(Over 20 months on this one, Bobby. See if I invite you to my next party! Ha! Ha!)
It’s happened. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to have a big ol’ shin-dig, an informal get-together, or even just a few folks over to try your famous creamed chipped beef on toast. Or maybe it was the dreaded last-minute call from out-of-town guests who want to drop by, or you let slip an impromptu offer to “Come over to my place” after work.
This sort of thing could send you into a Foofing tizzy.
But if you can get a handle on a few indispensable no-shit elements of Party Foofing (courtesy of the One True Goddess of Foof <insert sparkly sound-effect here>), you, yes you, can be prepared for any possible kind of social gathering!
Obviously, party Foof is in the details… as is ‘most any Foof… but I don’t just mean coordinating cute napkins to balloon bouquets. *shudder* Long before you’ve even decided on a theme, menu or guest list, a true Foofer will have these basic how-to steps under his/her belt just as force of habit. So be it a Seated Dinner Party for Twenty or a last-minute group of friends over to hang out and gossip, these essential elements should be your starting point.
Have a stash of emergency snacks. I don’t mean keep a tin of caviar and jars of crème fraiche and smoked fish and the fixin’s for Roquefort puffs on hand at all times. But learn what staples you can tuck away for even the most last-minute of noshes that will still dazzle unexpected guests or cover for food mishaps. And it can be as fancy or as frills-free as you want. I usually keep on hand a couple different kinds of olives, cornichons, a chunk of aged parmesan or some blue cheese, some plain crackers, and a package or two of chocolate-dipped cookies… trite, tried and true, but they can be honked up in countless ways (and can be stored for months if properly sealed). It takes less than two minutes to throw olives into a couple of little bowls and use them to flank a little cheeseboard of bits and crumbles, but by using quality ingredients and serving them with a little la-di-da, even if it’s at the last minute, it’ll still taste special. The Husband-Type Man has his own stashes of weird sodas, strange candy, and import chocolates, and combining the pedestrian Greek olives from Mr. Marcel’s with weird gummy marshmallow things from Chinatown gives our spread a little extra… something.
And improvise! Remember that a few unusual condiments can make a boring plate of crackers or bread special; serve in a basket, with little side dishes of hummus or tapenade or garlic olive oil or spicy mustard or toasted sesame oil or the contents from other various bottles and jars that’re crammed at the back of your pantry since you got that Gourmet Cook Gift Basket from who’s-it at the office. Or go for ultra-tacky, and don’t be afraid to throw together a little plate of canned meat and cheese cubes and Vienna wieners stabbed with frilly toothpicks, grilled-cheese sandwiches cut into quarters, or carrots and celery sticks served with peanut butter; if done with tongue firmly in cheek, it won’t matter that so-and-so always has those perfect little veggie platters and ranch dip when people come over. Or be extra creative: a big bowl of freshly-popped popcorn, s’mores, cookie dough, PB&J sammiches cut into triangles, a basket of kiddie snacks like fruit roll-ups and granola bars…. Heck, plow through the fridge and cupboards and see what you have: a package of frozen raviolis can be boiled, breaded and baked, then served on toothpicks (with that can of tomato sauce, heated and seasoned and served as dip) in about 15 minutes. The frozen pie crusts can be cut into wedges, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and baked into treats just like my great-grandma used to make. Broil the canned pineapple chunks with bits of bacon on skewers and serve with some of that bottled sweet-and-sour sauce at the back of the fridge. Chop up some tomato and herbs and mix it with cream cheese and serve it spread on those stray Melba toasts.
If you have the room, you can keep all sorts of stuff in the freezer for emergencies: pre-made phyllo things, egg rolls and pork buns, little sausages, flatbread from Trader Joe’s or fancy blinis, the aforementioned Roquefort puffs. Most nuts will keep for months in the freezer in Ziploc bags or sealed containers, and only need to be sprinkled with seasonings and warmed in the oven. Frozen spinach and/or artichoke hearts can be easily thawed and used for last-minute dips.
