I’ve been to four planned gatherings in the last month. One of them was a massive-scale, official function, two were small gatherings, and one was a themed, open-to-all, casual party. For most of these, the events went off well – the atmosphere was inviting and warm, the food and beverage well-planned, and overall – people had FUN.
See what I did there? That last phrase was so important, I put it in bold, italics, and underlined it. Because that’s really what parties are about. Fun.
To a lot of people, throwing a party is an opportunity to freak out, and that’s always baffled me. I suppose that unlike a lot of folks, I grew up with the idea that hostessing was something that you did, that was important, and I had great role models for how to do it. DiploGramps was in the military, and so DiploGram did the traditional army wife thing – coffees for the ladies (who pretty much all stayed home – this was in the days before telecommuting was a thing or jobs were “portable”), bridge nights, and at least one barbeque or holiday party every year. I remember passing around peanuts and m&ms and opening the door to welcome people in for bridge nights (that’s a card game, whippersnappers). I was probably seven at the time. DiploDad had a similar experience with his grandparents, also a career military couple, and his grandfather was a military attaché in Egypt and Taiwan, where entertaining became second nature to them.
But even beyond the realm of the 1970s-80s military entertaining, there were a lot of other places to learn the skill along the way – sorority formals and date parties, ROTC events, prom in high school. Sorority and fraternity membership dipped quite a bit in the 1960s and I don’t run into many young adults these days who admit to wearing letters. This is sad, because in all honesty, these organizations, for all their faults, teach organizational and social skills like how to throw a party.
For an expat community, or indeed any community, building a sense of belonging is often achieved by parties and gatherings. It gives people shared experiences, a chance to talk in a non-threatening environment, and if you want to be crass about it – a chance to “network”. At the risk of being snarky, it’s what adults do to make life at your post, in your neighborhood, and in your community better.
Because I have been hostessing for a couple of decades now, and because I am damn good at it – I’m going to give you the essentials, and I’m going to level with you. To begin with, I’m not going to tell you that you can throw a party for nothing, because you can’t – it will require a bit of investment. But I will tell you that I’ve been to parties that have been pretty basic with respect to cost that still checked all the big three blocks: food, drink, and music. One of the best parties I ever went to was an impromptu BBQ thrown by my neighbor and his best friend when neighbor’s wife was out of town. He invited the entire street, and well, he only had a small tub of potato salad, a few bags of chips, and a one-pound container of coleslaw from the local deli for about 30 people. But he had about six different kinds of meat on the grill and four separate sauces to choose from, a couple of coolers of cheap beer and wine, and a loud sound system. Again, the basics: food, drinks, and music.
This is where about 40-50% of your budget should go. Two considerations here – cost and menu. Cost is the easy one – cut costs by shopping at stores like Costco, ethnic/international grocery stores (great deals on produce), and buy stuff that’s in season or on special. Make food yourself – you’ll have to plan to start baking/cooking at least 2 days in advance for pretty much anything, so consider your time and energy for that sort of thing when making a decision.
When deciding what to serve – play to your strengths. Those two guys who hosted the BBQ I mentioned? – that’s exactly what they were doing. If you are a master griller, but hate baking, outsource dessert – buy a cake at a bakery, or ask a friend who loves baking to bring his or her specialty. If you are a baker, but not much of a chef, consider having a dessert party with coffee, liqueurs, a cookies and milk set-up, or go for the French tradition of 12 different desserts on Epiphany (January 6), and bake and buy a number of treats.
Another consideration is choosing food around the theme of your party, if you choose to have a theme, that is. If you are having a party on Texas Independence Day – that’s March 2 – serve Texas-style fajitas, beer, nachos, homemade salsa, and “Texas caviar” – a black-eyed pea salad with a vinegarette dressing. Top it off with an easy cobbler, and you’re done. If you are having a coffee morning, you need coffee, tea, water, juice, a loaf cake (e.g. banana bread), a coffee cake, some small quiches or savory bites, some fruit, and perhaps some small bakery items like mini-croissants.
Think you don’t have time but still want to put out a big spread? “Cheat” – be shameless and buy or cater if it makes sense or if you just don’t have time to make your own salad, dessert, or side dishes. Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa and hostess extraordinaire, actually has a “country dessert platter” in her first cookbook and encourages you to just beautifully arrange a “delicious and beautiful assortment of cookies, bars, and pastries from your local bakery”. If Ina says it’s OK, it is, trust me. I would personally draw the line at passing the baked goods off as your own, as say, another well-known TV chef did with my friend’s bakery’s cinnamon Danish. Tacky.
