Here is the first post of the first series of “Messes.”
Sometimes I’ll visit someone’s house and they do something really well (they have the perfect lighting in the living room, or there’s a candle burning in the bathroom, for example) — or, more often, I’ll do something not-so-well when someone is visiting me (how many times do I have to remind myself to put a hand towel in the bathroom??). I’ll make a little note in my head about what works, and what doesn’t work when hosting guests. It’s not like I’ll pull this list out every time I have people over, but I want these things to become second nature, so that I’m not following the rules of being a good host … I just am a good host.
Phew. Does that make sense?
You know I’m a total nerd when it comes to things that I want to do better. First I research. Then I start small, refining and gradually improving. This is how I learned to walk. And ride a bike. I’m not a slow learner, exactly, but I like to learn in steps.
So, I’m learning how to entertain. I don’t think that entertaining is something that people often think of as a learned skill, but that’s how I’ve decided to approach it. Because of course it’s a learned skill. Some people might have a knack for it, but everyone who’s good at it learned from their father or grandmother or college roommate or partner.
Our parents entertained a lot. Growing up, I remember a lot of informal gatherings with anywhere between one and thirty guests in our house. Mom and Dad would cook simple, scalable dishes like chili con carne with a toppings bar, or pasta with caesar salad. Sometimes it would just be Costco take-and-bake pizza, or Steuffers’ lasagna, but the food was always plentiful and tasty. For a while our go-to party food was DIY paninis. We’d break out the George Foreman grills and set up an elaborate (but prepared-ahead) bar of cold cuts, grilled chicken, vegetables, cheeses and spread. Whenever possible, our family’s party meals were interactive. They were certainly always noisy.
What I remember is that our parents always made people feel at home. I don’t have the kind of sprawling suburban house we grew up in, where I could host thirty in a pinch. I don’t have a big landscaped backyard with patio seating for 10. I do, however, have a Brooklyn apartment with a living and dining room that are larger than average for our space-starved city. I’m learning to entertain in the space that I have. I don’t want to be the most accomplished thrower-of-formal-dinner-parties, or even the life of the party. I just want to be able to invite people over for a meal and make them feel totally comfortable. I want people to have fun.
Oh, and I also don’t want to be exhausted or broke at the end of the night.
To be clear, I’ve hosted a fair amount of dinner parties over the years, starting with a freshman-year birthday dinner in the dorm kitchen, all the way through Sunday “Family” dinners through the whole year after college. I’ve had people over in my various Brooklyn apartments over the past few years, and I even had one or two (very frugal) parties during grad school. But my college food was terrible, my post-college meals were tasty but always late (and relied on my three roommates for help with set-up and clean-up), and I’m still trying to figure out how to put all the pieces together the right way every time.
I’ve learned that planning ahead is great, but having a mental checklist of things that need to happen is key. What follows are my (current) cardinal rules of entertaining.
- Rule numero uno: Plan big, but plan to scale back. I love mapping out multiple-coursed meals with extravagant side dishes and three choices for dessert. But I don’t have a two ovens, a warming drawer, a fridge that can accommodate a full-sized platter, or a sous chef. I always end up dropping stuff as I go along. I’m okay with it. If I don’t have time to make the pita bread from scratch, I’ll buy pita and spend more time on the homemade hummus. Prioritize.
- Don’t plan to make dishes that you’ve never made before. I repeat. Do not. Make. Dishes. That. You’ve. Never. Made. Before. But I’m a confident cook! I can handle root vegetable gratin! No! You can’t! (Well, maybe you can.) It’ll turn out totally weird and curdled and grainy because you didn’t realize how gently you have to cook a cheesy bechamel! Just don’t do it, guys.
- Don’t do potlucks. Okay, that’s not a cardinal rule, it’s more of a personal principle. Don’t do potlucks unless: You really know and trust who you’re potlucking with; You sort out ahead of time who’s bringing what, or; You’re a glutton for punishment. I like all the elements of my meal to more or less go together. I’m perfectly happy making something simple and harmonious by myself rather than eating seven totally oddball things (or worse, one entree and six desserts). On the flip side:
- If people ask what they can bring, tell them what they can bring. Don’t say “oh, anything.” That can be quite annoying, as it puts the burden of figuring out what’s appropriate onto the guest. Just tell them “oh! Can you pick up a loaf of French bread?” or, “Just bring a bottle of wine you like!” or “Would you mind bringing your famous guacamole?” Be specific, but be nice. Don’t ask them to gallivant around the city looking for Spanish paprika or anything.
Okay. So those are the first steps. Next up: Menu planning (duh duh duh DUH!).