The Life of the Party

Once upon a time, Barry and I threw a party and nobody came. Actually, two people showed up, but we had invited over fifty. It was a crushing blow. For weeks, we ate the leftover food and drank coconut-rum punch and wondered what went wrong.

Part of the problem is that parties have become so casual, with huge blind-copied e-mail invitations, that nobody takes them seriously. Most parties we’re invited to are potlucks or barbecues, with the food served buffet-style. More people? More paper plates and plastic forks. Fewer? Save the plates and forks for the next party.

And then there’s E-vite. It’s sort of nice to be able to see the whole party list — who’s invited, who’s responded. But by the same token, it engenders a kind of rudeness. Instead of taking the invitation at face value, as a gift from the hosts, you analyze the list to see if it’s worth your while to attend. You respond with a “maybe,” then change your mind based on other people’s responses. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think that’s impolite.

The truth is, even a casual party requires setup and planning. That’s a real nightmare if none of your guests will commit.

Thinking back on memorable parties, the smaller, more intimate ones come to mind. A going-away party for our friend Doug was especially memorable — Michelle cooked a beautiful multi-course meal and served it on matching china to twelve lucky guests, all seated at the same table. Invitations to special parties like that come by telephone or handwritten note, not by e-mail. Such invitations are highly prized, and you wouldn’t think of blowing them off, or failing to RSVP.

When we started entertaining in Seattle, we started small. At our first dinner party, we invited two friends to share some Maine lobsters that we’d ordered. When the lobsters failed to materialize, we made homemade pizza, then rescheduled and had a second party, with lobster, two weeks later. Later, we tried having a generic party, but it was blah. We needed a fun activity to give it some pizzazz.

That’s how the White Elephant parties began, and they ran for many years. Each year, they got crazier and bigger. Barry discovered how easy it was to throw a turkey on the barbecue grill, so that became the central menu item. He’d take it off the grill as the party was getting in full swing and plop it on a platter in the middle of the table, next to a carving fork and knife. Then he’d walk away.

The guests would stand around, looking puzzled. “Who’s going to carve the turkey?” they’d ask. Finally, someone who couldn’t stand to wait any longer would just pick up the knife and start carving away. And Barry and I would give each other a high-five, since we knew how to cook a turkey, but didn’t want to admit that carving it was beyond us.

We don’t have our huge party space any more, but we still love to entertain. That’s where the smaller gatherings come in. Barry’s parents cohosted several gatherings with us at their house, which is the perfect place for parties, with an open living room, dining room, and kitchen. We even hosted a tiny party in our 30-foot trailer. (It works fine, as long as all the guests stay seated and don’t move.) When the weather gets nice, I’m looking forward to hosting a picnic at some pretty park. We even have friends who will let us co-host a party at their Seattle home.

The key, for me, it to make each gathering small and unique. Let people know that they are the special invitees for this party. I won’t ask them to bring anything — I like to cook for my friends. It’s not even a time issue: I once got home from work at 5:30, threw the ingredients for minestrone into the pressure cooker, and served dinner to eight people an hour later.

There are lots of wonderful big parties with huge crowds and groaning tables covered with potluck dishes. I hope my friends continue to invite me to them! But for now, I will return their generosity with invitations to smaller, more intimate gatherings. I hope we all have a good time. And I sincerely hope to never again throw a party where nobody comes.

For ideas on what to feed your friends, read Tips for Feeding Your Friends, in Meps’ Foodie Gazette.