Sunday, March 6, 2011

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Cheerleading for the Dinner Party

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to post written by Alexandra Lange on the Gourmet Live Blog, which asked the question, "Whatever Happened to the Dinner Party?"  I was immediately indignant--the dinner party is doing just fine thank you very much!  I relish few forms of entertainment more than gathering people in my home for a meal, so I felt certain that meal-centric parties were alive and well.  

After reading the article, I had to admit that my gatherings take a different form from the elegant dinner parties described by Ms. Lange.  She describes the parties her mother hosted as complete with china, lipstick and fresh flowers.  To start,  I don't own china, in fact only about five of my set of eight everyday dish place settings remain unbroken.  I do, however, delight in coordinating menus around at least the hint of a culinary theme and experimenting with "from scratch" preparation of all manner of menu items.  I also delight in the small non-food-related things that make a meal feel a bit more special.  

With only enthusiasm as a qualification, I would like to champion the dinner party and offer a few helpful hints in planning and hosting these gatherings.  I was initially intimidated by hosting more than a few friends, but in the last several years have taken to hosting as many as several dozen people for dinner.  In hosting larger parties, I found that advance planning is the key to success.  I recommend deciding on a menu at least a week and advance and choosing, as much as possible, dishes that can be prepared in advance (and possibly frozen).  This will allow you make portions of the meal days or weeks in advance, so as to avoid frantic preparation as your guests are arriving.  Soups, pasta sauces, and cakes all tend to freeze quite well.  Baked dishes like lasagna and quiche also work well because you can make them early in the day, put them in the oven as your guests are arriving, and let them bake while people settle in with drinks and appetizers.  

While I don't entertain with ironed table clothes, china and crystal, I am unwilling to serve food on disposable plates either.  My paternal grandmother had a gift for making things "feel special."  When we would visit as children, we were served cranberry juice and ginger ale in a wine glass at "cocktail hour," fresh flowers often graced the dining room table, and it wasn't uncommon to fabricate place cards even when the only guests were me, my Grandmother, and my Grandfather.  I cherish those memories and try to do small things that make guests feel welcome.

Like the food, I've found that it is really helpful to prepare other items in advance of the guests arrival as well.  I use on side table in the dining room as a bar, putting out water and wine glasses, pitchers of water, and other beverages.  I am happy to have a collection of about thirty plates (many of which were collected from the thrift store).  I've taken to preparing a "tea tray" in advance--it's nice to have mugs, assorted teas, sugar, and honey ready to be served with dessert.  Finally, I delight in details like serving dessert with small demitasse spoons is somehow so lovely.  

With exuberant support for the future of dinner parties, cheers!

What are your best tips for preparing and hosting dinner parties?  
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