I also have stuff for at least one last-minute meal: usually a supply of homemade pasta sauce a la Strega Nona. That way, when a family gathering goes over-long or a couple friends’ve been hanging out all day, and everyone says “Hey, I’m getting hungry,” it’s easy as anything to cook some penne or spaghetti, thaw out a pint of awesome tomato sauce made with tomatoes and basil and parsley from my own garden, and grate some parmesan over it. Presto!
Have a stash of supplies, too. A few serving-size things. Napkins. Plain candles and holders. A couple table cloths or runners. It’s very easy, even if you’re butt-ass broke, to keep on hand a few odds and ends for entertaining. Pick up a colorful, inexpensive table cloth and some coordinating woven napkins when you’re browsing around that Mexican bazaar. Pick up some small rice dishes in Chinatown that you can use to serve candy or sauces or as a centerpiece with one floating flower. Get one or two big, heavy serving spoons for cheap at the antique store or flea market. Hit your mom up for the serving bowls she hasn’t used since 1982. Keep an eye out on post-holiday sales; there are plenty of things that look non-holiday specific that you can grab the day after Halloween or Easter or Rosh Hashanah for dirt cheap: little blue and silver candles, napkins printed with flower sprays, bright red candy dishes, white twinkle-lights, gold foil doilies. If you can afford to splurge, think of what you use or look for most often when party-planning, and invest in that one beautiful set of wine glasses, or the gorgeous woven basket to use for serving bread, or a chafing dish, or good, basic table linens. Set aside a drawer or storage box or space in a cupboard for Party Particulars so you can root through things when needed.
But realize that “party” does not have to = Get Everything at the Party Supply Store. C’mon. Show a LITTLE creativity! Don’t just schlep to Gonzo Parties ‘R Us and get the same coordinated paper plates, paper tablecloths, paper cups, paper decorations- If you’re having a theme party, use your own touches, not just everything that comes in the Pre-Party-Packaged display at the party supply place. If it’s poker night at your pad, don’t get EVERY SINGLE THING in the “casino” themed section. Any moron can do that! Sure, maybe the poker-chip plates’re kinda cute… but it gets to be a little much when you’ve got the green plastic table cloths and skirts, the green plastic plates and red napkins and red-and-green-and-black poker chip cups and the napkins that look like money and the plastic martini glasses and the foam dice and plastic coins- Add your own personal touches, instead. Maybe some mini-floating olive candles in your own, real, non-plastic martini glasses on a tray-centerpiece, or that deck of nudie-girl playing cards your brother got you as a joke one year scattered and displayed under a glass table top, or peanuts and mini-M&Ms served individually in your scrabble of souvenir shot-glasses, or a swizzle stick “bouquet” in a highball glass, or even just a couple Hunter S. Thompson books in the middle of the table. If you’re absolutely set on using those lavender plastic plates for Mother’s Day Brunch, don’t overly-coordinate them with the lavender plastic silverware and paper cups and napkins; instead, get a small bouquet of flowers in creams and purples and yellows, or get clear plastic silverware and tie them in individual sets with a sprig of dried lavender and twine, or use a couple packages of inexpensive cloth napkins from the local discount store, or use a tablecloth that is mostly blues with touches of lavenders, or get white plastic cups and decorated them with flower stickers or little lavender sparklies or even just your guests’ names in silver Sharpie. Real party Foof does not come in pre-coordinated sets, dammit! So put down the huge basket of “Over the Hill!!!” crap and think for a change!
