So, you want to throw a totally kickass party, for some reason or another — but where to start? Right here, my aimless friend, right here. These are the basics, the tips you can’t (or at least, really shouldn’t) go party-throwing without.
The single most important thing to remember about throwing a party is that being a host is about giving. You are performing a generous act. You will, therefore, be required to do some work, not only before the party and after the party, but also during the party — while your freeloader friends do nothing but enjoy themselves. It can be a harsh pill to swallow, but remember: showing your friends a good time was the reason you decided to throw a party in the first place, right? Right?
Maybe that’s not the reason. Maybe you want to throw a killer party so that people will like you, or to celebrate your own awesomeness, or because you want to be like one of those people on MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen.” The first reason is easily incorporated into showing other people a good time, as is the second, really; if you’re operating on the third principle, though, you are beyond help altogether, and I have nothing more to say to you.
What’s a good reason to throw a party? Well, to celebrate — to celebrate pretty much anything. Birthdays, awards, holidays (religious, secular, or pagan), and the end of anything (college, the school year, your favorite television show) are all good reasons to celebrate. Are you moving? How about a moving-out party? Just moved? A housewarming party is in order! New job? Use that first paycheck to show some of your nearest and dearest a good time! The basic principle of a party is that you’re bringing people together, and the reason is secondary to that. Maybe you want to throw a party because it’s Tuesday and you’re bored. Fair enough. I support that. Maybe you’re away from home for a holiday that is traditionally associated with friends, family, and large quantities of food; throw a holiday party for all your similarly stranded friends! And if they’re all going home for the occasion, well, throw a party for yourself and invite random homeless people or put an ad on Craigslist.*
I like to throw parties for other people. Sure, celebrating oneself is fun and all, but who wouldn’t love to have a friend put in the effort to celebrate you? It’s a gesture that people remember, and if you’re looking to increase your shares in the friend market, it makes other people think well of you; after all, if they just went to a party you threw for that random dude, you might throw a party for them one day! I sincerely hope that no one reading this site is actually of that desperate mindset, but if you are, I’ve got you covered. Also, if you throw a party for someone else, you don’t have to worry as much that nobody will show, because you’re pretty much guaranteed that at least the guest of honor will show up for the ego-stroking. (If he or she does not — barring, say, a major car accident en route to your soiree — then he or she is a terrible, terrible human being, and you are better off without that person in your life. Everyone affirmed enough to continue? Alright then.)
Now, let’s say you’ve already got plenty of friends, and you want to shuffle up and deal out the biggest bash any of them have ever seen; or maybe just treat a select group to a memorable dinner party. Either way, if you’re the host, you’re the laborer, and you should be prepared to dig in. Any good, well-executed party takes a lot of planning, and that falls squarely on your shoulders. Parties also generally require food, drink, and mood-setting of some kind; all that effort also is yours to bear, unless you happen to be able to afford a caterer — in which case you can probably also afford a party planner, so why are you here at all? Anyway, on top of all that execution, there’s also going to be cleanup, which is probably the least fun element of throwing a party. Unfortunately, it still needs to happen, and once again, it’s all on you.
But wait — what about your crowd of friends? Can’t they pitch in? Sure, they can, and if they offer, take them up on it! If you’re planning a party with a group of people, you can make it a potluck, spreading the burden around; if money’s a little tight, you could ask your attendees well in advance (ie, at invitation time) if they each wouldn’t mind chipping in a few bucks, and it violates no standards of decorum to alert guests that the party in question is Bring Your Own Booze. But as the host, you are singularly responsible for everyone else having a good time at your party, and it will not do to act whiny or put-upon.
Here’s a little example of what’s appropriate host-behavior and what’s not:
“Hey, this dessert platter is really heavy. Can you give me a quick hand getting it out on the table?”
This is vastly preferable to dropping stuff on people.
“Hey, y’know, I’ve put a lot of work into this party and I’m totally exhausted. I think you guys should do the dishes.”
If a guest offers to do some dishes, you would be nuts not to take them up on the offer (although I do recommend one polite refusal before giving in and allowing their assistance). But you should never, ever ask for it. Expect nothing of your guests except that they be receptive and polite. Sometimes they won’t even be that, but if they can’t appreciate the party you put on for them, well, they’re crappy friends.
Hopefully I haven’t discouraged anyone from throwing a party. It’s a lot of work, yes, but it’s fun work, and it’s immensely rewarding to see people you care about having a good time as a direct result of your own efforts. The next sections go into much greater detail about specific types of parties and the sorts of things that you should consider if you want to host one. The most important ingredient in any successful party, though, is a dedicated and enthusiastic host. Any number of party-disasters can be transmuted into funny stories to laugh about later if you maintain a good sense of humor in all your efforts at entertaining, and the most important thing to offer all your guests is nothing more than a sense of being truly welcome.
*Actually, this is a terrible and potentially disastrous idea.
- Invite lots of people who like drinking.
- Buy a shitton of booze.
- Play some loud music.
- Be sure you have plenty of toilet paper.
- Enjoy, and try not to black out!
(It’s also a good idea to warn your neighbors before you throw a party like this, as they tend to get loud. Nothing kills a good buzz like the cops showing up.)
The cocktail party is a classic, and a great way to invite multiple groups of friends to the same party; after all, they can just splinter off into groups and ignore each other if they wind up not getting along! Just be sure you have enough space in your party pad to allow this to happen. Thirty hate-filled strangers crammed into a studio apartment can be a recipe for disaster.
In general, I like to have a theme for just about any party I might throw. The theme is most strongly articulated in the menu; if I’m going for a Mexican party, no one is required to wear a sombrero, because that would be ridiculous, but other, more subtle themes can be used more pervasively. One theme that I love is “American Classics”; it works not only for the food and drinks, but also the music and the dress code. You could do it up like Diddy does, and have a White Party, or you can borrow from any ethnic tradition whose food you think your friends might enjoy eating. If you’re throwing a party for a holiday, the theme is pretty straightforward; you’re more than welcome to use whatever jazzy variation of that holiday you might like (for instance, “A Nutcracker Christmas” versus “A Margarita-Karaoke Christmas”), but the holiday itself is still your baseline. Themes can also be drawn from history (the salon), collegiate experience (pimps and hos), or even a movie or television show with which you and your friends might be particularly obsessed (because you are socially awkward). Whatever theme you settle on, just remember that it should be fun, easily accessible, and not alienate any of your guests — so if you decide to throw down a shindig on the theme of “God Cries When Two Dudes Hold Hands”, just be sure not to invite any of your gay friends, even if they’re still in the closet. Actually, if you throw a party like that, you should probably only invite Ann Coulter, and then no one else will want to show up anyway.
A good cocktail party must have some good background jams. Cocktail parties are about socializing with a lot of people, movement and breadth, and that necessitates a soundtrack. My standby is always jazz. Jazz is kicky and energetic without being overbearing; it doesn’t have lyrics, so it doesn’t interfere with people chatting; and structurally, it’s improvisational and conversational — just the kind of creative spontaneity you want to inspire at your party! If you’re short on jazz tracks, go out and download some Coltrane and Miles Davis and give it a go.
