Until a few weeks ago, I was a grown woman who had never thrown a dinner party. I had never even cooked for anyone other than myself. This astounded my friends who are more inclined to hostess events where cocktails are mixed and large quantities of lasagna are served. What can I say? Some people are just naturally wired to entertain, while some of us like to sit back and be entertained.
Then one Saturday afternoon, while watching a string of 30-minute cooking shows on Food Network, I felt something tickle inside me. As Rachel Ray, Ina Garten, and Giada De Laurentiis in succession prepared meals on my TV screen, I suddenly became aware of my inner hostess. She was begging to come out. She wanted me to end my selfish practice of single meal preparation and experience this "Fabulous Girl" rite of passage into "Fabulous Womanhood." It was time to host an honest-to-goodness dinner party.
The next day I went online to find any tips or steps that would help make my first dinner party experience a non-traumatic one. I found Linda Larsen's Busy Cooks guide on About.com. According to her very thorough instructions in "Basics of Cooking Lesson #12: How to Plan a Dinner Party," a date, guest list, and theme must be decided on first. I chose to throw my Epicurean soiree on a Wednesday night, hoping it would give my guests a little twist to their usual mid-week routine. I also don't work on Tuesdays or Wednesdays so I knew I could spend both days shopping, cleaning, and bolstering my low confidence level.
For the guest list, I consulted The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum (Broadway Books, 2001) by Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh to see what they have to say on that subject. "The best hostesses develop a reputation for creating events that put new people together." Well, most of my circle of friends knows each other and I didn't feel comfortable inviting, say, a coworker I hardly know. Since this was my first attempt at cooking for a few folks, I had to consider who would be the most forgiving. So I tried to just make the guest list as eclectic as I could. My friend Susan came to mind first, as she is a former bartender and a great conversationalist, two criteria for a perfect dinner party guest in my opinion. Next came Steve, who Susan knows, and his partner Patrick, who I didn't know. Then I thought of inviting another couple, Jane, who I rarely get to hang out with, and her boyfriend Jeffrey. My last invite went to my friend Oliver, who none of my friends have met. He would bring that "new" quality to the event.
With the date, guest list, and informal dinner party theme determined, it was time to get the word out. I found a variety of opinions about when to send the invitations for a simple dinner party. Seasoned party-givers send invitations between two to three weeks before the party. The crucial element for when to send invitations seems to be making sure there's enough time for the guests to RSVP. And, for a simple dinner party, either the Internet or the phone could be used. I chose to send out personal email messages about two weeks before the day of the party. This worked out well as I didn't know Jane had created a new e-mail account, and had Susan not told me this, I would have misunderstood Jane's lack of RSVP. Must keep address lists up-to-date! Thankfully I found out this information in enough time to make sure Jane knew about the party and that she could make it. Another reason I chose email for my invites was because I could attach a map to my place. But in the future, it may be a better option to just pick up the phone.
Now the seriously hard part arrived, deciding on what to feed these people. I went straight to my favorite source, Food Network. Not only do you get to see the food prepared, but they also include all the recipes on their Web site. I chose recipes from one of Giada De Laurentiis' "Everyday Italian" shows. Grilled flat-iron steak with a red wine butter saucewhat Giada called "elegant" and easy"—grilled summer squash, and smashed potatoes with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. I didn't have a need for one before, but suddenly I wanted one of those stovetop grills that Giada used to cook the steak and veggies. Fortunately, I had a gift certificate to Williams-Sonoma. I was on my way.
Then, when I started "practicing" the meal for the big event, little snags started showing up. I got the grill, but I discovered it's not easy to find flat-iron steak, even in a city that advertises itself as having everything. I checked four of my local grocery stores and gourmet food shops and not one was selling this newfangled steak. So I ended up testing out my new grill with a thick sirloin. I also ended up with a thick cloud of smoke, so thick it set off my smoke detector. I don't think my guests will appreciate this, I thought as I went around the apartment, opening up every window and the front door.