Organize beforehand. You don’t have to be freakishly Type-A, but do have some basics in order before things get chaotic. Know what serving dishes and bowls and baskets you’ll need. Set them aside with proper serving stuff, so you don’t end up trying to find the little spoon that goes with the fruit compote at the last second only to discover someone else used it to serve salsa and it’s now in the running dishwasher. Have room in the fridge for stuff once it’s prepared so you don’t squish the tray of stuffed cherry tomatoes under the pitcher of sangria. Know what needs to be cooked/baked at what time and at what temperature, so you don’t have to juggle the hot baked triple-veg and chili dip which has to bake for 25 minutes at 350* with the stuffed beef tenderloin roll which has to bake for an hour at 425*. Have a place for all the drinks so your guests don’t have to pick through your messy kitchen to unearth a Coke from behind a big bowl of cold Asian noodles and under a platter of pork buns in the fridge. Have lots of trash bags and towels and Tupperware. Know what you’re going to do with the leftovers.
Know your guests… and your party! Some things just won’t work, so think about it first before you just jump into planning. Throwing a bash for your moppet’s 5 th birthday? Then don’t plan a three-hour fête with a sit-down meal. Inviting the parents over for a first meal on your new dining-room table? Skip the plastic plates and barbecued hot dogs. You may love the idea of a big Mexican fiesta, but if you’re having a family birthday party and your cousin’s going to bring her asshole racist husband who always makes lots of offensive comments about Mexicans, maybe you should re-think the Fiesta for a group of non-asshole friends instead. Heart set on a fancy, formal, five-course dinner? Have it for four friends instead of your hyper-critical mother who bitches about everything you’ve ever cooked, ever. Your sister freaks out about the possibility of food poisoning over any mayo-based picnic fare? Serve a smaller portion of the potato salad in an iced chafing dish with a cover, switching often with other still-cold dishes of potato salad kept in the fridge, or just skip the potato salad altogether. If your boy is shy and uncomfortable around large groups of people, don’t have a giant birthday party for him, no matter how well-meaning you might be. If David and Rudyard just broke up, don’t invite David and his new boyfriend to the same party as Rudyard. Your friend the animal-rights activist prolly won’t enjoy your big New England lobster-pot supper. If most of your friends usually can’t be arsed to put forth any effort on anything, then don’t plan a big costume party… or plan the big costume party, but have a trunk or a rack of thrift store bits and weird accessories, and let everyone dress up when they arrive. If you want to have a fun, adults-only buffet on the back patio, but most of your friends won’t come without their precious rugrats? Hire your 15-year-old cousin to babysit the brats in the den with a stack of DVDs and a “do not open this door under penalty of death” rule. If Dad can’t even manage a few hours by the pool without getting drunk, or if your friend is a recovering alcoholic, then hide the heavy stuff deep in the bowels of the garage and don’t have anything but bottled water and lemonade and sodas at your Labor Day cookout. If you’re having your study-group over to watch “Birth of a Nation” before your Thursday class discussion on W.E.B. DuBois and Black Reconstruction, make sure there’s room for everyone to sit and take notes comfortably, extra pens and pencils at hand, and unobtrusive drinks and snacks nearby (and maybe things to throw, considering the movie); don’t break out the booze until after the film, or try to coordinate a fondue-pot at the same time. A blowout bash to watch the big game may not be the best place to invite your fussy, uptight neighbors/coworker/friend’s new spouse, even as a gesture of goodwill. And certainly take down the Homoerotic Barbie Displays and hide particular books and things before having a work party or Aunt Lois over for dinner! Just… think first.
Bathrooms are a fact of life. So make sure you have at least one available to your guests. And make it guest-worthy, for God’s sake! Make sure it’s clean. No, I mean clean! Have plenty of hand towels, soap, toilet paper and tissues in it. Don’t have your makeup or prescription bottles or shaving stuff out on the counter. Don’t have anything gross or embarrassing in the trash can. Keep a lightly (LIGHTLY!) scented candle burning in there not only so the bathroom’s easily visible when guests’re bumbling around the hallway trying to find it, but especially, in case anyone has, well, problems. On the other hand, though, make sure it’s comfortable enough to function as a bathroom. After a party at a mutual acquaintance’s house, another friend was regaling me with details of the friend’s wife’s (emphatically hers) guest bathroom: perfect lacy-lacy pinky-pink embroidered hand towels precisely aligned on the racks, one perfect fluffy matching rug, one of those perfumy-air freshener things blasting an overwhelming aroma of rose, a tiny bar of perfect untouched embossed soap in a spotless soap dish, sink and toilet so immaculate one could lick them without squeamishness- “I felt like… like I couldn’t PEE in there!” he said. Make sure the soap and hand towels can and should function as soap and handtowels, not décor.