Of course, jazz might not be quite fitting with your theme, so you might want to use a different genre of music; that’s okay too. If you’re throwing a casual, Mexican-themed party, replete with taco dip and margaritas, you might want to dig up some Manu Chao or Buena Vista Social Club (yes, they’re Cuban, and excellent if you want to throw a full-on Cuban-themed party, but doing that up right requires digging a large pit and roasting a whole pig, and few people are equipped for such efforts). You could go with cheesy mariachi music, of course, but as a general guiding principle, you want your music to not be of the sort that is going to irritate and annoy your guests all night long. You can use any kind of music you find appropriate to your theme, but just try not to let the music become the Carrot Top of the evening.
If you want to use classical music but don’t know much about it, do your research before putting together your playlist. Classical can run the gamut from mellow-to-the-point-of-Valiumesque through to cracklike-music-that-led-men-into-battle. Rachmaninoff or Bizet might turn your mellow salon into a spirited and potentially violent debate, while something like Water Music might set your guests’ heads nodding off to sleep.
Generally, I don’t recommend anything too hard-core in the way of rock or rap, unless you know that all your guests enjoy such music. And unless it’s on theme, the same goes for country. A good dictate in the way of music: don’t play crap. And if you have to, just don’t play it too loudly. Actually, no type of music should be played too loudly at a cocktail party; people should be able to converse without shouting. What do you think this is, a raging kegger?
Ah, the meat of the matter — if you’ll pardon the terrible pun. Sure, it’s possible to throw a party without much effort into the food, but that party would probably suck, and this web site isn’t called “How To Throw Parties That Will Probably Suck”, is it now? For a memorable cocktail party, chips and dip won’t cut it. Even if it’s Kettle Chips and artichoke dip.
Because this is a cocktail party, people are going to be mingling all night long; the type of food you serve should promote that. Mingle-ready foods are easily transportable and do not require multiple (or, ideally, any) utensils to consume, and they aren’t hugely messy when picked up with fingers. Shrimp cocktail is a classic example of such a food. Steak, buffalo wings, and coq au vin are not. Also, the food should be related to your theme; often, the food will be the clearest articulation of the theme, especially if the theme is something ethnic (Note from 2019: please explore foods from cultures not your own without being an appropriative asshole. Also, my repeated use of the word “ethnic” here is really shitty.). Ethnic-food themes can be fun and easy to assemble a menu around; a Spanish tapas party, for example, practically writes its own menu, and there are plenty of cookbooks out there to help you in such a practice. A pan-Asian party can include sushi and egg rolls, both items which fulfill the terms of being mingle-ready foods. A Mexican party could include guacamole, five-layer dips, and quesadilla bites, but it would be unwise to have burritos at a cocktail party. Holiday themes can borrow from traditional holiday menus, and if you’ve gone and invented your own completely non-food-related theme, then you can have a field day with your food.
A cocktail party menu isn’t just about the food, though; after all, it’s a cocktail party, so you cannot in good conscience forget the booze. Drinks and food should be aligned to avoid any gastric discomfort in your guests — a sushi-and-black-russians party may sound like a swanky and fun way to commemorate the end of the Russo-Japanese War, but it will be neither when partygoers start turning your bathroom into a vomitorium (and trust me, that pairing leads nowhere else). Pair your cocktails carefully. Sometimes, the drinks themselves will be the centerpiece of the menu, as in a wine tasting, beer tasting, or Bloody Mary party; in such cases, the food is present merely to slow the inevitable descent into debauchery by absorbing some excess alcohol. Starches are highly recommended for such instances.
The key to a successful menu at a cocktail party — which is frequently a larger party — is variety. All of your guests will not love everything that you serve, but if you’ve got a good variety, everyone will find something that they like. I once threw a tapas party for a large group of friends that included some very picky eaters, one of whom seemed only to enjoy the toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomato. Yes, I wanted her to love and slavishly praise everything that I had invested so much effort in preparing — but at least she didn’t starve, right? And it’s not like I dwell on her gastronomic snubbing seven years later or anything. But, back to variety. Always, always, always have a few vegetarian items when you’re throwing a party for a larger group; you might not be able to cater to all the vegans or gluten-frees out there, but it’s a good general practice to assume that you’ll have at least a few vegetarian guests at any party of a certain size. And if you’re like my brother, who thinks vegetarians are silly and cows were put on this earth because steak is delicious, then remember my edict from “The Basics”: being a good host is about giving, and about swallowing attitude like that.
Lastly (for this sub-topic, at least — you should be so lucky), the difference between a cocktail party and a dinner party is that you’re not serving a full meal at this one, or at least you don’t have to. If you’ve got a cashflow problem, then (a) I feel you and (b) just start the party a little later in the evening. If your invite instructs people to arrive at 9 PM, your guests will presumably get hungry earlier than that and deal with that whole expensive, complicated “eating” thing of their accord (if you run with a particularly dim crowd, it’s perfectly polite to indicate “hors d’oeuvres will be served” as a nice way of letting people know that the pickins’ will be slim). Don’t misunderstand me — you should always have food of some kind, and as I said earlier, of a better and more interesting quality than chips and dip, but that doesn’t have to mean expensive, elaborate, or copious in amount. Hell, a fondue party sounds swanky and retro (and French, of course, and there’s nothing more obviously aspirational than that), and that’s just a matter of buying some cheese, bread, fruit, and chocolate (probably in the $20-$30 range, for as many people), then cutting up the bread and fruit and melting the cheese and chocolate. If you can’t handle that kind of exertion, you’re probably the type of person who really shouldn’t be throwing parties anyway. Seriously. Another low-budget idea might involve celebrating an event or time period notorious for its lack of gastronomic excess — for example, a party sometime near St. Patrick’s Day on the theme of the Irish Potato Famine. Serve sweet potato fries, yukon gold potato wedges, and blue potato hash browns, maybe with some fingerlings roasted with garlic, rosemary, and olive oil; then you’ve got some darkly ironic humor and tasty, witty food all in one — hipster paradise, now with extra carbs! — and all for cheap (alternately, you can invite your pals to don thirties garb and serve Great Depression Shoe Leather Stew and Newspaper Sandwiches, although all the ketchup in the world will not make either of these as delicious as sweet potato fries).
You’ve got a killer theme, and the music, food, and drink to support it — now your party just has to look the part. Most of the time this will involve arranging the food in an attractive fashion, providing good seating, and setting up some mood lighting, unless the theme of your party is “Flourescent Lights are the Best Kind”, in which case I do not wish to be invited. Ever. Anyway, food presentation is important, and should be considered as you plan your menu; I frequently like to sketch my food out as I’d like it to look while I menu-plan, but you might regard this technique as obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, or any one of a number of other compound words describing various destructive psychopathologies. If so, that’s okay; I won’t judge you for it, even though you have clearly judged me. Slacker.
Seating is important for a cocktail party, especially if you want people to actually stick around. Sure, standing around and chatting is fun and all, but as any honest woman with functional nerve endings will tell you, kicky, cocktail-ready heels start to hurt after a while (such a woman can also tell you many other things, but this is the one that’s relevant to the topic at hand). If you’re concerned about how much seating you should have, know this: ideally, you’ve got a place for every ass present to plant. Barring that, provide as much seating as you can without turning your place into an auditorium.
