Why must lakeside gatherings involve chili cook-offs and karaoke contests

Heidi Berton

Why must lakeside gatherings involve chili cook-offs and karaoke contests? What happened to just, you know, gathering?

Q: “I host an annual party at my cottage every Victoria Day weekend—it’s sort of a ‘Welcome Back to the Lake’ kind of thing. My neighbours are encouraging me to give it a competition theme: you know, Best Potluck Dish or Best Costume Based on a TV Character. I feel like that’ll discourage people from attending. What’s the deal with this—isn’t it enough that we all just get together and have a barbecue?”

A: You should consider yourself fortunate to have avoided the irritating “competition entertaining” trend for so long because, like giant hogweed or mindful paddleboard yoga, it’s one of those things that infiltrated Cottage Land some time ago and simply refuses to die. I remember working at the meat counter of our little cottage-country store about 10 years ago and having to help customers who, as part of a cottage weekend invite, had to whip up an entry for a burger competition or a rib cook-off. It was a foreign concept to me at the time. Some guests took the clever approach of buying our house-made patties and passing them off as their own. Others were deadly serious, showing up with oddball Internet recipes that required special ingredients like ground hanger steak, bacon jam, or shiso leaves that would all but guarantee glorious victory at the now-annual Mud Lake Patty Smash. But many customers who weren’t very handy cooks were just stressed out by the whole thing. I had to walk a few through the Burger 101 crash course so they could create a patty that wouldn’t make them the butt of weekend jokes. Burger anxiety? What kind of host-monster would want to put their guests through that?

All fingers point to those pointless reality TV shows where competition gets made out of things that don’t usually require winners and losers in the normal universe. You know, singing, dancing, baking. That sort of thing. It’s no surprise that people are addicted to watching television. That’s part of the human condition. But how our love of gladiatorial entertainment got transmuted into a popular form of cottage entertaining is a mystery to me. Yes, competition has always been part of the cottage scene, from canoe races at the regatta to a fishing derby weekend. But these activities are intrinsically competitive in the first place. That’s the whole point of the exercise. The way I see it, the big difference between the fun competition of a badminton game and the angst-inducing rivalry of a Frozen-themed costume battle or a fish taco smackdown is that in badminton, and most other regular competitions, you measure out winners and losers by keeping score, or timing a race, or weighing a fish. But cottage food competitions must be judged, and like many of the very worst Olympic events—I’m looking right at you, figure skating—rely on a biased and often fraudulent way of awarding medals. That’s why figure skaters are always crying. And there’s no better way to ruin a cottage dinner party than to watch the losers of a Cold Soup Cook-Off hold hands as their tears wash stage makeup into a bowl of artisanal gazpacho.

So, just in case it is not perfectly clear, you are not alone in wondering what’s up with this weird competition theme thing. Yes, it will probably deter a few guests. And yes, it will be a colossal pain in the keister for those folks who play along. But because this is your annual party, you occupy the decision-making high ground. So tell your neighbours, in a nice way, to go pound salt. If they want to host a bake-off or a dress-up theme weekend, that’s their business. Case closed. But your final question distresses me: “Isn’t it enough that we all get together and have a barbecue?” Well, it should be, shouldn’t it? I mean, isn’t the point of getting together at the cottage, whether for a dinner party or a whole weekend, to get together? You know, fellowship, some good chat, maybe a few laughs? Have you noticed how often, in a social setting, people feel they must constantly show you stuff on their phones? Is it because we are collectively losing the power of conversation? Is it possible that a competition theme helps with that by giving us something to talk about?

So maybe you could argue that the structure of competition-type themes makes entertaining easier. Maybe. But I recently heard about a group of cottage couples who do a rotating Chopped theme dinner thing, where the host has to make a meal that includes four random ingredients that the other couples picked. I’m not sure I get it. Was regular socializing too boring for them, but this diabolical arrangement gives them a frisson of culinary excitement? Or was regular entertaining too easy? So they devised a way to stimulate their dopamine receptors by making meal prep exceptionally difficult and prone to epic failure? Here’s a test that tells me these guys are total whack jobs: head to a library, a bookstore, or the Internet and try to find cookbooks with “difficult”, “stressful”, and “time-consuming” in their titles. You will find none. Now perform the same search using “easy”, “fun”, and “delicious” and you will be deluged with suggestions, especially when the books are about entertaining guests.

But who knows? Maybe the times have changed, and the cookbooks haven’t caught up yet. For the record, I am not an enthusiastic cottage host. But if the modern way to entertain guests is to make the process a hardship and a competition, I am ready for the challenge. For starters, why not have guests compete to accomplish something useful, instead of producing six middling variations of Coquilles Saint-Jacques? Like a timed event to see who can split the most firewood in 30 minutes? Or a team contest to see who will reign supreme in cleaning measured sections of eavestrough? The competitive variations—and the potential for entertainment—are almost endless. You could set parents against children in a deck chair stain-off. Or separate married couples and pit them against each other in an inside versus outside window cleaning battle. The best part is that because everyone seems to have gone gaga for cottage theme competitions, your guests will actually thank you for hosting a wonderful weekend after they’ve knocked off all your spring opening chores. It’s enough to make me really embrace the idea of cottage entertaining.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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