That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions (this along with bimonthly ballroom dancing and arriving five minutes early for engagements). Though I haven’t attempted a sit-down dinner for 25 in a few years now after coming to my freakin’ senses, my parties have gotten more and more lavish over the years, and I think Christmas really drove it home: I gotta chillax already. Even with my mom and Kent pitching in considerably in the kitchen, I didn’t sit down and read my new Christmas gift book for five minutes on Christmas Day. That’s just wrong. We did make a tremendous meal. But a friend in attendance (and there were only seven of us, so it didn’t start off unrealistic) mentioned that he felt like he’d hardly seen me since I was in the kitchen most of the evening. This on Christmas, a day for spending with loved ones if ever there was one. Dang it!
And thus a New Year’s resolution was born. This year I intend to still have people over and all, but I’m only serving them salad, soup or casserole or quiche, a loaf of bread and a fruit crisp (or even–gasp!–ice cream)…and we’re done. And I’m going to embrace the potluck. I also intend to sit down for a little light reading on party days, thank you very much.
When I was little, my grandmother used to serve me ginger ale in one of those old-timey wide-mouthed champagne glasses, top it off with a maraschino cherry (shouldn’t all drinks come with a cherry?) and call it champagne. I thought that was pretty much the best thing ever.
So on the Arabian Nights theme party invite, I asked guests to dress up, thinking veils, turbans, harem pants, the works. You know, “I Dream of Jeannie”-style kitschy, fun, right? But then I started wondering if anyone could take that the wrong way. Did I seem like I was making fun of the Middle East somehow? I asked my Indian friend Jay (a sensitive man), and he thought maybe it wasn’t, uh, in the best taste. I was reluctant to admit maybe I’d crossed the line. After all, weren’t some communities banning Halloween now because of its quasi-religious origins? Maybe we all just needed to relax. So I went home and Googled “offensive party themes” to see what the Web had to say about it. I ended up finding a post from some college kid who’d thrown a costume party he dubbed “The Most Offensive Party Ever”; guests dressed as Hitler and members of the Klan. His post was an effort to defend himself (he’d gotten in trouble with the school), but I had to conclude that yeah, maybe there was a line, and maybe I had walked over it. So I changed the invite to specify dressing as a specific character, rather than as some vague, you know, other. I learned a bunch of stuff about the Arabian Nights stories and about the culture and made regionally accurate dishes and set up a pretty amazing Bedouin-esque-ish tent. Still, I couldn’t resist putting on the harem pants and the coin necklace around my head with a scarf veil, even though it was pretty clearly a more Hollywood than Cairo take on the look. Despite my efforts to share cocktail party tidbits about the tales and pour generous shots of raki (a licorice-flavored liquor made from raisins popular in the Middle East), I’m pretty sure at least one friend wasn’t entirely comfortable with the whole thing. It sort of sucked some of the fun out of the evening, worrying about this stuff. In a way, I mourn the loss of the ability to wholeheartedly embrace the exotic (is it okay to use the word “exotic” here?) without totally knowing what you’re doing…but on the other hand, I do kinda get it. No one wants to be marginalized or to feel like they’re being made fun of, even if that’s totally not your intent. Sigh.
And then weekend before last I went to a birthday party for a five-year-old with, you guessed it, a princess theme. She was Jasmine, and almost all the other girls came in their own Disney Store costumes–Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Snow White…. Let me tell you, if they had come up with this whole Princess thing when I was a mere slip of a girl, this Barbie-lovin’, pink-bedroom-livin’ little lass would have been all over it. But when my husband and I babysit, his inner hippie can’t resist indulging in a little counter-culture movement in the midst of suburbia. So he plays dolls with “Jasmine” all right, only he has her Bratz get ready to go to the awards ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize instead of the prom. I appreciate (not to mention crack up at) the effort, but as I, er, mentioned, I looooooooooved that stuff when I was a kid. There does seem to be something intrinsically girly about girls. And maybe that’s fine. I’ll say it again: Sigh.
Math is hard (to quote a talking Barbie from the ’90s). But so is nonpolitical party-planning. Good luck out there, princess.
