How to Throw a Party Both You and Your Guests Can Enjoy, Part One

My backyard dining area, ready for dinner guests.
Part One:  Party Principles

   If you read my last post, you know that I had a party this weekend.  Since the weather here in New Orleans has finally turned lovely, we hosted the party in the backyard which is a much larger space than our living room/ dining room.  Even feeling the ill-effects of overindulging with out-of-town friends the night before the big event (first party tip I can give you....try to avoid prepping for a party with no sleep and a hangover), I had a wonderful time at the party, partly because years of experience as both party guest and host has given me the tools to throw a successful party with not a ton of effort, and I thought I share some of my tips and tools with you.  Today I want to talk about what I think of as party principles, the basic guidelines to keep in mind while entertaining.
The very epitome of  a gracious hostess, Cleopatra makes sure guests' needs are attended to, especially if that need is to be licked by a very large dog.

Party Principle 1:  The Most Important Parts of a Party Are the Guests.

   The main thing is to keep this thought in mind as you go through the time, effort, and expense of throwing a party:   it's all about the guests.  And by that, I don't mean so much about catering to their comfort, though that's part of it.  What I really mean by keeping the guests in mind is to remember that the point of a party should be to hang out and have a good time with people you really like and enjoy being with.  To use a term from my Southern Baptist upbringing, a party is about "fellowshiping" with friends, neighbors, and relatives.  While good food, stiff  drinks, and pretty decorations are nice;  in the end, it's the people that matter.  My point is: don't let a drive for perfection -trying to have the perfect decorations, the perfect menu, the perfect playlist become so overwhelming that you forget that the purpose of a party (though it does require work) is for people to have fun.  And while there are exceptions, for most guests as long as there is plenty of good food and booze, they're having fun, even without handcrafted party decorations and elaborate floral decor. So remember:  Even if your cake falls flat,  you forget your flowers at the supper market,  and the brisket is overcooked----if your guests are laughing and you literally have to kick the last ones out because they are having too much fun to leave---your party was a successs.  

     So while you're making your lists, prioritizing items, calculating your budget, all this should be done with your guests' preferences in mind.  For example, if you're hosting a bridal shower, you would focus much more on decoration and food presentation than if you're hosting a superbowl party.  In the latter case, most of your guests,  want food and beer, but don't really care so much how it's presented as long as there is plenty of it and its eating doesn't require them to take too much attention from the game.  In other words, every time people come over, ever single thing doesn't have to be perfect.

In New Orleans, almost everyone has a stocked bar ready for guests to drop by unexpectedly.

Party Principle 2:  Preparation is key.

      The second main principle of successful party giving is that planning and preparation are key.  When I've been to the events of novice party givers, the problems that come up are almost always related to a lack of preparation rather than an unforseen event.  So here are some preparation tips:
I designed my backyard to be a fun, colorful space for parties.

I think that a stack of plain white plates is an entertaining staple.
  • If you plan to entertain a lot, party prep should be ongoing.  By that I mean keep the fact that you like to entertain in mind at all times during stocking your home and decorating.  For example, I'd suggest that everyone lay in a stock of plain white dishes and serving pieces in a variety of sizes before picking up patterned pieces.  And when tempted by pretty dishes to ask yourself what they co-ordinate with and if they fill an entertaining need.  If they don't actually blend with previous purchases or if Bill Clinton was still president  the last time you made the menu item that the dish is designed to hold...pass.  Same thing with designing your home:  unless you entertain every single week, I wouldn't suggest building your home around it, but there are things to consider.  For example, if you like to decorate seasonally and do plan to entertain, keep furnishings in public areas neutral in order to blend with a variety of decorations.
  • Never make an untried recipe the centerpiece of party.  That's just too much risk and pressure.
  • Buy party food at least the day before the party;  after arriving at home from the store, immediately cross reference with menu and recipe to make sure that you have forgotten nothing.  It's horribly frustrating to have to frantically run to the store at the last minute to grab a key, but forgotten, ingredient.
  • Do a dry run of the food table, placing appropriate serving dishes to make sure that you have room for everything, leaving space for suprise guest contributions.  If you have to place the food in different areas, make sure that each one is complete with napkins,  utensils, plates,  and condiments.
  • If people are bringing things, keep a list and co-ordinate.  I've made the mistake of saying, "It's not necessary, but if you'd like to bring something, just bring whatever," and have paid for it with an unbalanced table of 15 kinds of potato salad but only 2 sodas, or 16 bottles of coke but an ice chest running low.  So either take care of everything and insist that they need to bring nothing, or get a specific response.  It's also acceptable to request a guest's speciality if they offer to bring something, but be prepared to reciprocate.  
  • Keep the kitchen as clear as possible in the moments pre-party.  Clean as you prep, and always, no matter what, keep a cleared area and some serving dishes set aside for guests who bring flowers that need attention or food that needs preparation.

Party Principle 3:  Be Ready for Disaster
My first attempt at cupcakes.  Luckily I had a Plan B.

  The main thing here is again the right mindset, which is:  unless it involves an ambulance, police car, and/or a firetruck being called, it's probably not really a disaster.  Party fouls are just that, party fouls--things that are annoying, but usually not a big deal.  The main key to having a disaster not spoil the fun for everyone lies in being prepared.

  • The first step to dealing with a party foul is to try and prevent them.  So one thing to do is to remove delicate valuables from table tops to a safer place.  Make sure food tables are located as far from fragile upholstery as possible, and focus on non-drippy, non-staining food.  In other words, don't serve red wine and chilli in the same room as your new white silk sofa.  If you're having a large, heavy partying crowd, now is not the time to drag out your grandmother's crystal--save that for a sedate dinner party and run to the dollar store for some wine glasses.  Honestly, it's a use your head moment---think loss prevention.
  • To help avoid spills, stains, and watermarks, make sure that your table surfaces are as clear as possible, that you have tray tables available, and that coasters are clearly visible on every fragile surface.  I've been to parties at houses where there are so many knicknacks that you have to balance everything on your knees because there is no free surface.  Furthermore, if you're serving a buffet meal rather than nibbles, if you don't have places for most guests to sit at a table to eat, make sure the food is easy to eat without cutting---this is not the time for brisket or pasta.
  • While a host should enjoy their own party, one needs to remember that one is on call---a host should be on constant alert during the party, looking for drinks that need to be placed on coasters, spills that should be attended too, etc.  This is key, because most spills aren't a problem if they don't sit for a long time.   Bussing empty glasses and plates also makes sure that surfaces remain uncluttered.  Important because cluttered surfaces = spills. 
  •  Have an emergency cleanup kit prepared and easy to get to.  You'll need a broom and dustpan, clean white cloths, a dustbuster or similar, stain remover, club soda etc.
  • Remember, how you respond to an incident is key, whether the disaster is the result of guest error, unforseen circumstances, or your own carelessness.  This is a case of never letting them see you sweat.  Even if you want to cry, scream, or curl into a fetal position, the correct response should be to take a deep breath, smile, calmly cleanup the situation, and soothe the offender.  
Ready for guests.

1 comment:

Marlo said...

This post is really good. I'm going to print it and keep it as a reference.

Can you recommend some buffet foods that guests love the most and ones that don't do as well?