The first dinner party I ever threw wasn’t exactly a disaster. That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it.
GAP and I were newly married and we decided to have people over for dinner on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Ten of them. We had just moved into our first apartment together. We were excited. We kept inviting people. When it was all said and done I had somehow managed to sign myself up for preparing a seated dinner for 12. (Did I mention that this was my first dinner party?) I won’t drag you through the details of it (thankfully most of them are hazy), but my primary memories include: gaspacho dip spilling all over my counter just before people started arriving, the enchiladas not being properly sauced and therefor ending up as tough as roof shingles, and barely seeing any of our guests because I was stuck in the kitchen up to my eyeballs in the realization that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew.
I suppose that if, after surviving that evening, I’d run for the hills with no intention of ever hosting anything again it would have been a justifiable moratorium. Nevertheless, I’m glad I didn’t. Because now, eight years later, I’m here to say that I think I’ve more or less cracked the code on entertaining. That code? It’s such a cliché I’m loathe to type it: Less is more.
At the time I’d watched enough episodes of Barefoot Contessa to understand the merits of making things in advance, choosing simple but tasty dishes, and not planning an event so demanding that you have no chance of actually enjoying it. And yet it took me years of failed attempts at breezy, effortless entertaining before I finally got it through my thick skull. I think somehow I felt I had to prove myself through the crucible of overdoing it before I gained the confidence to dial it down a knotch. But now that I’ve hosted eight holiday cocktail parties, three Christmas dinners, three Easter dinners, one bridal shower, one baby shower, and countless smaller gatherings I have a better understanding of what constitutes a success. This past weekend was the culmination of all that I’ve learned: Think about what your guests will find enjoyable, not what they will find impressive. A stressed-out hostess makes for a stressful party. And simple food is usually better than fancy food. That’s it.
SSP’s first birthday party was Saturday, and family members started rolling into town Thursday evening. Over the course of four days I served four different meals – two suppers, a lunch, and a breakfast – each without too much stress or incident.* I spent none of them in the kitchen in a crazed dash throwing together last-minute dishes. I sat down and enjoyed the company of my guests. And we all gobbled up the food.
When I turned 35 earlier this fall I had many mixed emotions about it. There is much about the excitement and anticipation of striking out into the world of adulthood for the first time that I miss. But for every experience that was once exciting and is now ordinary there is another one that was once stressful and is now comfortable. I enjoy the parties we throw so much more now than I did in the beginning. I wish I could go back in time and take Ina’s advice to heart at a younger age. But some things we must learn for ourselves.
*My sister did bail me out on Saturday morning by getting the salad prepared while I dealt with an almost-four-year-old who had decided that the excitement of company was as good a reason as any to completely ignore me.
In the event that you’re interested, my menus this past weekend were:
Turkey burgers and tossed green salad
Butternut Squash Soup (minus the ginger, half the cumin, plus about 2 tsp of brown sugar)
Two loaves of crusty bread
Three kinds each of cheese and charcuterie plus apple wedges scattered on a big carving board
Caramelized Vanilla Ice Cream (minus the salt, plus 1 Tbs vanilla extract)
Pepperidge Farm cookies
Saturday Lunch (Birthday Party)
Pulled Pork Sliders
Potato Torte (minus the summer squash)
Ricotta and Red Onion Pizza (dough ball purchased from neighborhood pizza joint)
Tossed Green Salad
Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
PS – In the event that you didn’t notice from the links above, I am a huge fan of SmittenKitchen.com. Her readership is literally 8,000 times greater than mine. (Seriously. I did the math.) So I don’t expect that my little plug here will carry much weight. But her first cookbook was just released last week I’ve spent every spare moment since last Friday pouring over my copy. If you’ve never read her, check out the blog. And if you like the blog, do yourself a favor and buy the book!