There’s a reason they call them party tricks: they’re fun at parties. Bring back your grandpa’s shenanigans with the ol’ pull-the-coin-out-of-your-ear move…or this silly magic trick, no rabbit necessary:
Tell the crowd that you and your pal have a psychic connection. Then send her out of the room and let the guests pick an object, any object. Bring back your friend and start pointing at objects and asking if that’s the one in question (“Is it this fork?” etc.) When you get to the right one, she’ll say yes. How? Because the one you named right before it is the color black. Oooooh!
Oh sure, I come off as the happy-go-lucky, carefree party hostess, but in recent times, it’s become apparent to me just how fraught with pitfalls the not-so-average party theme can be. It started with the 1,001 Arabian Nights party my friend Ben and I threw last month (pictured on the right there). We asked people to dress up as their favorite Arabian Nights character. Harmless, non? Ben’s friend Brett came as the perfect replica of Aladdin, complete with a monkey stuffed animal hanging from his waist and his girlfriend’s shorts wrapped around his head with a tassel he must have pulled off some drapes somewhere. I figured I’d go as Sheherezade…only, as it turned out, a Google Images search revealed many Sheherezades, from all covered up in layer after layer of cloth to ooh-la-la belly dancer babe. A little more research revealed, by the way, that belly dancers used to dress in caftans till Hollywood got ahold of the idea and sexed it up a bit. Which in turn begged the quesiton: Was wearing the awesome, yet probably not historically accurate, purple and gold striped harem pants I got off the eBays so wrong?
To be continued…
Last year as a joke my friends and I decided to have a formal dinner while we were vacationing near the banks of Lake Huron in the decidedly unformal Lexington Heights, MI. My family’s cottage there is on a dirt road. The place is on a septic tank system, so you can only shower every other day. But we fondly remembered the formal dinners from the other decidedly unformal place we’d all met: the interdisciplinary studies program at the ultrahippie Western College at Miami University (an excellent preparation for my later life in Venice Beach, California, I might add). So we dressed up for dinner and then someone had the idea that everybody also had to wear a hat. We had a bag of hats on vacation (doesn’t everyone?) because Sarah, the pro photog friend among us, had this idea to take a bunch of staged, yet candid, shots of us while we were there. All dressed up, with hats on, sitting in the backyard in lawn chairs at the faded picnic table–well, it all seemed rather hilar. We had crawfish etouffee, since Dina and Ben were all hopped up on N’awlins food after having just returned from their place there. (Yes, I now have friends who own multiple properties. I’m still working on my first. I digress.) I can pretty much say with confidence that that is the first time crawfish etouffee has ever been consumed in Lexington Heights. A grand time had by all–in fact, we all agreed, it was the FUNNEST YEAR AT THE COTTAGE EVER.
So we decided to do it again this year. Last year, Dina put on this brown terrycloth romper from Victoria’s Secret for Dance Party USA (don’t ask me why we call it that other than that it’s supremely nerdy on purpose). Her daughters were absolutely MORTIFIED over her outfit and pretty much begged her to take it off. Of course, this goaded her on further and utterly cracked the rest of us up. I got a hot pink one for New Year’s and the legend of the romper lived on. So for this year’s formal dinner, I suggested 1978 to fit in with the romper aesthetic. Little did I realize how much everyone would embrace it! We had a 1978-esque mostly fondue dinner–cheese fondue with bread and mushrooms and cornichons to start, pasta primavera for our main and chocolate fondue with bananas and strawberries for dessert. Yay, retro food!The highest hilarity, though, came with the costumes, which were in even fuller full effect during this year’s Dance Party USA, featuring hits from yesterday on Ben’s hot hot hot 1978 dance mix. Could this year’s festivities have topped even last year’s? I daresay so.
So last we met, I promised to tell about having Ben and his new (now old) girlfriend over for dinner. Perfect July night, dinner al fresco, lovely evening. Two days later she broke up with him! Maybe the guest-of-friend dinner idea is better left to friends of friends?
My friend George and his boyfriend came a-callin’ over Memorial Day, and what with it being the start of summer and all, I planned a jam-packed weekend of F.U.N. for us. As previously noted, when a pal comes to town, I tend to go to town with a big ol’ celebration in their honor. But with everything we had going on, there was little time for party prep, and I was so crazed with work before they got here that advance planning wasn’t in the picture neither.
