The Lost Art, Part One
July 14, 2012
Good evening. I’m so glad that you could join us. Let me take your coat. Would you like a drink?
Both of us were raised by pastor’s wives; and let me tell you, no one knows how to throw a party like a pastor’s wife. Seriously. From an elaborate Christmas Day feast for 15 to Wednesday night rice krispie treats for the kids and everything in between, a pastor’s wife is always ready to entertain at the drop of a hat. As such, Bailey and I were introduced to the art of entertaining early on, and we have both been hosting events for many years.
I first experienced the sweet taste of party throwing in the seventh grade when I decided to have “The Shindig”. I spent months planning this party; the menu, the music, the guest list. I even typed up formal invitations and requested RSVPs. Shockingly, the chubby effeminate boy isn’t the most popular kid in the seventh grade, but I didn’t care. I invited all of the cool kids and they all came. If I remember correctly, dinner was a taco bar. There were Christmas lights aplenty, and I definitely had the soundtrack to the movie Grease playing for much of the evening. The Shindig was a success. What stuck with me the most, though, wasn’t what happened at the party, but what went into it. That is, the planning, the process, the ritual, the formalities.
Dinner parties have unfortunately become a thing of the past- not because people don’t enjoy them, but because they no longer know how it’s done. Below is a simple list of some of the do’s and don’ts of entertaining that we have learned along the way. I briefly discuss cleaning the house, preparing guest quarters, planning and executing the perfect menu, drinking, the table, and what to do when guests bring their children into your home. I finish by sharing a few tips on how to be a better guest.
- Never allow company to enter a messy house.
- Establish two different levels of cleanliness: The Deep Clean and the 30 Minute Clean. Our 30 Minute Clean consists of tidying, dusting, sweeping, mopping, scooping the litter box, and wiping down all bathroom surfaces. The Deep Clean involves scrubbing base boards, light-switch plates, and the like.
- Clean the inside of your microwave.
- Don’t forget about the places that you can’t see. Is someone tall coming over? Wipe down the top of the fridge.
- If you have a fly strip hanging somewhere, by all means take it down.
- Dust underneath conversation pieces. If there is a chance that someone could pick it up, make sure it’s clean under there.
- Keep the ceiling fans spinning so that your guests won’t be able to see how disgusting the blades are.
- Organize your medicine cabinet. You guests will snoop wether you like it or not. Do you want them to find your hemorrhoid cream?
- Make sure that spare toilet paper and a plunger are accessible. There are few things more embarrassing than having to ask your host where to find the plunger.
- It is not tacky to have a book of matches in the restroom, just in case.
- If you have a guest bedroom, keep clean (or at least clean enough) sheets on the bed at all times (unless you have a cat;
in which case, leave the pillowcases off until they are needed, for a guest bed pillow is a cat’s favorite place to sleep). You never know when a dinner guest may have too much to drink or when a passer-through may need a last minute place to crash.
- Keep books or other reading material in the guest bedroom. Your overnight guests may not be as drunk as you are when it’s time for bed, so make sure that they are able to entertain themselves in your absence
Make it special with some little touches. Even if you don’t think that they deserve it, everyone enjoys being well taken care of. Place a candy dish on the nightstand or a small vase of cut flowers on the windowsill.
- Don’t keep secrets hidden in the guest bedroom furniture or closet. Everyone likes to snoop, especially houseguests.
- Have a plan, even for something as simple as a backyard BBQ. Create a menu, write a thorough shopping list that is organized by where you will find items in the grocery and/or liquor store (produce, canned items, baking supplies, whiskies, etc.), and establish a realistic timeline for your event.
- Freeze. Making a shepherd’s pie for you and the kids tonight? Make two and put one in the freezer. It’s always good to have at least one Entree Plan B on hand in case of emergencies
- Repeat. Next weekend’s dinner guests don’t know what you served at your party last month. Did you make a sensational homemade lasagna that your company couldn’t stop ranting and raving about? Make it again. And again. And again.
- Always think seasonally (and buy locally). Don’t serve asparagus in January or Brussels sprouts in May.
- Be creative. Make your event memorable by serving something that most people don’t eat on a regular basis. Top a salad with homemade dehydrated vegetable chips, feature carambola in your watermelon boat, or serve a spicy dessert (chili chocolate meringues with habanero brittle and bitter lime syrup, perhaps? Yes I did. And it was for Easter!).
- Always make your own salad dressing.
- My mother taught me that when it comes to making food for others, you must always pretend that everything turned out exactly as planned. “Oh yes, this is supposed to be crispy. Isn’t it wonderful?”
- Hosting a potluck sort of event? The biggest mistake that you can make is to say something like “Bring a salad” or “Can you supply a dessert?” You must be as specific as possible: “Please bring a Greek pasta salad with orzo, lemon zest, capers, and artichoke hearts. No tomatoes” or “I’d love if you could make a baklava with pistachios, rose water, honey, and dried cherries. But if that’s too much to ask, just pick up a 2 liter of root beer and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream…”
- Don’t cut the fat. Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean that your guests have to be.
- Do your best to accommodate individual’s dietary needs without making any significant sacrifices. Assume that your nephew’s raw/vegan/celiac girlfriend has some grapes in her purse. If she doesn’t, throw her some lettuce and tell her to shut up.
