I have never been fond of proper behavior, formal attire, or tradition for tradition’s sake. While others relax with a glass of wine half an hour before the party starts, I inevitably get caught in the shower — albeit with a glass of wine in hand — as my first guests arrive.
What follows is a collage of observations, experiences and recipes culled from my action-adventures as a host, gallivanting gourmet, and charter member of the “unmonied elite.” If I have not “been there” or “done that,” I do my best to refrain from addressing, undressing or redressing whatever “that” might happen to be. It may seem ironic that these musings have been assembled into t rather conventional format of a book on entertaining. But in the world of crystal goblets and recipes for filo triangles stuffed with foie gras, who else is going to stand up for your rights to serve dinner on mismatched plates, poach salmon in your dishwasher, or dine like Elvis.
The formula for fulfillment in the Surreal world of dinner partydom is simple: Shop for the freshest available ingredients, master a few select dishes and a killer Caesar salad, buy some spirited Cds, invite a wild-card guest, and train your friends to arrive with fine wine. Follow my suggestions when they feel right but never fear to veer off the egg-beaten path. Missing ingredients, mismatched utensils and haphazard kitchen gaffs will all melt into comic irrelevance amid the smoke and sizzle of a little spontaneity.
So grab your corkscrew, forget everything the tea and crumpet contingent taught you about traditional dinner party etiquette, and let the Surreal times roll.
invitations . Entire books have been complied on various versions and permutations of the formal printed invitation. But as technology marches on, answering machines have replaced embossers as the conventional method of summoning your guests. Phone messages are fine for most parties, for special occasion, or specifically themed events, it’s fun to establish the spirit in advance with a clever or mysterious invitation.
guest list dynamics . Think of your party as a chess game. To play, you need an assortment of kings, queens, bishops, knights and pawns. It’s the “chemistry” between the pieces that makes the evening work. Too many of one piece, regardless of its rank or “moves,” will not lead to checkmate.
In addition to an eclectic mix of personalities, I like to invite one outspoken, controversial “ringer” whom I can count on to invigorate the conversation. I make a mental note of these types when I meet them at other events, and I lure them to my parties with the promise of fine food.
Mixing people from differing woks of life — economically, religiously, ethnically, spiritually, vocationally, as well as those who are single vs. married — can add to the party dynamic if handled with forethought. Be conscious not to invite someone from such a distant planet that they don’t have a chance of connecting with the other guests. Also, beware of inviting introverted friends who do not know anyone at the party — they may require more of your attention than you have to give.
There are many ways to spice up a guest list. Share the party with a friend and each invite half of the guests. Invite people you have never entertained before. Or intentionally challenge the gender, generation or sexual-orientation gap.
In the chess game of life, the triumphant host sends each guest home feeling like a king or queen — never the pawn.
send in the clowns . On some occasions, it’s fun to introduce “new blood” to a party at the point when the energy level typically wanes. If you have invited “vibey” friends who can’t attend dinner because of previous commitments, turn a negative into a positive by asking them to come late for dessert or after-dinner drinks. Their arrival will inject your party with a surge of fresh vitality.
neighborhood watch . For intimate dinner parties, pacifying the neighbors should not be a concern. However, if your intimate intentions evolve into a massive social event, it is wise not to ignore your intimate neighbors. Inviting them is the old standby. Unfortunately, it’s not always desired, or appropriate. An advance note or phone call can work wonders, as will the habit of bringing them goodies after the party, thereby creating a Pavlov’s dog effect (put up with the noise, get a treat).
children[I like children] if they’re properly cooked.
— W.C. Fields
I have always found that children act most like adults when being treated like adults. This is not to say that you should serve them the same truffle risotto that you are serving your other guests. But if kids are expected at your dinner party, create a party for them that’s just as special as yours. Dress up a room they can call their own; treat them to goodies they might not get at home. Rent some movies. Bake some cookies. Roll some peanut butter and jelly wheels. Pop some popcorn. Toss in some arts and crafts supplies and party hats and leave them to their own devices (avoid too much sugar, or the whole room might explode).
If you are expecting more than a coupler of kids, a communal baby-sitter can be a worthy investment. If you don’t have kids at home, conduct a quick sweep of low lying surfaces for breakables and sharp corners.
Involve your own children in as much of the preparation as possible (i.e., designing name tags and decorating the room). Then give them an early lesson in strategic negotiating by allowing them to stay up until a designated time in exchange for a guaranteed, unaccompanied retirement. Of course, if they’re old enough to help clean-up — well, that’s another story.
pets . Although it may seem hard to believe, not everyone welcomes a pet’s “signs of affection” with the same enthusiasm as its master — particularly during dinner. Keep pets elsewhere and feed them before the guests arrive so that they don’t nibble on appendages, apparel or someone’s lamb chop.