Mood lighting is probably the most important element in your decor; after all, we all spend most of our lives in garish, flourescent-lit boxes; if you want your party to be special and distinctive, what’s an easier step than changing the lighting? Also, putting your shitty apartment and cheap tableware under half-light will automatically make it all look much better. If you live in a house or apartment with dimmer switches, use them. They are your friends and provide instant mood lighting with almost zero effort. If a dimmer switch is naught but a pipe dream to you, fear not: there are plenty of other methods to achieve that same ambiance. First and foremost, forego overhead lighting. If you’ve got some cool lamps, you can use those, but be sure none of them are too bright. Christmas lights — the small white ones; anything else just looks tacky — are a good, cheap standby, especially if used unexpectedly (i.e., not hung obviously on the walls but coiled inconspicuously in a corner), and rope lighting can achieve a similar effect without looking quite so dorm-room-chic. IKEA has some great, cheap lighting solutions — mellow mood lamps for under ten bucks and the like. If you’re committed to looking hip, it’s worth checking out. Finally, there’s the issue of candles. Candles have become a bit overused and can seem cliched, so use them unexpectedly. One easy way to do this? Old-school tapers (aka “the tall skinny kind”), rarely used by anyone under the age of forty anymore. Truck on over to your nearby thrift store and find a kitschy candelabra for fifty cents, and you’re set with an unexpected and hip centerpiece. Alternately, I do like votives, particularly set floating in water; in water they have the decided advantage of being infinitely easy to clean, as the wax doesn’t stick to anything. Ease of cleanup is always worth keeping in mind.
Other elements of decor to keep in mind: do you want any floral arrangements? This doesn’t have to be a big thing; if the weather’s right, just go outside and nab some nice-looking flowers. Keep them fresh and be sure they don’t drop shit into the food. Nobody likes dead flowers or pollen in their crudite. If you’re concerned about your tableware — or if you just don’t have tableware — thrift stores and IKEA are lifesavers; when in doubt as to whether something is tasteful in an ironic, retro way, or if it’s maybe really just garbage, go with basic white or black in traditional sizes and shapes. It might not be trendsetting, but it won’t get you laughed at. And remember that, unless you’re throwing a formal party, there is no shame in paper plates (the dessert size is appropriate for cocktail parties; the dinner size is not), paper napkins, and plastic silverware. It’s cheap, it’s easy to clean up, and you should go plant a tree when the party is over so as to offset your unnecessary contribution to the world’s environmental problems; but hey, moral guilt is a totally different animal than social shame.
THE GUEST LIST AND INVITATIONS
So, you’ve come up with a pretty rad theme; you’ve got the menu to match, and you’ve pimped your crib (as happens when MTV shows have unprotected sex). Now, who the hell are you going to invite to this hoedown*? Well, first of all, it helps if you already have friends who enjoy your company and are willing to spend a night bathing in it (not literally). If not, you can try to make such friends before your party, which you should plan on holding at least a year from now. Trust me, if you haven’t made any friends yet, it will take you at least that long.
Anyway, when it comes to cocktail parties, I subscribe to the “more is better” philosophy; after all, this party-format is all about the mingling, the intellectual and social cross-pollination, the making of new friends, and the chance that you might get soused and make out with a cute stranger. All of these are (a) generally good things and (b) greatly enhanced by a large and diverse crowd. Think of how many people your place can comfortably hold, and write this number down on a piece of paper**. Then, invite twice that number! Half of them probably won’t show up anyway.
Key to the “more is better” attitude is being open to unexpected guests. Unexpected guests are the height of rudeness at a sit-down dinner party, but you’re doing something much more casual than that, so chill out! As I said in “The Basics”, being a host is about giving, bringing people together, and putting the needs of your guests ahead of your own. In short, the party isn’t much about you at all — so if you’re the type to take the kind of diva attitudes demonstrated on that sure sign of the apocalypse known as “My Super Sweet Sixteen”, look elsewhere for your party advice. After all, if we as a society have learned anything from “Wedding Crashers”, I like to think it’s that the uninvited guests can sometimes be the very best kind (also: calling your friends names derived from children’s breakfast cereals is both hilarious and endearing, particularly if you are Vince Vaughn). The only legitimate reason to actively exclude someone is if there might be real problems with other guests — fisticuffs, catfighting, and the like, all of which should be avoided at all costs at any social function, scenes from “The O.C.” notwithstanding. You’re also allowed to exclude that guy who drinks all your best booze and then starts shouting racial slurs and playing grabass, because that guy kind of sucks and shouldn’t be your friend anyway. Other than that, adopting the open-door policy is a good attitude for any host.
So let’s say you’ve figured who the hell might be deserving (and appreciative!) of your backbreaking effort — how to alert them of this honor? This has evolved into a particularly vexing question, what with the options of Facebook, emails, evites, Myspace (god help you), or any of the old-school methodologies that involve either speaking or actual penmanship. Because a cocktail party is a larger and more casual affair, I find that mailed, written invitations are entirely unnecessary — and I can sense your relief from here. If your guest list consists of whatever random strangers you can wrangle, posting a flyer in a public place, such as a coffeehouse bulletin board, telephone pole, or bar bathroom will get the job done nicely, but if you have a more specific target in mind, contemporary technology avails itself nicely for such a task.
It would be nice if invitations were a one-step affair, but I’m afraid that’s not the case, as our Ritalin-addled generation requires constant reminders in order to remember pretty much anything. Therefore, I like to take a multi-pronged approach into harassing my guests*** into attendance; a Facebook note to announce the party, followed up by a mass email, or an evite followed up with a Facebook message as a reminder — or just a constant stream of progressively sterner emails. Either way, when you’re being this impersonal, you need to make multiple attempts to really brand your party into people’s memories. Requesting an RSVP helps. Just don’t expect all your slacker friends to hear (or read) something once and then remember it three weeks later. If they were that on top of shit, they wouldn’t be such bums.
*”Hoedown” is not an MTV show, nor is it related to unprotected sex.
**Invite about this many people, give or take a few.
***Don’t actually harass your guests.
AT THE EVENT
Finally, the big day! You’ve made some awesome food, gotten your place — all of it; you never know when these people you call your friends will start poking around for a place to hook up, smoke up, or pass out — looking sweet (and yes, “clean” is a necessary corollary of “sweet”), and the people are starting to show up — shit, what did you forget?
Hopefully, nothing, although the most important thing to have with you at the party at all times is a positive attitude. Cheeseball as that sounds, it is absolutely true. As the host, you’re setting the tone for the event; if you forget something in the oven and everyone is treated to the smoke alarm going off, your ability to laugh it off will determine others’. Stay pleasant, maintain a good sense of humor in the face of adversity (or just obnoxious freeloaders), and a few small mishaps will be powerless in the face of your cheer.
If, however, you’re the type of insecure, hyper-compensating perfectionist who would actually do online research before attempting to throw a party, maybe you’d rather just avoid mishaps altogether, instead of having your sense of humor tested. What could possibly go wrong, anyway?