Then my friend Ben said he was having people over for dinner that Saturday, and would my pals like to come too? Fabulous. We got in from a busy day of L.A.-ing, showered, dressed up and went out to dinner–at Ben’s house. Candles were glowing, wine was flowing, jazz was going… And then, of course, there was the meal, including a simple green salad, ceviche (yes, he made freakin’ ceviche), DIY fish tacos and a peach cobbler (made and brought by moi). So. Good.
The ten guests, most of whom were mutual friends whom (if I may use the word “whom” twice in one sentence) George had met before, bantered and giggled and ate and ate and then ate more. It was a stellar evening, and best of all, it gave us all the chance to mix it up a bit–after hanging out with the same couple of people all weekend long, a little fresh company is generally more than welcome–and show off my cool friends to each other. Plus, the evening was more intimate than just another dinner at just another restaurant, not to mention free, save the couple of bottles of wine we brought over.
And with that, I decided to start throwing parties when good friends’ friends were in town. Starting with Ben’s new girlfriend, in town from New York. Stay tuned!
In recent years I’ve taken to a new tradition: throwing a party when a friend comes to visit. Hey, you gotta clean the house anyhow, might as well invite some people over! Plus, that way you can introduce an old friend to new ones, which is always entertaining to watch, and your friend gets to be the center of attention in a low-key, birthday-girl kinda way (as opposed to a public-speaking-to-an-auditorium-full-of-strangers kinda way). Announce the guest of honor in your invite and propose a toast to her during the party. Introduce her to everybody. Serve her favorite dishes or cocktails. A couple of years ago, I had a friend who wrote a baking cookbook for kids come visit, so I ordered her book (which I’d been meaning to do anyway), FedExed it to myself, and made cupcakes out of it to serve at the dinner party I was having in her honor the next night. A bit of extra effort, yeah, but how often do you get a good excuse to make a big deal over the people who are important to you?
You know, like Julie, the cruise director on the Love Boat? You can have a reeeeeally nice boat with fabulous food and a k-razy bartender with an awesome mo and great special guests like Charo, but it’s Julie who introduces everyone, grins her gigantic grin and jump-starts the party. Yahhh! How do you think Doc ever got any action? Julie, yo, settin’ him up. (Remember the one with the gorgeous woman with the veil who was all embarrassed about some facial scar, but Doc fell for her, proving that people could see past the scar to the Special Person She Really Was? For some reason that one made a big impression on me as a youth.)
Anyhow, so your goal is to find your inner Julie and get her workin’ the room at your next party. As confessed in my previous post, this is not my strong suit. I overplan and thus am invariably behind when guests show up. Bad hostess! Instead, be like Julie. Sidle up to guests and mention how one just got back from Jakarta or how both of them are mad Jimmy Cliff fans. Even if one of them doesn’t even know who Jimmy Cliff is! Kidding. Only mention how both of them are Jimmy Cliff fans if both of them really like Jimmy Cliff. Look, the point is, give ’em something to talk about besides their freakin’ major, right?
Hey, I know how it is. By the time I’m actually having a party, I’m usually pretty wiped from all the planning and still trying to put the finishing touches on everything, so I tend to let guests fend for themselves and make their own fun. But more and more, I’m coming to the conclusion that guests need a lot more to have a dynamite time than your just providing all the trappings for them to do so. Yeah, it’s great if you have amazing canapes and signature cocktails and a custom dance mix, but many guests are still pretty helpless without their cruise director helping them figure out how to really let go and live it up. Even if you’re hosting a small dinner party where everyone knows each other, your guests are taking their cue from you as the leader of the evening. Remember, you are the Model Bon(ne) Vivant(e) here. Are you hiding in the kitchen, slaving away, stressed and ready for Calgon to take you away already? Or are you relaxed, fancy-free and bubbly as Goldie Hawn circa Laugh-In? Let your guests know what kind of evening this is gonna be. Why not dispense with the formalities and jump right into strip poker? Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea.
So this is hereby my official resolution to stop trying to be so perfect and make my party to-dos more manageable so next time I’m already long since ready when the first guest rings the doorbell…or, if for some reason I’m not, to stop whatever I’m doing (adding frosting florets to the cake? touching up my chipped nail polish? looking for my go-go boots?) and get out there and enjoy myself, dammit. Julie would be so proud!