Don’t overlook other Obvious Necessities. Your guests will need places to put coats and purses and bags. They’ll need tables or countertops to set their drinks down. They’ll need napkins. They’ll need comfy places to sit. They’ll need places to park their cars. If you have people over to your pad more than once in your lifetime, you should know this kind of stuff. Have a spare room or a closet with empty hangers or a chair for guests to dump their coats. Make sure there are easy places for them to sit and sip a drink and chat, to set down a plate, to wipe their fingers or their shoes. Have coasters and extra napkins around. The little trash can tucked away under the kitchen sink ain’t gonna be enough; make sure you have at least one rubbish bin in a relatively obvious and/or visible place. If you recycle bottles and cans, make sure the separate bins are visible and/or labeled. Keep the drinks cold and someplace with easy access, and keep lots of ice and glasses or cups available. Give good directions and explain where to park, or which subway to take, or how to call you on the apartment intercom, or if they need to park in a lot or garage that charges a fee. Walk guests to the car or subway station after if you don’t live in the suburbs. Keep the porch light on and the walkway clear.
If you’re hosting a party, then HOST! Don’t wander off and check your email or play computer games. Don’t flip on the telly. Don’t spend all your time gossiping with your best friend or making out with your partner or showing so-and-so from work your new flat-panel TV. Don’t sit in front of the CD player changing music for hours on end. Don’t stay in the kitchen washing dishes and cleaning up. Don’t chat on the phone. Don’t make your guests feel unwelcome. I don’t care if you’re annoyed that your girlfriend invited six women from work over to giggle and watch reality TV and you’re going to have a big fight with her about it; don’t sulk and huff and slam around and be an ass. I don’t care if you hate it when your husband does the last-minute “Sweetie, I invited Jane and Jim and Joyce and Jervis over tonight. I hope you don’t mind”; don’t take it out on the guests and make them feel like shit. It doesn’t matter if you hate having people over or are in the middle of an argument with someone or are pissed that the goat-cheese and tomato tartlets didn’t turn out right: you are the host, whether you like it or not and whether you want to be or not, so suck it up, smile, chat, and treat your guests accordingly. You can fight about stuff with your partner or complain about how much you hate what’s-her-name’s obnoxious girlfriend AFTER everyone leaves.
Don’t be perfect. Make use of what you have. Unapologetically. Everything doesn’t have to matchy-match and be silver and crystal. Everyone doesn’t have to love every song on your playlist or every dish on the buffet. The napkins do not have to be color-coordinated to the balloons, streamers, paper plates, tablecloths and goodie bags. You can have mismatched patio furniture or mismatched glasses. Besides…
It’s not about spending money or slaving away in the kitchen. Some of the worst parties I’ve been to were ones that were so obviously trying to impress guests with either how expensive things were and/or how much obvious effort they were putting into the party. Having poached oysters and Cristal isn’t going to make your party good. Serving catered hors d’oeuvres on the silver platters and chafing dishes you got from your wedding registry isn’t going to make your party good. Spending the entire duration of the party in the kitchen preparing pan-seared tuna steaks and individual dessert soufflés for two dozen guests isn’t going to make your party good. In fact, it might make people uncomfortable because you’re clearly trying too hard. Parties aren’t about your insecurities; they’re about having fun with people you enjoy. I mean, der. However…
Make nice. Of course it’s easier to clean up after a party if you serve all the condiments in their own plastic tubs and glass jars because then you don’t have to wash dishes, but… why not treat your guests like guests, like they’re special and deserving of special treatment? Even if it’s just a casual gathering, put the sauces and spreads in little dishes instead of just plopping the jars with knives sticking out of ‘em in the middle of the table (GRAMMA!). Take the cake or cookies out of the plastic boxes they came in and arrange them on a tray of your own, with a garnish or a doily or a dish of fresh berries. Serve the chips and onion dip and M&Ms in bowls, not in opened bags and plastic containers strewn around a table. Lay out the silverware – even if it’s plastic – neatly or arrange it in cups, don’t just heap it on the table. Sure, you might not have a set of matching glasses, on the one hand, but on the other, don’t just throw a whole mess of different glasses out on the table, higgledy-piggledy; try going through all your mismatched glasses and only using those that are clear, or those that are 8-oz. size, so there’s some sense of cohesion. Use nice touches and attention to details.