Well, first of all, consider a few things about your guests and what they’ll be bringing with them. If it’s winter, what will you do with their coats? If it’s raining, where can people stow muddy shoes and umbrellas? People carry around all kinds of random crap, and like a good Boy Scout, you should always be prepared for the unforeseen. Have a place to hide anything from shopping bags to small animals to a body (although if anyone does bring along a body, be aware that this might cause an unpleasant odor, and also that your friends are probably felons). Be sure that your bathroom has plenty of toilet paper, and set out two spare rolls– a small detail, but a crucial one; also, be sure there’s enough soap and a hand towel available. And leave the toilet plunger in plain sight next to the toilet. Some people try to hide the toilet plunger, believing it to be unseemly, but there is absolutely nothing more embarrassing to a party guest than clogging the host’s toilet and being without recourse in the form of a handy plunger. Seriously. Also, empty your trash before the big party. Even if you set out a trash can, some drunken idiot will surely not notice its presence and go hunting under your sink for a place to deposit their snotrag napkin. If your trash is already overflowing, you might actually have to handle said snotrag napkin, and nobody wants that.
Now that we’ve covered the possibility that any of your guests might clog your crapper with their shit or give you mucous-borne diseases, let’s move on to happier topics. What should you wear? Well, you’re the host, so you’re pretty much obligated to look cute, but you’re also going to be walking around and doing all the manner of unanticipated bending and stretching and fetching throughout the night, so make it comfortable too. During the party itself, mingle! Try to chat with all of your guests at least once after you’ve greeted them (and yes, you must greet them all). Yes, hosting a party can be stressful, and maybe you’re busy enough pouring drinks and setting out food and getting coats and whatnot — but don’t forget that you invited all of these people because they are your friends, and presumably you enjoy speaking to them. No one likes to go to a party where they don’t get to chat with the host, at least briefly, so do your best to make the rounds.
And lastly, what if your party gets interrupted by an irate call from the neighbors or, god forbid, the cops? Well, hopefully it won’t ever come to this, because at some point in the week leading up to your party you spoke personally to all your neighbors and alerted them as to what was happening. Generally, this gesture is so well-received (mostly because it is so rare) that you will have charmed your neighbors into tolerating whatever shenanigans might ensue. Of course, it’s possible that you live next to total douchebags who will crab at you no matter what overtures you make, in which case you really should try to find a new place. But most people really appreciate the gesture, and speaking to the neighbors in person — rather than just dropping a note under the door — makes the best impression by far. (Once in college, I hosted the cast party at my house for a show that I was stage-managing — right next door to some townies. I knocked on their door and spoke to the older couple about the party, and not only did I get no complaints, but they ended up coming to see the play. A smile and a little graciousness can go a long way.)
The last guests have finally trickled out (at their leisure, because you would certainly not kick them out!), and you’re left surveying the wreckage of a place that, only hours before, looked so lovely. Probably at this point you are cursing all your friends for being such viciously messy bums, and you might also be wondering why the hell you decided to throw this party anyway, because it was clearly way more work than it was worth. To this I can say only: chill the fuck out, dude. For real. Cleaning up after a party may seem like the least fun part of the whole gig, and it probably is, but with a little foresight it doesn’t have to descend into the realm of the painful.
First of all, if any particularly decent friend of yours volunteers to stay and help clean up a little, you should not hesitate to take them up on it, even if you suspect it is really just a ruse to try and get in your pants once all the other guests have left. Try to get this person to do as much work as possible before they realize the stupidity of their offer and beg off, and invite this person to all of your future parties — at least, until they clue into your game and stop offering to pitch in. But always remember that while it is a bit rude to ask people to stay and clean up, it is not rude at all to accept any freely volunteered offers of assistance.
But let’s say all your friends are lame and disapparated at the first whiff of cleanup, sticking you with the whole of it — or, even worse, they are passed out and drooling on your couch (it is totally acceptable to wake them up and force them out at that point, unless they are completely smashed, in which case you should be a responsible human being and not make your friends drive home). Even that’s not so bad, if you approach it with a game plan. First of all, salvage whatever leftovers are worth salvaging; those go in the fridge so that when you wake up hungover tomorrow, there’s a delicious breakfast waiting. Then, grab a large bowl or Tupperware or small bucket and dump all your food scraps in there, before you even start bringing dishes in for washing. If this sounds counterintuitive, here’s the reason: once all your plates are scraped free of food, you can stack things up without spreading the food-mess around. Who knew there could be such strategy to menial labor, right*? Anyway, once you’ve got all your plates scraped down, then they can come into the kitchen. Stopper the drain in your sink, stack the dishes in it, and fill it up with soapy water to give everything a good long soak (if you are so fortunate to live with a dishwasher, the “soapy” portion of the previous sentence can be omitted). The bowl of food scraps can go into the trash or, if you are a decent human being, your compost.
While your dishes soak, go ahead and take care of the rest of the party take-down; put the tablecloth in your laundry bag, collect and throw out used napkins, put the dozens of empty liquor bottles in the recycling, whatever needs to be done along those lines. Then come back to those dishes. If you’ve got a dishwasher, then (a) I hate you and (b) load it up and go to bed. If you’re old-school and dishwasher-free (the way to be!), then hopefully your dishes have been soaking long enough in the soapy — heavily, extremely soapy — water that all you need to do is rinse and then set them aside to dry.
Now, you might think to yourself: why the hell can’t I just pass out after the party and leave all this shit for tomorrow? I’ll be able to face it then! Well, you certainly could, and if you went and got particularly plowed, then falling asleep and dealing with cleanup later is probably pretty much your only option. But if you’ve got absolutely any energy left at all, I recommend doing as much cleanup as possible immediately after the party. Sure, you’re tired while you slog through it, but then there’s no need to wake up early the next day to deal with stuff that hasn’t gotten any more fun while you were dozing. Also, the longer you wait, the crustier those plates get. It’s much more pleasant to be able to go to sleep knowing that your place is back to perfectly normal, no obvious signs or record of a killer party except for the awesome memories that you and your guests should have for years to come. Well done, nervous newbie host, well done.
*The answer, of course, is menial laborers everywhere.
The dinner party is perhaps the most intimidating venture for a newbie host to undertake. Relative to the cocktail party, a dinner party: (a) is a smaller gathering, and so requires greater conversational prowess, or at least the ability to sustain and express a coherent thought beyond the level of small-talk; (b) has a meal in its name, and so requires significant forms of sustenance to be not only present, but edible; and (c) doesn’t have alcoholic drinks in its name, meaning that you can’t rely on the best kind of social lubrication. Add all of this up, and you’d better be on your toes.
Dinner party themes are inherently menu-centric, which can be a little bit of a limit to one’s sense of whimsy. Bummer. On the plus side, though, that’s all I have to say on the matter, at least under this particular heading. Ah, delirious brevity.
Play something that allows people to maintain a pleasant conversation over it, without shouting. Beyond that, it’s your call.