- Always be wearing an apron when your dinner guests arrive, preferably one that is homemade.
- If you will also be serving a breakfast to the same guests the following morning, it is perfectly acceptable to incorporate leftovers from dinner. Turn the uneaten roasted root vegetable crudités into a show stopping frittata or slice up the leftover half pan of cornbread and create some cornbread French toast.
- If you are serving cocktails, buy a bag of ice (even if your freezer makes it for you). If you are not serving cocktails, please do not invite us.
- Maintain a stocked bar. It doesn’t need to be extravagant, but always keep at least two dark and two clear liquors on hand, as well as red and white wine.
- Hide a few wine coolers in your refrigerator’s produce drawer. Keep them hidden because wine coolers are embarrassing. Keep them on hand in case a tasteless, soon-to-be-former friend drops by and requests one.
- Have a signature or “house” cocktail, one that represents you as a host. Make it something accessible without being common. Your signature cocktail is an easy way to judge your guests. Do you really want to be friends with someone who doesn’t like bourbon?
- A good cocktail should contain at least three ingredients.
- A splash of seltzer water and a lemon wedge improves almost everything
- Don’t forget the fruit. Lime and lemon should always be at the top of your guest list. If possible, invite blood orange and grapefruit as well. (BONUS COCKTAIL: Did you forget to pick up champagne for mimosas? Don’t worry- your brunch is far from ruined. Combine equal parts good quality gin and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (including pulp) in a champagne flute. Top with a splash of seltzer water. Sip and enjoy.)
- Be aware of your guest’s limits and do not make everyone’s drinks the same strength. You don’t want to have three cocktails in the same time that it takes your lightweight guests to finish one, so make yours thrice as strong as theirs.
- Just like for your potluck dinner, if you are asking guests to help provide alcohol for your event, you must specify what type of wine, liquor, or beer you would like them to bring, and how much of it. If you simply say, “Bring a bottle”, and end up with 1.75 liters of birthday cake flavored vodka and a 6-pack of 4Loco, it’s your own fault.
- Know your glasses. Highball, lowball, white wine, red wine, martini, snifter, port glass, flute, saucer, stein, old fashioned tumbler, etc.; they all serve a purpose. Do note, however, that while it is crucial that you know the rules of glasses, these rules needn’t always be followed.
- Offer coffee. If you are not a coffee drinker and/or do not have a coffee pot, invest in a small French press or Melitta pour-over coffee cone. Coffee is essential.
- Assign seats to ensure that all of your guests enjoy stimulating conversation over dinner. Denote seating assignments with place cards- and be creative about it! For one Thanksgiving, my mother had an intricately decorated turkey-shaped cookie resting on every salad plate; on the chest of each turkey was iced the name of a guest. Another year, she wrote guest’s names on dried maple leaves in extraordinary Sharpie calligraphy. The leaves were then glued to small gourds that matched those nestled in the centerpiece. I’m not kidding.
- Do not keep salt and pepper on the table. If I had wanted the scalloped potatoes to taste saltier, I would have added more salt before serving them to you, thank you very much.
- Adorn your table with a centerpiece. Flowers are always a safe choice, but feel free to think outside the box.
- Do not be ashamed of paper napkins or paper towels. No, they are not the most sustainable choice, but sometimes they are the right one. If a guest decides to make an issue out of the fact that you expect them to use a paper napkin, after you have invited them into your spotless home (which was cleaned using microfiber rags) and cooked them a beautiful meal, passively-aggressively replace their paper napkin with a clean dish rag (not a cloth napkin) and discontinue your relationship with them.
- It is acceptable to tell your guests that your event is not child friendly.
- If someone does bring a child into your home, it is not your responsibility to turn your house into a daycare center. Do not keep broken glass on the floor, of course, but all of your antiques and knickknacks can stay right where they are. It is the responsibility of the parents to keep their children in line.
- Always keep a few child entertainment devices on hand. Lincoln Logs are good. I also recommend creating a craft tin. To do this, place some crayons, pom-poms, stickers, safety scissors, and a glue stick in a tin. Take it out, along with a few sheets of brightly colored construction paper, whenever someone needs to be entertained for a while.
- Bring something, even if you are told not to. Your host(ess) gift doesn’t always have to be alcohol; a jar of preserves or a bottle of nice olive oil will surely be appreciated.
- Sincerely offer to help. Your host should graciously decline the offer, but be prepared to chop vegetables or set the table if asked.
- If you are vegan or gluten free, never assume that your host is aware of this huge inconvenience. Be sure to communicate any dietary restrictions to your host at least one week prior to the event; and if at all possible, offer to bring a dish or help prepare the meal(s) in some way.
- Do not bring a guest without first running it by your host.
- Leave the bottle! If you brought alcohol (which you should have), do not, under any circumstances, take any of it with you when you leave the party.
- Bring a Claritin. I’m sorry that I forgot to tell you that we got a cat, but I would love if we could talk about something other than the fact that you’re allergic to cats.
- Dress up. Unless you are absolutely certain that the event is super casual, don’t wear jeans. Wear clean shoes and be prepared to take them off at the door. This may be a good opportunity to show off those zany new stockings.
- If you wear a hat, take it off when you enter the house; unless, of course, it is a Beth Beverly Original.