For that matter…
CLEAN UP BEFOREHAND! Sure, you’re busy. Aren’t we all? But if you’re having people over, at least make sure that the parts of your home where you’ll be entertaining are free from animal hair, laundry, shoes, toys, plates from dinner last night, food bits, and general crap and clutter. Empty the litter box(es) and trash cans, put the hair dryer and ironing board away, open a couple windows to air the place out, and run the vacuum! If you haven’t had time to do the laundry, then cram the overstuffed baskets in your bedroom closet. If the office is a mess, then close the door to it tightly before people arrive. I don’t care if you’re a casual person, or even a self-proclaimed slob; if you’re having people over as your guests, you have to show some consideration for THEIR comfort as well. It’s a little much to ask your company to wash a couple glasses first before they drink something because you couldn’t manage to find time to do it before everyone arrived. O Nancy My Nancy has a horror story about attending a baby shower, and the hostess had piles of dirty clothes all over the living room, interspersed with all sorts of Fisher-Price toys on the floor, right where the party was taking place, because “You know how busy I am with two kids and all.” Charming. I’ll bet those guests felt comfortable and welcome. And I once went to a graduation party for a friend whose mother was bragging about making her homemade tamales or egg rolls or something… but when we got to her house, not only had nothing been picked up, but the kitchen was FILTHY, with pyramids of crusty dishes and smelly trash. Y’ think anyone wanted to eat anything that’d been prepared in that kitchen? So scrub all the pee sprinkles off the toilet and stubble out of the sink, scrub the kitchen, and pick up the dog shit in the yard. If that’s too much for you to handle, either hire a housekeeper for a couple hours, or don’t have people over.
Have a back-up plan. Or two or three. Sometimes, stuff goes wrong. I have a stash of good, reliable delivery menus, so if something goes amiss with a meal, no one will starve. Yeah, it’d suck if the big bowl of homemade chili fell and broke right before serving, or the oven was turned up too high and the veal scaloppini got burned, or the oven wasn’t turned on at all and an hour later there’s a lukewarm pile of now-inedible balsamic chicken and peaches in white wine sauce. It may not be what I planned, but I know I can get some tasty pad thai and spicy beef salad from Natalee Thai in a half-hour. So deal if something goes freakishly wrong, either on a small or grand scale. If the fresh raspberries that you wanted to serve with sorbet are all moldy? Go without, or use the raspberry preserves in the fridge. If the electricity goes out? Light candles and sing old summer camp songs. If someone spills a huge bowl of something all over the dining table? Smile and move the second course to the back patio while you wipe things up. You invited twenty people over for a BBQ but only three showed up? Shove the superfluous chicken breasts and hamburger patties in the freezer, enjoy the party anyway, and, when the it’s over, use the tons of leftover veggie tray and fruit basket stuff for casseroles and fruit smoothies… or hell, invite a different group of people over the next night for a last-minute Help Get Rid of Leftovers bash. Or you invited twenty people over and thirty show up and you can’t afford to order more pizzas? Quickly whip up a big pot of spaghetti.