When I went to smash the potatoes, I realized I didn't have a potato masher. When I went to make the red wine butter sauce, I realized I didn't have a strainer to strain the onions from the sauce. I also realized I didn't have enough dinner plates or glasses. I didn't have serving utensils, cloth napkins, a table cloth, proper salt and pepper shakers. I didn't even have toothpicks! That alone would damage any promising party hostess' reputation.
Fortunately, there are places like Fishs Eddy that sell vintage and custom ware for cheap. I was able to find all the essential items I felt I needed for the dinner party, including a platter, two additional dinner plates (a buck apiece) and salt and pepper shakers, all for around $30. I then hit other stores for what I consider the non-essential items, the stuff that wouldn't ruin my party if I didn't have it on the table. Anything like a tablecloth, linen napkins, proper silver serving utensils. For this stuff, I went to Target, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. These stores have great sales so don't forget to browse through their "clearance" stuff.
Knowing there must be a less chaotic way to cook dinner for more than one person, I changed my entire menu and instead chose for my main course an easy chicken dish from Rachel Ray's "30-Minute Meals," on, what else?, Food Network. Again, I tried the dish out beforehand just to make sure it was something this inexperienced cook couldn't mess up. After the grill snafu, I decided there would be no grilling at this party, I went with a simple green beans with almonds recipe I found in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Knopf, 2000). Which reminds me of my first tip to any new cook or hostess: always have a cookbook within reaching distance of your kitchen. I was constantly checking The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The All New Joy of Cooking (Scribner, 1997) throughout this adventure.
When Tuesday, the day before the party came, I cleaned my place and rearranged my furniture so my guests could sit around a table instead of on the floor. I also imagined the party from start to finish, checking off on one of my many lists anything that I may have overlooked, like toothpicks. Wednesday morning I spent at the grocery store. And then at another grocery store. And still another grocery store. My tip #2: Start buying the ingredients a day or two before the day of the party. I found out the hard-on-the-calves way that I couldn't get all the ingredients at one store. I think I walked at least 10 miles around all those aisles.
Finally, it came time for the big event. My guests arrived right on time and they bought me lovely flowers and bottles of wine, just like guests do on TV shows! I was running behind, which brings me to a tip not mentioned enough in any of the books or Web sites I consulted: Give yourself plenty of time to prepare all that can be prepared ahead of time and allow enough time to relax before the guests arrive. I should have blocked out at least 30 more minutes for the meal preparation. I ended up giving myself only 20 minutes to shower and dress. And I didn't get to sit down and breathe before the first bell rang. My tip #3: However long you think it will take to prepare the meal, tack on another 30 minutes just in case. Miraculously, I had everything on the table an hour into the party, an exact cocktail hour. Yet, I felt frazzled getting it all together while making sure the guests were enjoying themselves. I guess it takes practice to work these kinks out.
It turned out that Jane and her boyfriend couldn't make the party, which was fine with me. I don't think I prepared enough food for two more mouths to feed. And I don't think I could have been able to handle more than the four guests that showed up.
I found myself channeling my grandmother, who would always downplay her meals so people wouldn't expect them to be any good. There's my tip #4: Don't brag about your cooking. Everyone seemed pleased with how the food turned out (even though I'm still a little miffed that the chicken wasn't as juicy as when I first tried out the recipe.) And the conversation, the true test of a successful evening, flowed wonderfully. Special thanks to Susan and her great icebreakers, "What are the Best and Worst Jobs You've Ever Had" was a particularly good crowd-pleaser. That's my 5th and final tip: invite Susan to all your parties.
When the party ended and my guests all departed, I found myself stuck with tons of dishes to clean. It took forever but it gave me time to reflect on the evening and what to do if I host another dinner party. I liked having the quiet time to pat myself on the back just for doing it.
I haven't made up my mind if I will have another dinner party any time next week, but maybe in six months I'll be up for hosting another one. It took a lot of hard work and hard-earned cash to pull this thing off. And, I want to try out some new dishes first; dishes that I could cook blindfolded. But I've come to the conclusion that you don't really have to be the best hostess to have a successful dinner party. You just have to have great friends. Friends who will forgive you if you accidentally give them food poisoning.
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