How to navigate bringing a gift for your cottage hosts

Wine bottle wrapped in burlap cloth on wooden planks background Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

“I’m invited to my friend’s cottage every summer, and she always says, ‘Please don’t bring anything.’ So I don’t—because she said not to. But I’m starting to think that this actually makes me a jerk. Is it ever truly acceptable to bring nothing for the host? What’s worse, bringing nothing, bringing too much, or bringing the wrong thing?”

Unfortunately, you are not the first victim to have been trapped by the cottage guest Catch-22, where the specific instructions of a host must be carefully obeyed while simultaneously being ignored. It’s one of cottage country’s oddest phenomena. And yes, if you bring absolutely nothing for your cottage host, even though she expressly stated this as her wish, you are a jerk.

When a host says “Don’t bring anything,” what they are really saying is “I have everything planned just the way I like it. Don’t screw it up.” While it doesn’t exactly ring with hospitality, this attitude is understandable, especially if a host has once been traumatized by a certain strain of guest called the dipstick. After a host has carefully planned food and events for minimum fuss and maximum fun, a dipstick will roll in (usually late) to declare “I brought two bushels of amazing eggplant. I thought it would be fun to make baba ghanouj!” Asked to bring hamburgers for lunch, a dipstick will instead attempt to pit-roast a whole goat by wrapping it in banana leaves and burying it over a bed of heated rocks beside your septic field. “I saw it on the Food Network!” Dipsticks are rarely invited a second time.

Most of the time, “Don’t bring anything” is a reaction to overgenerous guests. Ask them for a salad, they bring three salads, a side of smoked salmon, and two dozen sticky buns. How could they know you had already purchased those things? This perfectly good food remains uneaten, and after everyone has gone, the guilty host gets to throw it all in the trash.

Even when you are asked not to bring anything, unless your hosts and the other guests are strict abstainers, it is considered good form to bring some beer or wine. This seems a simple enough task, but some people still screw it up. One of the rituals of autumn at our store in Dwight is to receive boxes of random unconsumed alcoholic beverages from our customers who are closing up for the season. They are the drinks guests brought but have remained untouched all summer, even by dead-broke twenty-somethings. Many are craft brews with funky artwork and names like “Throat Punch IPA” or “Bitter Disappointment.” The rest are a mix of super-sweet vodka coolers, premixed mojitos in a can, and those milkshake booze things. These drinks taste terrible, and no one wants them. So if you bring alcoholic beverages on a cottage visit, don’t showboat. Choose beer or wine that most people are familiar with, and you will have done well. If you are a bearded hipster in a skin-tight lumberjack shirt, save that four-pack of “Seventh Circle of Hell Burdock Root Cream Porter” for your other friends.

A small gift can be a nice touch. But only if it is something that requires no work on the part of the host. I know one cottager who doesn’t even like receiving flowers, because she has to dig around for a vase, then trim and arrange them while making appreciative noises. Think twice about arts and crafts as gifts. A selection of hand-drawn postcards might be well received, while a piece of barnboard with “Lake” printed next to an arrow might not be to everyone’s taste. And don’t make assumptions. Just because you think your hosts love dream catchers or old teapots—you’ve noticed some around the place—it doesn’t mean that they do. My eldest sister was once given a duck decoy as a gift, so she put it on her fireplace mantel. Shortly thereafter, a guest made the assumption that she liked duck decoys and gave her another. The next decoy soon followed, until it was generally acknowledged that Lynn was an avid accumulator of duck decoys. Today she curates a collection worthy of a peculiar second-tier museum. One she never wanted.

It might seem obvious, but according to my put-upon cottage customers—who relate their stories with eye rolls and expletives—the worst thing you can bring to a cottage is a special dietary requirement that you expect your host to miraculously fulfill. If you have renounced gluten or carbohydrates, or only eat raw seal meat, bring your own food or eat around the stuff you can’t consume. Suck it up, buttercup. Even more frustrating are people who bring uninvited guests with special dietary needs. “I asked Tracy’s brother Rob to tag along. He only eats windfall apples and organic dulse. I hope that’s okay.”

Bringing the right thing (even though you were told not to bring anything) is the best way to become a favoured cottage guest. The trick is to present these items when you are about to leave. Think like a cottager. Instead of flowers, why not leave behind a prepaid gas card to say thanks for all the pontooning and waterskiing? Skip the moose-patterned comforter, and plunk a full tank of propane on the deck. How about a bag of inexpensive LED flashlights, enough for a whole crowd? Or leave a pack of shiny new toothbrushes in the bathroom. It will be appreciated. If you have obeyed your host and not brought anything (idiot!), you can save yourself by being truly helpful. Take the kids out sailing for an afternoon. Split and stack some wood. Do the dishes. Clean up, tidy up, and square up. And if you load your car with all the garbage and recycling and drop it at the waste transfer station on your way home, it will go a long way toward compensating for your jerky behaviour in the past. You’re not a dipstick yet, but cottage visitation can become a slippery slope. Better straighten up.

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