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Houseguests (7/26/06)

Dear Zelda,

I had house guests last week who were very nice and helpful, and they liked to cook. In going through my cupboards they threw out a lot of my spices because they thought they were too old. There were no dates on the spices, but my guests told me I should clean out my spice rack regularly. It seems to me that spices can last forever, and besides a house guest should not be so bold as to clean out my cupboards. So, I have two questions. Can I keep spices forever? And the next time a house guest starts to clean cupboards, what should I do?

Casual Home-Maker

Dear Casual Home-Maker,

What's with house guests who go through your cupboards and throw out your spices without consulting you first? Don't they know that when a spice lives in your house long enough, it becomes like another child... dare I say, your very own "spice girl?" There is no way this behavior even approaches acceptable. As Erma Bombeck liked to say, "Women never throw out spices." So what were your house guests thinking?

Well, even though your guests were definitely out of line, the first piece of spice advice I have for you is that there IS such a thing as an 'old spice,' and we're not talking about the kind dangerously overused by frat boys. Spices don't last forever, so why forfeit your fresh fish by using a spice that's a year or two past its prime?  Like produce and dairy products, spices have a shelf life. Admittedly the timeline is longer, and each spice ages differently, but the best test to check if a spice is still nice is the "Sniff Test," and you can bet your schnozola that I'm good at this. To see if ground spice still has some kick to it, just take a pinch and smell it. If the aroma is immediate, it shouldn't be sent off to that big spice rack in the sky. For whole spices like cinnamon sticks or cloves, break and crush them before you smell them. And for herbs, crush a small amount in your hand and if the aroma is fresh, it can still flavor foods. One little trick we use here at Team Zelda is that when we change our clocks for daylight savings time, we check our spices at the same time and throw out the ones that fail the “Sniff Test.” It's just an easy-reminder kind of spice device.

It was wrong for your house guests, no matter what great cooks they were, or how helpful they were trying to be, to throw out anything in your home. But you don't need to let it become a big issue. Should this happen again, just let these self-appointed spice eliminators know that even though they think it's time for you to ditch your old favorites, it's 'just not their thyme.'


Dear Zelda,

I've been invited to a friend's family vacation home at the beach.  What would be a good gift to bring, and what can I do to get invited back a second time?

Comeback Kid

Dear Comeback Kid,

What fun to spend a weekend at the beach with friends, who obviously like you enough to invite you to share their getaway at the shore. Not all people would be considerate enough to think of bringing a gift, much less taking the time to research an appropriate one. You already sound like a great houseguest!

Without knowing your friends, I have a few gift suggestions that will get things off on the right foot. And, as long as I'm talking body parts... NEVER show up empty handed.  Wine, flowers, a box of chocolates, and a pound of great coffee are fine and safe. If you're not sure what they'll like, any of these can be good options. But if you'd like to try something more interesting, why not get something a little different, like a subscription to Coastal Living? You can tie an attractive bow around this month's issue and add a note saying that this is the first one, with twelve more to follow. You might want to add one of those new double beach towels that are available at Bed, Bath and Beyond or L.L. Bean. Or, fill a new canvas tote bag with the latest hot novels and a selection of great magazines for some beach reading. The better you know your hosts, the more you can tailor your gift to their interests. Just remember that what's good for one host might be boring to another. So be sure to tailor your gift to fit your friends and, if they have a dog...well, we always appreciate something to chew on too.

In my experience, the best houseguests, and the ones who get invited back, are the ones who jump in and help when they can. Don't wait to be asked to do something. Just do it. Sweep the kitchen or deck after a meal, clear and wash the dishes, or help set the table.  Any time we visit friends, my owner and I try to leave their home not just the way it was when we arrived, but a little bit better. When appropriate, we also try to take our hosts out for a meal in appreciation of their invitation.

It is an honor to be invited to share someone's home, and an even greater honor to be asked back. Here's to a great weekend, and to many more. Make the most of the coast!


Dear Zelda,

A couple of weeks ago my best friend asked if I could 'dog sit' while she went to visit her parents in upstate New York.  She has three dogs and I have to say that my house may never be the same. The dogs, while very loveable, scratched my doors and chewed a hole in my new couch. The dogs are home with their owner now, but I'm stuck with the damage. Should I just pay for the repairs, or should I ask her to take care of the things they destroyed?

Three Dog Night-mare

Dear Three Dog Night-mare,

It sounds like you've been the victim of some extremely hazardous house-guest hounds! Your wards, those three unruly dogs, seemed to think that "sofa" was an item on their menu, and that perhaps an open-door policy just meant they got to tunnel their way through the front door. We all like to be accommodating, but in this case it's definitely not unreasonable to ask your best friend to take care of the damage caused by her canines, or at least help out with the repairs. This isn't always the easiest topic to broach, however, so you need to be careful to present it such that your friendship isn't endangered.

Before you confront her with the costs, though, you need to make a list of the damage and get an estimate for repairs. That done, lighten up, invite her over for a cool glass of whatever, and tell her you'd like to talk about the dogs. Once she's there, show her the damages done by her playful pooches. When she sees the hole in your new couch, she should say something like, "Ouch! I'll take care of this."  Same for the repair on the doors. If you feel awkward, don't worry... everyone feels awkward in these situations. Personally I would suggest allowing her to pay part of the costs and you paying some of the repair costs yourself, in the spirit of good will and to honor your friendship. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself whether these decisions are going to negatively impact or endanger your friendship, and if so, whether they are worth it. Only you will be able to weigh these big decisions, but keep in mind that a good friend is more valuable than any door or sofa. That said, in order for your friendship to remain healthy, YOU need to feel that you can honestly express your feelings and frustrations, even when they involve your friend herself, or her pooches.

Unfortunately friendships are often soured or severed because of situations like this gone bad. Don't let it happen with your best friend. Be open with her about your concerns, but also let her know that it's not a big deal, and that your friendship is by far the most important thing to you. With any luck, you'll have the house all repaired and ready just about the time she decides to take another road trip!