Of course, the menu is going to be the key feature of any dinner party; after all, dumbass, it’s a dinner party. This does not mean, however, that your menu need be staid, formal, or overly complicated by any stretch of the imagination. Pick a theme for your menu (see, I told you I’d come back to it) and run with it, and most of all, have fun with it! (Occasionally, make cheesy rhymes with it.) If you’re short on ideas, a seasonal menu always works well, and seasonality should be considered in any menu you plan. If you’ll pardon my Northern California hippie-shit digression: using seasonally appropriate ingredients is probably the easiest way to ensure that your food won’t suck. If you pick up a couple fresh tomatoes in August, you really only need to slice them up and drizzle on a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, shake on a little salt and pepper, maybe slice some fresh basil — and, to quote Emeril Lagasse, BAM! Vegetable dish taken care of. It’s totally delicious and requires practically no skill at all, and it’s all courtesy of Mother Nature.
But enough with the Alice Waters shtick. Let’s go over some basics. The individual dishes on your menu need not be highly complex, but the menu is going to need multiple parts. First of all, hors d’oeuvres. Because you’ll be serving a full-on meal, these should be simple and not terribly filling; a crudite or cheese plate is always a good, albeit boring, bet. Crackers or vegetables with some interesting tapenade is more my preference, but you can go with whatever floats your boat — after all, the only purpose these appetizers really serve is to give you more time in the kitchen to get the actual food ready. In an ideal world, they are every bit as kickass as everything else you’re throwing down, but if you’re short on either time or cash and have to pick one course to be forgettable, let the hors d’oeuvres be your party’s red-headed stepchild.
The other great things about hors d’oeuvres is that they are ready and waiting when the guests arrive, which means you don’t have to worry about that shit while your guests (lovely, wonderful people, I’m sure) are breathing down your neck, or merely making you frantic with worry by the very fact of their presence. You see, one of the trickiest aspects to a dinner party is the seemingly simple task of getting all your food on the table, at the same time, and at the appropriate temperature. It sounds easy enough to describe it that way, but when you’ve got multiple hot pans on the stove and hungry people waiting at the table to consume and judge everything you place before them, dinner suddenly seems vastly more stressful. How, then, can one circumvent such imminent disaster? Well, my friends, like so many things, it’s all in the planning. Choose your menu carefully. Serve things in courses. This may seem like more work, but it actually makes you look all fancy and talented in addition to (and more importantly) buying you time to get things ready. Don’t decide to serve a bunch of foods that all require last-minute preparation on the stovetop — utilize all that space taken up by your oven and cook something in it already.
A good starter menu is a classic one. Get things going with a simple soup — soups are easy to prepare in advance. There are a number of super-simple vegetable soups out there; red pepper soup, cauliflower soup, cucumber soup, etc. etc. Cauliflower soup demands literally nothing beyond the ability to boil water and operate a blender, and any semi-literate human should be able to handle that much. Then go with a salad. You can use all raw ingredients, chopped in advance, and then all you’ve got to do is toss it (in the non-euphemistic sense), dress it, and serve. A great — and, again, simple — salad style is to get some mixed greens, dice some red onions and chop some walnuts (or whatever nut variety is your preference), and then add some bite-size pieces of your favorite fruits — strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears… the possibilities are endless*! Dress it up with a little sweet & sour dressing (bottled dressing is acceptable), and you’re totally set.
And now the main course rears its ugly head. This is, after all, the main event, and the success of your dinner party is almost entirely dependent upon your ability to produce something at least remotely edible. No pressure! Anyway, if you’re uncertain what you should be serving, once again hit the classics: your meal should be modeled on the kind of thing your grandma would make, minus any jello salads or meatloaf. Basically, if you’ve got a protein dish, a starch, and a vegetable, you are totally set. Roast vegetables are easy enough to be prepared by even the most brainless: get a roasting or baking pan, fill it with your vegetables, drizzle on a little olive oil and some salt and pepper, and try not to let them burn. If it’s the middle of summer and you’ve got some beautiful fresh veg, then it gets even easier: you don’t even need to cook that shit! Just chop it up and watch deliciousness ensue.
The key element to your menu-planning is to remember that you will be preparing these dishes in the same kitchen and at the same time. If you’re roasting vegetables and doing a roast chicken for your protein, then maybe rice — which cooks on the stovetop — would be a good starch. If you’re poaching fish (not recommended for beginners) and sauteeing some spinach with garlic, roasted yams would be both a delicious accompaniment as well as a non-stove-intrusive preparation. If you’ve got a big pork roast that’s going to occupy all of your tiny, crappy oven, well then — how about some couscous and sauteed asparagus with garlic, walnuts, lemon, and black pepper? You can have the pork roast cooking away before the guests even arrive, put the couscous in the pot while they munch away on appetizers, and then get the asparagus sizzling as you clear away salad plates. That kind of efficiency is downright Germanic, and then all you’ve got to do is enjoy your meal before busting out some killer dessert — which you have assuredly prepared well in advance, because such is the advantage of baked goods.
Now, the menus I’ve described so briefly above are fairly basic, and not really thematic. If you’re hesitant to go full-on with a themed menu, remember seasonality. Coherence of flavor can be a theme in and of itself (and if you don’t understand what that statement means, then you really need to start paying more attention to what you eat). If you want to get more whimsical with your themes, remember that your food must still be two things: easy enough to prepare, and edible. If you want to take some risks, I applaud that, but test the waters before your party night — try making your dishes for yourself well in advance, to avoid any unforeseen complications (or flavors). Remember that cookbooks are designed to entice your senses as thoroughly as possible, and something that looks delicious on the page can be shit in your mouth; don’t get too married to something you see in a cookbook until you’ve made and tasted it for yourself. And when you do your test run, be honest about your culinary proficiency — if something takes you four hours, three tries, and every pot and pan you own to get correct, is that really something you should attempt under pressure? The answer, of course, is no, and hopefully you’re rational enough to understand why.
Good standby themes are not terribly novel. Ethnic cuisine is always an easily formatted theme, but again, be sure you practice before the big day if you’re working with flavors or techniques that are new to you (Note from 2019: once again, please explore cuisines from cultures not your own without being an appropriative asshole, and once again, I apologize for my casual use of the term “ethnic” to imply “non-white/non-European.”). If you want to explore a foreign cuisine but are concerned that it might be too exotic for either your guests’ palates or your own skill set, sift carefully through available recipes in cookbooks and the interwebs to find something with familiar ingredients and, well, words. I once threw a Bulgarian dinner party in honor of a friend who traveled to that fine nation to work with the Peace Corps, and found a recipe for a Bulgarian salad highly similar to a Greek salad that I’d made dozens of times before — a familiarity that reduced the intimidation factor to effectively nothing at all. Seek the same. Alternately, nearby holidays always make good themes (I once threw a pre-Thanksgiving dinner party, the weekend prior to the actual holiday; instead of a turkey, I did a pork roast with a pomegranate-cranberry reduction). You can celebrate your favorite books, movies, or works of art by re-creating famous meals; if you’re tragically hip beyond all telling you can even serve a terribly ironic meal of canned meat loaf and canned peas. If, however, you opt for that course of action, be aware that you are serving absolute shit to your guests, and that they are secretly hating you as they choke it down — even if they are far too detached to ever let it show.
*This statement is mathematically false.
Like theme and music (but in stark contrast to menu), this is a simpler category for the dinner party than the cocktail party. At a dinner party, your decor consists of one main element — the dinner table — and this is a fact which raises a crucial question, central to any dinner party: is this a buffet or not? This may seem like a simpler option than serving up courses to guests seated and prepared for judgement, but know that it also means making two tables look nice, instead of just one. Also, it means having all of your food ready at the same time, which — as discussed in the MENU section — can get a bit dicey.
