Nothing gives me greater joy than shoving food in someone's mouth. The pleasure a friend encounters when encountering a luscious, fig-wrapped prosciutto is incalculable. The raucous laughter, the stories one tells after a little nip of the drink, and the complete and utter love and affection you feel when a friend pulls you close, hugs you, and congrats you on your new life, is beyond measure. For all of these reasons -- and possibly because I overcompensate for the mothering I was never privileged to have -- I love entertaining.
Over the years, I've learned that less is more. The art of the presentation is paramount and simple, delicious foods always impress a crowd rather than complicated recipes that have you sobbing over a hot stove. No one wants the agony, the tears, and the fist lodged in a wall. Simply put, you want your friends and loved ones fed, entertained and comfortable. Here are my five maxims for throwing a fox trot soiree:
The invite: Apparently, it has become the state of affairs that seeing one's friends is akin to booking a table at Nobu or viewing the last two seasons of One Tree Hill on SoapNet (smite you, SoapNet for denying a woman a simple pleasure!!! But I digress). I tend to send out invites a month in advance, using a service like Paperless Post, which allows you to send out lovely invitations (think Evite 2.0) and allows you to track your guest list. I send 2 reminders -- one two weeks before the event and one a few days prior, along with direction details.
If you'd like your friends to bring something special, note that in the invite. Proper etiquette calls for folks to bring a bottle of wine, drinks, or a small gift, but make any special note if the party is themed, etc.
The people: As I have varying pockets of friends, I'm smart about the guest list in ensuring that I have the right balance of guests. People will inevitably cleave to who they know, but I tend to not skew the list toward a certain kind of crowd. I also always invite friends to bring a friend, significant other, etc, so people have the opportunity to casually mingle, meet new friends, etc. As the host, I make a point to make introductions throughout the evening. To achieve this, I typically plant the eating area pretty strategically, for when one is battling over the last of the grilled shrimps, one is likely to engage in chatter. Which brings me to what I've been waiting for...the food.
The menu: Oh, have I learned. Try frying salmon in a pan in a hothouse apartment, when you've never cooked or eaten this random fish before. Bake the pate a choux with that coffee bean that could only be sourced from the bowels of the Atlantic Rainforest or whatever. Attempting to test new recipes on unsuspecting and undeserving friends is the equivalent of murder/suicide. Don't do it. When it comes to the menu, keep it simple, keep it delicious. And always offer up selections that you can make 1-2 days prior to the event.
I plot out my menu in advance, ensuring that I have the right mix of "scoopable" and "pickable" foods. Eats they can maneuver whilst chatting. I offer veggies, fruits, carbs, meats (or fish), and light snacks (nuts, dried fruits, chips and the like) and refreshing dips of contrasting flavors (I served a hot salsa verde dipping sauce alongside a cucumber yoghurt mixture) -- this way you're guarantee to win over a variety of palates and adhere to dietary restriction; I often query my friends to see if they have allergies or specific needs I should keep in mind.
At my most recent event, I offered simple sauté shrimp, figs cocooned in cured meats, a pesto pasta and grilled chicken dish, apricots dressed in pistachio vinaigrette, watermelon & feta salad, sliced cucumbers with dipping sauce, caprese skewers (why not dress up a staid salad as everything is sexy on a stick) and a green salad. Strawberries macerated in cane sugar and vanilla extract, served with crème fraiche, made for a sweet treat.
I place the bulk of the food, buffet-style, in a large enough area where people can move, reach, and chat. Also, I place smaller side tables throughout my space so friends can congregate in pockets.
The music: I tend to create a mix of old favorites (I'm of the Pearl Jam generation) and new beats. You'll hear A Tribe Called Quest, Built to Spill, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and Nina Simone in my home. Recently, I purchased an iHome portable speaker dock for $99, which allows me to have music in any room of my apartment, including my deck. The iHome also charges my iPhone, and alerts me of texts/phone calls.
The ambiance: Fragrant, white candles strewn about your home are evocative, warm and welcoming. Music, ambient lighting, and an allotment of seating areas make for a great party. Again, keep it simple. No crazy table scapes or whatever Sandra Lee's doing these days. Your friends are coming over to see you, not some giant reindeer ice sculpture. A friend of mine gave me the greatest compliment one could give when she said that she didn't check her phone for two hours because she was having so much fun.
The get out of my house dance: Sometimes people simply don't want to leave your house. And that's a good thing! That's the mark of a fabulous party. However, you may have a kid, a job, or a need to be old and fall asleep before dawn, because a woman can no longer snort blow, dump her own party and rock out in another state -- all in one evening. Because, frankly, this isn't 2001. Yet, you don't want to ruin the mood. Instead of screaming last call! and snatching up half-filled drinks out of your friend's paws (you rotten person, you), I raise the lights a hair, I serve coffee, tea or an sweet wine. The closing drink lets your friends know, politely, that the party is winding down. The music dulls. I tend to start the winding down process a half hour to 45 minutes before I'd love for people to depart. And this usually works.
What are your party tips? These scratch the surface, but are important! And stay tuned, as I'm planning a post on party etiquette ("Don't hoover all the damn shrimp!" "Don't scream into your cell phone!").