Saturday, October 23, 2010

That's Entertaining: Checklist for Happy, Healthy and Sane Hosting

by Barbara Burtoff

Next weekend, the season of festive gatherings starts. There’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, the New Year. For those of you planning to host a party, I’d like to share some advice from my 40 years of organizing social events, covering them as a food editor and letting friends vent about what they know now that they wished they knew then.

No matter how carefully you plan, something unexpected will happen. It could be a guest at a seated dinner talking loudly on a cell phone and apologizing to others at the table by saying that it is an important call. Indeed it could be if it’s a party in or near Washington. Maybe the President is calling because he needs all members of his Cabinet pronto. All you can do is help the guest find his or her coat and send the individual on his way.
If the importance of the call is not of this magnitude, just direct that guest to a side room to finish the conversation. Maybe it’s a guest who arrived drunk and late and is loud and argumentative, looks around at those at your table and decided not to stay. He takes off with his press agent. Whew! It could be a husband who airs dirty laundry about what goes on behind closed doors in his marriage, leaving his wife in tears. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to seat them next to each other. Some want this seating; others don’t. It could be a guest who brings as her escort an Ambassador who leaves guests so intimidated that conversation shuts down, or a guest with an escort who is a Hollywood leading man and just as charming and interesting in person as on the screen and the dinner conversation bumps up a couple of notches, or a 95-year-old neighbor who is so happy that he and his wife were included that he jumps up from his seat to dance a jig and he does it well, or something as mundane as a recipe that tastes awful. Be prepared for anything, and, by the way, you should have tried any new recipe prior to putting it on the menu of your big night.

Here's a  dozen things you can do in advance of a party; in a subsequent column I’ll cover things you can do during the party to deal with the unexpected or unwelcome turn of events, plus some clean-up tips.

1. One week before the party, call all guests who haven’t let you know whether they are coming so you can give a final count to the caterer. Sometimes invitations get lost in the mail. Other times, guests put an invitation down on their calendar but forget to respond to their host. Then again some think no response is due if they aren’t attending. I remember hearing from one host who planned a holiday buffet for 150. Only 75 let him know they would be there. He gave the caterer an order for 150. Because he didn’t make calls, he was stuck with the expense of 75 extra meals.

2. Don’t wait until the last hour or two to get ready for your guests. There’s more to do than can be accomplished in that amount of time. Two days before the party, get out tablecloths. No matter how carefully you put them away, they may have gotten wrinkled and need a quick ironing or steaming. Check to see if any lamps and ceiling lights need new bulbs. Check lighting outside your front door, too.

3. One day before, get out plates, glassware, silver or stainless and set your table. Be sure to count the silver or stainless. You’ll need this count at the end of the party. Next, line up the serving platters and bowls. Don’t forget to put the appropriate serving piece with each, such as a spoon, slotted spoon, fork, tongs, ladle, lasagna spatula, butter knife, pie server, etc. Get out what you’ll need for the bar: glassware, ice bucket, cocktail napkins, stirrers, a small dish to hold wedges of lemon and lime, liquor bottles if serving a full bar, wine bottles. Take a moment to look around and decide where it would be best to set up a folding table after the party to collect things to be washed.

4. What if you have only eight place settings of your china and 16 are coming to a seated dinner? It’s okay to mix and match dishes, especially if the patterns are compatible, or use one solid color such as white or ivory and one bold pattern.

5. If ordering wine in great quantity, purchase it at a store that will let you return unopened bottles. See the list of stores in my August 5 column. Don’t open all bottles at the start of the party. You might not need them all. Don’t put all the white wine bottles in a plastic tub filled with ice for the duration of your gathering. If the bottles were not all opened but the ice melted and the labels are water-damaged, you can’t take them back.

6. There are those who believe that candles should be everywhere. It’s the season of the shortest days; candles light up a room and make it seem happier and more festive. I don’t agree. If you must have them, consider battery-operated candles that flicker and even change colors from red to green to blue to yellow or use tea lights or chunky candles. Keep away from tapers. I have seen too many holiday parties come to a terrifying halt as a guest reached across tapers on a buffet table and the candles fell over or a guest bumped into a table set with tapers as they walked by and the candles went flying. Flames shoot up fast. Your party is ruined and probably your tablecloth, wood furniture and more. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher, get one for the kitchen and one for the dining area and learn how to use them before you have an emergency situation.

7. Decide where guests will hang winter-weight coats. Clear out a front closet, put in plenty of hangers. Buy, borrow or rent a folding coat rack for your entry hall. Or direct guests to a nearby bedroom to store their coats.

8. Give the guest bathrooms the once over the morning of your party. This is so obvious but often forgotten when your countdown list contains other things that need your attention. Have out liquid soap and hand lotion, an extra roll of toilet paper, a new box of tissues, an empty trash container, fresh towels and a stack of paper towels. If you have only one bathroom in your apartment, remove the unmentionables you washed earlier and hung there. Last but not least, remove all prescription medicines from the cabinet above the sink.

9. Open the top to its highest point if you have a grand piano and cover the front ends with music books. Your less evolved guests will not have a chance to hurt the wood finish by placing ice-laden beverages there.

10. Resist the temptation to show off your version of homemade eggnog. That recipe usually calls for raw eggs. That and a warm room are not a desirable combination if you want to avoid the possibility some of your guests will go home with food poisoning.

11. Readying your bar: It is better to buy ice than make your own if you are having a large crowd, or need lots to chill white wine and soft drinks in large buckets or tubs or have an old fridge that imparts a negative odor to the cubes. There are people who won’t drink alcohol, carbonated soft drinks, diet drinks, and sweet fruit juice. So what’s left? Put out several different brands of plain and bubbly water – American and European -- and let them pick their favorite or try a new one. These guests will be pleased that you remembered them; not all hosts and hostesses recognize that water is a beverage.

12. Finish (and I don’t mean start) dressing at least one hour before the party because the caterer, bartender, piano player, those heating and putting out hot hors d’oeuvres and plating cold snacks will soon be ringing your front bell. Early guests might arrive, too, so decide where you will seat them until party time.


Barbara Burtoff spent 10 years as a food writer and editor for the Boston Herald daily newspaper. She visited farms and markets, attended culinary schools and cooking contests, and covered parties of all sizes from large, gala fundraisers to small gatherings at home. She then left to finish an M.S. Education degree, expanded from one paper to national syndication focusing on consumer/shopping issues, nutrition and psychology of eating topics.

That's Entertaining! is published by the Cleveland Park Listserv. (c) 2010 Barbara Burtoff.  Have a question? You can reach Barbara Burtoff at: Entertainingways (at) fastmail (dot) net. Your comments about this column are welcome below.

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