Let’s say you’ve decided on just the one table. You’ve got to set it, which can be intimidating; after all, even if you had the money, would you really spend it on shit like dessert spoons? The good news is that very, very few people will judge you for not presenting a table worthy of nineteenth-century royalty. The bad news is that you still must provide enough utensils and tableware for people to eat easily, so you might have to go grab a few to round out your stash. Dessert spoons (which, for the record, should be placed above the plate, next to the glass, perpendicular to the rest of the silverware) might be unnecessary, but if you’ve got a salad course, then salad forks should be included — and before you get all het up over nothing, be aware of two things: first of all, having separate salad forks makes the work of clearing plates at the end of the course vastly simpler; and second of all, many totally inexpensive silverware sets include salad forks. If you don’t know what a salad fork is, then sharpen up, jackass: salad forks are the small forks. Dinner forks are the bigger forks. Similarly, if you’re serving soup, then soup spoons should be on the table (and if you don’t know the difference between a soup spoon and a teaspoon, then you’re just an idiot). Teaspoons make handy dessert spoons, so there’s no real need to buy anything beyond the basic five-piece silverware set. Steak knives are good if you’re serving the kind of carcass that requires sawing, but otherwise butter knives will suffice.
Plate-wise, you can mix it up depending on both what you’re serving and the level of formality to which you are aspiring. If you’re doing it up in traditional courses, then you can stack your plates — a dinner plate at the bottom, then a salad plate, then a soup bowl; you eat the soup first, then the salad, then the main course, so it’s easy enough to just clear and continue as you go. If, however, you’re doing a buffet or putting the salad out along with everything else, family-style, then you should place the salad plate above the dinner plate (where the smaller bread plate might otherwise go). Because a buffet is a more casual affair, it works, and you can omit the bread plate altogether. If, however, you’re trying to impress your new boss or something similar, go with the first method. When it comes to actually buying all this tableware, there are three basic things to keep in mind: how good it looks, how much it costs, and how easy it is to break. You want something that looks good, doesn’t cost too much, and won’t break easily. Get things in colors that aren’t food-colors — you want your guests to be able to distinguish what they’re eating from what they’re eating it off of. Thrift stores, IKEA, and Target are great go-tos for this kind of shit (as well as serving platters and bowls), so hit them up.
If you’re at all representative of your age demographic, you’re probably saving your pennies for shit like cool vacations, a Wii, maybe a new car. Tablecloths can be expensive and they are almost certainly not on your radar in the least. That’s cool; if you were (or are) currently saving up for tablecloths, something is probably wrong with you. If you’re slingin’ some fancy food to impress your new boss, I’d recommend borrowing the nicest thing you can from whatever family member trusts you enough not to destroy their property. If, however, your guests are slightly lower-pressure, just go to a fabric store, find their remnants table, and grab a big piece of whatever fabric matches the aesthetic you’re going for — and if it’s plain white, hey, that’ll probably be pretty cheap, so, score! Fabric stores have enough variety that you should be able to find whatever you need, and the remnants table is a great place to find fabric for super cheap. Unfortunately, the unsewn edges that can go unnoticed when dangling off your table are much more obvious when you’re using that same fabric against your face, so the same advice does not stand for napkin purchases. Hit up a thrift store and give ’em a good washing, because cloth napkins always look better than paper.
And what of a centerpiece? Dressing up your table with some candles and flowers is a great idea, and one that can be done extremely inexpensively. Most important to remember, though, is the fact that people will be sitting around the table for a sustained period of time, deeply engaged in conversation. Don’t get too wrapped up in your floral arranging and create something so massive that people can’t see each other across the table, much less communicate. Other than that, have fun with it. And lighting-wise, similar rules apply as in a cocktail party: dimmed lights create instant mood. However, be sure there’s enough light that people can see their plates easily. The last thing you need is someone accidentally sawing at your four-dollar-a-yard cotton tablecloth because they confused the red wine stain with the chocolate dessert.
And finally, what if you don’t even have a table or chairs, or even a place to put them? Fear not, you are not alone. When I threw my pre-Thanksgiving dinner party I had just moved into a new place with no dining area. If the weather works for you, throwing a dinner party outside is a fun and exciting change of pace (if you don’t have any room outside, either, well, maybe you should hold off on the entertaining until you can actually seat your guests). I had sixteen people at that meal, which demanded a fairly large table — so I just went ahead and built one, which is a fun and fairly easy project if you’re at all inclined to that sort of thing. If you’ve got a smaller gathering on your horizon, borrowing (or buying — again, thrift stores are beautiful things) a card table or two can be a handy setup. As long as you’ve got a good tablecloth to throw on top, it can still look classy.
THE GUEST LIST AND INVITATIONS
A dinner party is a smaller party than a cocktail party, so it’s a good idea to invite people that you’re pretty sure get along well (or will, if you’re mixing groups). If you’re dubious about the ability of two people to carry on a polite conversation with each other, you’ve got two options: (a) don’t invite both of them to the same party, or (b) seat them at opposite ends of the table (yes, I am deeply, deeply pro-assigned seating at dinner parties). Also, while it might be tempting to invite as many people as you know, remember that dinner parties are intimate affairs that require a lot of work. Don’t over-invite; if people get offended at being left off the list, let them know that you’ve only got so many seats, and you’ll have another dinner party soon to which they will certainly be invited. Be sure to actually follow up on this promise before their grudge festers into something vengeful. If you want to throw a larger party — one that is still a dinner party, but perhaps slightly beyond your culinary capacity — offer to host a potluck. It’s a casual way to throw a larger party, but one still more intimate than a cocktail party.
Invitation-wise, it’s wise to make more of a personal effort. A Facebook event invitation or even an evite won’t cut it here; a dinner party demands personal emails at the very least, and preferably a phone call, in-person invite, or even — if you really want to make an impression — a handwritten and mailed card. Be sure to include any relevant details; not only time and place but also theme, particularly as it pertains to sartorial expectations. If you’re throwing a formal party, be sure to note it, or else somebody will certainly show up in jeans and a t-shirt and feel like a complete idiot, and the last thing you want to do as a host is make your guests feel like complete idiots. Giving a brief description of the menu’s theme can also help clear up any potential food issues your guests might have; if you’re throwing a party on the theme of “Under the Sea” because you just got back from this killer scuba diving trip, relaying this information is a good way to pre-empt any last-minute revelations of seafood allergies — presumably, your guests are considerate enough to let you know if the theme implies any gastronomic conflict as soon as they learn of it. Even if they’re not, your menu should be varied enough that even the desperately allergic have at least something on which to gnosh without breaking out the epi-pen.
AT THE EVENT
Because a dinner party is a smaller and more intimate affair, if you don’t make the effort to engage in sustained conversation with all of your guests, you are officially a terrible host. At a cocktail party, greeting your vast hordes can occasionally be sufficient socialization, but that shit doesn’t fly at a dinner party — so bone up on your current politics or fine literature or whatever the hell your crowd chats about, and be prepared to bust it out.