This is where those emergency stashes of hors d’oeuvres can be quite handy if you manage to burn all the perfect puff-pastry things you slaved over, btw.
Maintain perspective. Yes, things will go wrong sometimes. It’s okay. It’s not ALL RUINED FOR GOOD if you forget to put out the sliced fruit with the dessert pastries. You haven’t FAILED AT PARTY PLANNING if you run out of diet sodas or beer. Really, it’s okay that your girlfriend forgot to get the specific brand of cocktail sauce you wanted, or if none of your guests really wanted to play along with the whole guess-my-identity/clothespin game you planned. It’s not All Your Fault!!! if the cable goes out when you’re hosting your Oscar Party, so take a deep breath, call that wonky-looking bar down the street and see if their telly’s working and if they can accommodate a fun-loving group of Oscar-watchers who’re SURE to buy lots of drinks, and then drive the gang over. Aunt Leslie starts bitching about how there is too much bean dip or not enough ice? Yeah, but Aunt Leslie bitches about everything, so don’t freak out over it. The neighbor comes over and has a fit because the music’s too loud? Smile and turn it down; your guests understand dickwad neighbors, and hell, you can use that to start off a fun conversation about Neighbor Mishaps. Little Ravyn Kiandra spilled her mommy’s glass of red wine all over your sofa? Break out the Spray-and-Wash, cover the couch, shift guests to the dining room, and next time don’t mix parties, kids, drinks that stain and your home. You slaved for three weeks planning this awesome Luau-themed party and got all these cute decorations and made up games and cooked and fixed drinks and bought all this food and got up early today to cook some more and only six people came when you invited, like, over thirty!? It sucks that people are rude that way, but it’d be even shittier to spend the whole party complaining to the guests who DID show. Have fun, send home extra brownies and pies with your guests, save the cute decorations and games for another party, and politely let the guests who stood you up know they hurt your feelings and cost you money and time by their rudeness. Don’t freak out because so-and-so threw away a beer can instead of putting it in the recycling bin. And if stuff like this greatly upsets you, well, then, no shit, don’t throw parties.
And maintain a sense of humor. Not only will things go wrong, sometimes it’ll be stupid. And that’s okay, too. Mishaps can be quite funny, and even help loosen up a gathering. Plus, no real friend or loved one will constantly belittle you for the once time you (read: The Husband-Type Man!) accidentally poured a whole bottle of wine in the cheese fondue instead of one cup… unless they’re assholes. Skim off the extra wine, grin, and enjoy anyway! We sure did! *hic*
Be different. If your family or friends always have those big, white, sectional paper plates from the Grocery Superstore at every single gathering, do something different for your own get-together: use square plastic lunch trays or even (*gasp*) use real dishes for a change. If every dinner-with-friends you go to is always salad, entrée and dessert, then host a communal dinner instead, like a hot-pot or sukiyaki. Grandma unfailingly orders the same Costco meat-and-cheese tray…? When it’s your turn, get meats and cheeses from a local deli or farmer’s market. Birthday dinner at Mom and Dad’s is always the same perfect roast beef served on the family china, with tasteful music on in the background…? Try a picnic in the backyard and play their old records and dance on the patio. Don’t just duplicate what everyone else does.
And don’t just duplicate what you did last time or the time before. An old friend of my mom’s used to have the same exact stuff at every party she hosted. On every occasion, there would always be the same 7-layer dip and basket of chips, the same kind of cheese-and-crackers tray, the same four veggies with the same two dips, the same punch in the same punchbowl with the same ice-ring, the same things set up on the same tables the same way, no matter if it was the 4 th of July pool party or the New Year’s Day Brunch. Boring!
Finally, and most no-shit of all?
Have fun. Or at least try to. After all, it IS a party!