Peaks-inspired costumes, not everyone is going to show up looking like James Bond or the Log Lady. But remember, attire isn't as important as a great group of people, witty conversation, and a damn fine cup of coffee at the end of the meal.
Disaster no. 8: Someone's Got Sticky Fingers:Carson discovers several bottles of wine have been stolen from the cellar. Newcomer Mr. Bates is first on the list of suspects, but his crush Anna knows better.
The Lesson: It would be a bit weird if a gentleman you invited over demanded to take home a half-finished bottle of wine -- or even odder, secretly shoved it in his backpack while you were clearing the table. Perhaps he just wants to enjoy a nice solo glass of Merlot at home while watching the season-four premiere of Downton, but is too ashamed to admit he's a fan of the show? Smile, nod, and send him off with his spoils if you must, rather than making a scene: In the immortal words of Lord Grantham, "They do say there's a wild man inside all of us."
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