There are a few things that are lower-key about a dinner party versus a cocktail party, however. You’re significantly less likely to have stragglers snooping around your place at a dinner party, so sparkling cleanliness of every nook and cranny is less of an issue; also, you’re dealing with fewer people, so the problem of where to put their shit is minimized (also: fewer people will be using your toilet, so one full roll of toilet paper plus one handy spare roll should be more than sufficient! The rule about the toilet plunger being easily accessible, though, still holds. You never know who might be responsible for the kind of massive dump that could really put a damper on your party experience).
Wear whatever you like, but remember that once the guests arrive you’ll probably still be logging some time in the kitchen — specifically, at the stove — so don’t get so layered up that you’ll get to the table all sweaty. The most important thing about whatever you wear is that you’re fully dressed by the time the guests arrive. Also, because this is a smaller gathering, things probably won’t get so raucous that the neighbors complain — but they might, so better to let them know what you’re planning (especially if you live in a thin-walled apartment complex).
Finally, what if in spite of your best efforts, things go horribly awry and your carefully prepared food is, in fact, completely inedible? Keep your sense of humor and a few takeout menus handy in the event of an oven meltdown or who knows what other catastrophe. Sure, your party might not make it in the record books for the quality of your food, but if you handle it with grace and humor your guests — even if one of them is your boss — can’t help but admire your aplomb.
Cleanup is generally easier for a dinner party than a cocktail party — reduced debauchery tends to translate into reduced dish-doing. Also, because you’ve had a chance to sit during dinner, you’re probably not as totally exhausted as after throwing a cocktail party; moreover, because it’s a smaller gathering, I’ve found people are much more likely to volunteer to help clean up after a dinner party than a cocktail party. Again, I always try one polite refusal before accepting help (and fear not, very few people make offers so insincerely that one polite refusal is enough to dissuade them from assisting). Just don’t ask any of your guests to scrub pots and pans — that kind of grunt work is yours alone to bear, unless some crazy friend of yours is insistent upon completing the task, in which case (a) put them to work and (b) please introduce them to me.
Okay, so nobody but your grandma actually calls it a “luncheon”, but I thought I’d cover all the bases. A lunch party is pretty similar in execution to a dinner party, except that it’s (a) more casual and (b) a lighter meal — in short, it’s easier. A soup-and-salad combo is a great lunch menu (although unless you run with a particularly anorexic crowd, be sure it’s a reasonably filling variety of soup and salad you’re dishing out), and a sandwich party can be old-school and kicky; once, a friend did a PB&J lunch party, complete with milk and cookies — which isn’t the highest-end of events, but was a totally fun and casual throwback to school lunches. If you’d rather do something more exotic, a Spanish paella is (a) delicious and (b) a delightful reference to the Spaniards’ tradition of a midday main meal (this is an especially delightful reference if it can be followed by a siesta).
Now, if you’re a relatively responsible semi-adult human being, it may be the case that you have a job — and if you’re throwing this lunch party at such a place, be sure to scope out the kitchen facilities before you figure out what you’ll be throwing down. Microwaving is a pretty good way to turn something that was previously delicious into a goopy pile of shit, so don’t rely on that particular device to reheat with any kind of quality. Also, if you’re lunch-planning for a work soiree, be sure to ascertain if any colleagues have food allergies or issues well in advance — gastronomic trespass might be forgivable among friends, but you don’t want Sue from payroll to start making “random” errors on your paychecks out of spite just because you forgot about her peanut allergy.
Brunches are not terribly different from lunches, except that they generally happen on Sundays and tend towards egg-heavy menus. Neither of these are bad things, although I for one would support the expansion of the brunch from once a week to much more frequently.
Pretty much the same as lunches, except with more eggs and — in a truly delightful turn of events — alcohol. Mimosas are tasty, but Bloody Marys can get you shitfaced by noon; drink one or the other according to the needs of the day.
Whoever first combined tomato juice and vodka should get a Nobel Prize.
There is no form of gathering more inherently romantic than the picnic — the very word conjures images of checked blankets, sundresses, and blue skies. I could use a picnic right about now, in fact, but alas; I must remain chained to my computer instead. Anyway, the key to a successful picnic is proper food portability. Plan a menu that travels easily and can be eaten with a minimum of messiness — any food that requires sauce is generally unwise for a picnic.
Also, although it is an apparent American tradition to include such items as potato salad, macaroni salad, tuna salad, or whatever other utterly-devoid-of-green-vegetables form of “salad” seems appropriate, I must argue against such dishes at a picnic. The issue is both eminently practical as well as the height of gastronomic snobbery, and it centers on the overwhelming prevalence of mayonnaise in any such dish — an ingredient whose abuse is both (a) a health threat after several hours under the sun, and (b) disgusting.
The nice thing about hosting a picnic is that it demands nothing of you in the way of personal space, as this is one form of entertaining that does best in a public place. Find a park that is easily accessible to all who have been invited and roll with it. All you need to provide is some kicky blanketing, plates, glasses, and utensils — and plasticware, being easily transportable and unlikely to easily shatter, is perfectly acceptable (Note from 2019: It’s not, actually. Get some reusable flatware already.) A picnic is a casual affair, so keeping things functional is the highest priority.
There is no gathering more casual — nor more finger-lickin’ good — than the straight-up, old-fashioned ‘cue. If you are either (a) a dude or (b) friends with lots of dudes, this is a good one to keep on your roster, as its highly carnivorous menu and casual sense of manners keep it popular with males everywhere. Also, there’s fire, and guys tend to dig fire. (Note from 2019: Holy shit, what heternormative bullshit was I on when I wrote that?)
A barbecue menu is and should be meat-heavy, but a common mistake in BBQ planning is to forget any other form of sustenance. The menu at any barbecue, like that of any kind of party, should be highly varied; that means not only steaks or burgers, but also a white meat (the chicken leg is a good standby), a non-meat protein (aka the “veggie burger”), and some vegetables. Grilled vegetables are one of life’s greatest pleasures, so include a great variety; tomatoes, onions, zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant, and any form of cabbage all grill up nicely, as do a number of fruits (apple and pineapple in particular). If you really want to fancy up your ‘cue, put together some shrimp skewers with fruits and vegetables, drizzled with an olive oil, garlic, and lemon marinade; this is an assured way of bringing the party straight to the mouths of your guests.
In terms of setup, be sure you have plenty of napkins (or, if you’ve got some sauce-slathered ribs, perhaps even wet-naps). There is no shame in using newspaper as a tablecloth at a barbecue; it will be an invariably messy affair, so just roll with that and try to minimize your post-’cue workload. Lastly, be sure you’ve got plenty of beer. A barbecue demands nothing else, drink-wise (except perhaps soda for the more sobriety-minded), and there’s no bigger bummer than running out of beer before the steaks, ribs, burgers, dogs, drumsticks, or various other slabs of carcass have been fully consumed.