The biggest problem with food is not preparing. One of the parties I went to in the last month had practically ZERO food – and they had asked for RSVPs to plan for it. The hosts were woefully unprepared, which is not the message you want to give to your friends, coworkers, or family. That said, if it’s clear you put in the time and volume but the crowd is either so ravenous or so large (i.e., it got crashed – awesome) that they’ve stripped the buffet like a bunch of piranhas, that’s fine. If you can, look into back-up foods – a few bags of chips with some salsa, nuts, olives, maybe cheese and crackers or some quickly cut fruit or vege can supplement the food. If you don’t have any of that stuff on hand, don’t worry – people will know you planned and forgive you if you have lots of booze, which brings me to my next point . . . .
I’m going to assume you’re throwing a party with alcohol. In my line of work, most people drink, and most people choose to serve alcohol at parties. If that’s not you, just substitute the words “mocktail” where I have “cocktail”.
Know your audience, is what I say. It makes no sense serving beer if no one you know drinks it, and if you have a cocktail party, you should serve cocktails, or don’t call it that. Confused about what to offer when? Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
- Backyard BBQ: beer, soda, wine, water, Kool-Aid or juice boxes if kids attending
- Cocktail party: beer, wine, soda, signature cocktail (premixed 30 mins before guests arrive and stored in fridge – but add anything fizzy at the last moment), gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch, tonic water, soda water, still water. (If you have a massive liquor cabinet, feel free to add to the list – I’m just listing basics here.)
- Birthday Party (kids): water and juice boxes or Kool-Aid. It is a GREAT investment to buy one of those 2-gallon water coolers or two and use that to dispense drinks.
- Brunch: water, orange juice, tomato juice, sparkling wine, vodka, coffee, tea. Other juices are nice too, but I’d personally avoid grape because of stain issues. Kids seem to really like it, but can’t keep from tipping it over. Adding a flavored vodka will make your screwdrivers or bloody Marys even more awesome. Try a hot pepper one.
- Open House: see Backyard BBQ above. Add on signature cocktail if you are celebrating something special like Cinco de Mayo or Christmas.
- Coffee: Coffee, tea, water, juice or lemonade.
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a cocktail. Start simple – learn to make at least one great signature cocktail. Invest in a book on mixology – I personally like “Mix, Shake, Stir” from Danny Meyer’s New York City restaurant group, and everyone should own a Boston Bartender’s Guide. A basic set of tools for drinks is also a must, and while it’s great to have quality items, if you are just starting out, you can make do with a more basic bunch of bar tools and some kitchen gadgets – a shaker, a shot glass (break out that one you bought on spring break your senior year), a teaspoon, a tablespoon, and a glass mixing cup.
If the party has a “defined time” – such as “from 3-6 p.m.”, you should budget a minimum of one and a half drinks per person per hour, unless you know for a fact your crowd is heavy drinkers or you have an outside party in the hot sun, in which case you should budget at least 2 per hour, including water and soft drinks. When folks are outdoors, they tend to drink more on average, and most of the time you’ll move the nonalcoholic beverages a lot more quickly. As tempting as it is, I’d advise you to skip the individual bottles of water and go for a water cooler – go green, and save cash at the same time. For 20 people, you’ll go through a 2-gallon cooler about every two hours. Keep water chilling in the fridge if you have room, and ice separately to put in the water cooler when you need to refill.
Not all parties focus on this, and most folks don’t think of it until the last minute. Even if it’s not a theme night that requires a certain kind of music, such as 50s Night, or an Elvis Party, you should take a moment to think about the kind of vibe you want, because music is a big part of setting the tone. If you’re throwing a holiday party, just make the playlist. Christmas and Halloween playlists can be recycled year after year and updated with minimal effort. Just keep in mind that you probably won’t want to play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at a sophisticated adult holiday party (unless it’s a jazzy number by Diana Krall) and “Santa Baby” isn’t appropriate for a kid’ party.
If you’re woefully overwhelmed and can’t think of a friend to enlist for this task, check out any of the great online streaming services such as Spotify or Google Music and look for publicly shared playlists. Try them out in advance and see which one speaks to you. Trust me, even if you can’t break it down yourself, you can recognize it, and then you can capitalize on all the work someone else did on this front and put your energy into another aspect of your party.
After the Big Three, Look for the Extras – but ONLY if You Want to
Once you’ve mastered the Big Three, or if you feel confident taking on more, you can branch out to the fancy stuff. Whatever you are looking to celebrate, you can find tons of help on the internet. I don’t personally spend much time on Pinterest, but lots of people do, and while there are great ideas, it can be overwhelming. The biggest thing to keep in mind when you DO go down the Internet rabbit hole is that you don’t have to DO everything a crazy, over-the-top party planner does. There are people out there who make a living doing this, and there are also people out there who post about their fantastic party and pass stuff off as theirs when they had a professional do it. One big thing with impact – a fantastic dessert, a really cool table decoration, a signature cocktail – can make your gathering memorable and up the fun factor. If you have an idea, just type it into google, and you’ll get tons of ideas and images. My rule of thumb: if you do more than three things “new to you” per party, you’re going to drive yourself crazy, so just don’t go there.
Just keep in mind, with a little planning, and some great food, drink, and music, you’re golden. Party on.