What if you’re not so much looking to throw a formal dinner party, but rather to have a few friends over for some casual fun? A movie night is always a winner, especially if you’re inviting people with whom you don’t particularly enjoy conversing! You can always score with pizza and beer — cheese, pepperoni, and Bud Light if you’re unimaginative, or homemade gourmet pizzas and microbrew samplers if you’re more adventurous. Trader Joe’s sells excellent pre-made pizza dough for cheap, so you can just drop a few of those in your cart and then load that shit up with some fine toppings. Alternately, your local pizzeria may well sell some of their premade dough. Toppings-wise, I like to get creative; who needs marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese when you can do an artichoke-tarragon puree with asiago and parmesan, and top it all of with mushrooms and avocado? Some of you might recoil at such a description, but if I can assure you of anything on this entire site, it is that such a pizza is fucking delicious (for the record, though, the mushrooms go on before baking, the avocado after baking; anything else will lead nowhere pleasant).Themed movie nights can also be super-fun — invite all of your pretentious and/or anime-loving friends over for a Kurosawa retrospective and a night of sushi! Too exotic? I once went to a party on the totally kickin’ theme of “spaghetti and spaghetti westerns,” which involved watching a lot of old Clint Eastwood movies and violating any precepts of the Atkins Diet. Plenty of other rad pairings exist: steaks’n’slasher flicks! Taco night with Cheech’n’Chong! A night of cheese-tasting and romantic comedies! The important thing is to keep it fun, get some good food, and have some nice booze on hand for the thing.
Perhaps you, or someone you know, has recently procreated. I applaud that, because anyone else contributing to the continuation of the human race takes a bit of the pressure off the rest of us. However, while I am many, many moons away from any family-like considerations, I do work with kids, so I know this much: they can be hilarious and awesome, and they can also be obnoxious little fuckers — and unfortunately, the latter attribute is frequently manifested when food is on the table. How to deal?
Though cute, remember that they exist solely to replace us all.
Sure, you could go the Jessica Seinfeld route, but I prefer to avoid such deception on a philosophical level. Mostly I think it’s not terribly productive to squish some spinach into a brownie and think that it will cause kids to eventually enjoy vegetables; more than likely they’ll just keep liking brownies and remain dubious towards whatever green shit might be hidden within (until they become teenagers and the green shit hidden within is no longer federally recognized as a vegetable). No, my suggestion involves a little more investment but a lot more fun, and it’s actually pretty simple in principle: get the kids involved in cooking, and cook some kid-friendly food. The single best means to combine both of these ideas is making pasta. Think about it — kids love pasta, and kids love making crap; kids will love making pasta, and then they will eat it too! Win, win, win.
Pasta is a pretty basic recipe to prepare: eggs, flour, pinch of salt (one cup of flour for each egg). Combine, then let it sit in the fridge for about an hour; then roll it out and cut it into whatever you’re looking to eat — ravioli, fettucine, whatever. Kids are great for both the combining phase (which is messy, so I recommend doing it atop a sheet of wax paper — unless you get particular enjoyment out of scrubbing glue-like globs off of your countertops) as well as the rolling phase. In fact, if you don’t have a pasta maker, employing kids in the rolling phase is a great way to get the job done without overtaxing your own upper body strength; harness all that crazy youthful energy and put it to work for you! If you’ve got a rolling pin, good for you; otherwise, I recommend using an old and empty wine bottle which, if you’re at all like me, you tend to have on hand frequently. Ravioli are particularly good for kids — and get creative with the fillings. In fact, it might be hip to set up a kind of ravioli bar, with all different kinds of fillings, and let the kids pick and choose what they want; that way, both children and adults can create gustatory delights to satisfy palates at any stage of maturation. Once again: win, win, win.
THE MURDER MYSTERY
It’s an extremely structured dinner party with a dead body. Go!
Whodunit? Find out after dessert!
Damn, you best be sure that your dinner party is straight-up perfect. (They are judging you for this.)
THE ROMANTIC DINNER FOR TWO
Seriously, it’s still a dinner party. This time, though, you can’t bank on appetizer-based conversation to give you extra prep time, so be on top of your shit, okay? And be sure you (a) are lookin’ cute, and (b) are aware of your significant other’s food allergies.
First of all, keeping your party on the greener side of life isn’t so much different from keeping the rest of life on the greener side of, well… you get the idea. Do you recycle? Why the fuck not? Compost? Give that shit a try, for real! It’s not that hard — in fact, it’s downright easy. Take other small steps to make your party eco-tastic: bring your own bags when you pick up all the groceries; encourage your guests to carpool or, if it’s available, take public transportation (a good and subtle way to encourage this: emphasize that parking can be limited); avoid disposable… anything; use greener cleaning elements when you’re doing dishes or making the house shine; shop at thrift stores for whatever you might need in terms of utensils, decor, or whatever else; plan your menu to be seasonal and do your food-shopping at a farmers’ market if you can.
The truth is, eating seems like a pretty straightforward thing, but it’s actually a profoundly political act, and the decisions we make about what and how we eat have all kinds of implications: environmental, economic, ethical… those mid-winter Florida-grown tomatoes don’t just tally up petrochemical use for their pesticide-induced growth and transport, but also involve issues of slave labor. The complexity of the industrial food chain can be so overwhelming, and seem so pervasive, that it’s tempting to simply throw up one’s hands and concede defeat — after all, we all need to eat; you can’t just go ahead and boycott food altogether.
So, what’s a conscientious consumer to do? After all, you care about issues of worker exploitation and climate change; you don’t just want to opt out altogether, right? Eating local is a simple thing to do, but its ramifications are vast. When you’re eating local, you’re almost certainly eating food produced on a small farm that doesn’t employ huge numbers of underpaid (or unpaid) immigrant workers, and that farm is also pretty much guaranteed to be somewhere along the spectrum of “near organic” to “beyond organic”. It’s not sold at your nearby Safeway (Note from 2019: These days it probably is), but local or regional grocery stores have started to carry local produce, and it’s always available at farmers’ markets and CSAs. CSAs are a truly wonderful invention; essentially you subscribe to a farm’s produce, which gets delivered to a site near you every week in a box. It’s a minimal-effort route to getting some of the freshest local produce around, and the variety is gastronomically inspiring.
Because that’s the other great thing about eating locally: besides reducing your carbon footprint, it’s also kind to your palate. Eating local food ensures that you’re eating seasonal food, and as anyone who’s ever eaten a fresh-off-the-vine tomato in August knows, food is at its freshest and most flavorful when it’s perfectly in season. There’s been some ridiculous backlash against the inherent seasonality of local eating, like the occasionally insipid Time Magazine article that claimed the lack of supermarket-proportioned variety in a farmers’ market was socialist, but that argument is, let’s face it, stupid. (Yes, local farmers’ markets are truly just as limited as anything in Soviet Russia ever was.)
There are plenty of resources out there to help you navigate the issues surrounding local food: websites like The Ethicurean and Local Harvest, blogs like my friend Jialan’s, books by Michael Pollan, and the collected work of Marion Nestle. Whatever you decide, just remember that eating local food (or “going lofo,” as I like to say, which I find far more sonorous than the more popular “locavore”) is a small step with a huge impact — perhaps the biggest “bang for your buck” in terms of the ethical and environmental consequences of a slight change in consumer behavior. You’ll eat better, and the earth will breathe more easily (quite literally, as contemporary industrial agriculture practices degrade soil quality so thoroughly) — it’s a win-win situation, so what the hell is holding you back?