The gathering of guests in one's home is a time honored tradition that has sadly been neglected in the hustle and bustle of the latter half of the twentieth century. Time for entertaining in the home has disappeared along with the single-worker family, and the two-ounce martini.
What little contemporary entertaining is still done, is usually foisted off onto the wait staff of a mediocre restaurant with a still-pimpled bartender who's skills drop-off dramatically if the asked for libation is not named after a beach or crude act of animal-like reproduction.
With so lilttle time left after working to pay an unbelievable tax burden, who among us has not resorted to arranging only to meet outside our homes? Who has time to clean the house, buy the groceries, fix the food and prepare drinks -- even for a small gathering?
Dinner parties being such rare occasions, it is my hope that you will take the time and effort to make them special occasions as well. Your guests will appreciate it, and you might be surprised at how much you appreciate it yourself.
The Right Mix
In business, the motto is "location, location, location." For parties, dinner parties in particular, your motto should be "atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere."
Dinner parties don't have to be stodgy affairs catered by gents named Jeeves. They do have to be fitting for the time of year, guests invited, food served and so on. You wouldn't have a superbowl party during the baseball all-star game in July. Likewise, don't invite your friends over for cocktails and dinner in formal wear and serve them beer and hotwings.
One of the most important things to remember when planning a dinner party is that mixing guests is as important -- probably even more so -- than mixing drinks. Drinks can be thrown out if they have bad taste. Guests can't. At least not tactfully.
Don't try to mix social circles unless you are planning a very large party, and there is no chance for couples or small groups to feel left out. There's nothing worse than inviting your three office co-workers to a Christmas party that is really for your significant other's five branch offices. Not only will your co-workers feel out of place, but they will think long and hard before returning for another of your parties.
Mixing the Food
Most appropriate though is what I call affordable style. This allows you to set the boundaries for your food and service, and still maintain a hospitality ethos that you can apply at all your parties. As the host you need to carefully choose your menu so as to properly entertain your guests and not overspend your budget. Making the dishes ahead of time and setting them out for self-serve buffet is perfectly appropriate, and almost completely expected now days. Your job should be done as much ahead of time as possible, so that you are not constantly having to mix dips, arrange crackers, or pull sizzling hot, mushroom caps from the oven.
Fix your appetizers ahead of time whenever possible, and make sure to have a choice for those of your guests who may not like or want cheese for instance, or for who may be vegetarians. Don't overdo the pre-dinner delights. These are only meant to compliment the cocktails and whet the appetite for what comes later.
The beauty of a buffet meal is it's simple. There are just a couple of things to remember. Arrange the table in as interesting a manner as possible, but also so as to make it easy to serve. Try and serve dishes that hold their shape while standing, won't be unappealing when they cool off, and can be easily managed with a fork alone. Make sure that everything a guest will need for the meal is provided on the table and that coffee/beverage service is set away from the food so that refills don't hold up the food line. Make sure that the seating area has ample table space for glasses and plates.
There are only a few simple rules for serving. All food is passed from the left. Water and wine are poured from the right for convenience. Every dish of the main course is usually passed a second time. When the dinner plate is removed, the bread and butter plate is too, as are the salt and pepper. Under no circumstances are dishes stacked. "
Having dinner prepared ahead of time can be difficult, but it is possible. A cold dinner is okay in the spring or summer, but for fall or winter you almost have to serve a hot meal. So, at a minimum you'll have to heat the main dishes, if not prepare them outright to make sure they are fresh. Hot items that you can keep warm such as meatballs with a variety of hot dipping sauces are perfect. You can keep such items warm in a crockpot in the kitchen until they need to be served. Avoid fried foods unless your kitchen is far removed from the main party mingling area. Fried grease tends to linger in the air and by the end of the evening can add a stench that drives guests out the door. Baking is much preferable and requires less hands-on maintenance.
"At a cocktail supper, let your food be ample, your menu brief. Instead of rich canapes with more garnishes than you can shake a cocktail spear at, the appetizers would feature a single cold and a single hot hors d'oeuvre of unrivaled goodness. The main dish that follows may be hot or cold or a seasonable combination of the two. Desserts should be the non-cooked type such as strawberries Romanof or a fresh-fruit compote with kirsch, supplemented with a tray of assorted small specialties from the best pastry shop within driving distance."
For dessert remember the rule: k.i.s.s. Keep it simple stupid. Pastries are always good for dessert, and old standards like cake and ice cream never go out of style. Unless you're feeling adventuresome don't risk your reputation on untried recipes or extravagant flaming dishes. Many of your guests may prefer an after-dinner brandy, port or coffee drink and if you serve those they won't miss the dessert at all.
Keep an assortment of soft drinks handy. You never know who has turned a
Teetotaler since you last met. Most parties in the Indian context include children as well. An apple juice is appropriate for the person who has to do the driving back.
The Right Atmosphere
The atmosphere at cocktail parties is absolutely crucial to the success of the party. The wrong music, the wrong setting, the wrong accoutrements can sink an evening before it has a fair chance to get underway. The most important thing to remember is that above food and beyond drink the one essential element for a good host/hostess is effortless hospitality. Be prepared. A hospitable home is one that is ready when the first guest arrives. Coasters, ashtrays, serving trays, every little accessory needs to be thought of ahead of time. Nothing kills conversation more than a host who spends all of his time attending to last minute details while guests sit silently in the parlor.
The setting needs to be appropriate to the occasion. Don't spare the subtleties. If the evening calls for a lace tablecloth make sure you have one. Don't mix fine crystal with plastic cups, or china with the everyday dishes. Dim the lights to the appropriate level. Nicely arranged fruit, decorated with vine leaves, indicates good taste without extravagance. Make sure the flowers are arranged, and cigarettes next to the ashtrays. A pitcher of pre-mixed cocktail chilling in the refrigerator will help get things off to a good start.
The Art of Talking
Once the party is underway your job is to keep it flowing. Keep the conversation going, help the guests meet one another, encourage mingling, and always remember names.
"Whatever the sort of gathering in your home, the major entertainment will very likely be conversation. As a mere human being, of course, you should know the ins and outs of good conversation. As a host, such knowledge is essential, for one of your jobs is to steer the talk. ... For this job of steering conversation, perhaps the prime qualification is to be a good conversationalist yourself. And who is a good conversationalist?
His talk is casual, easy, varied. He rearely talks for more than three minutes at a time unless other ask him questions.
She suits her topics to her audiences. She does not drag out her personal affairs or her innermost convictions for casual aquaintances.
His phrases are crisp, his remarks have a beginning and an end. No rambling.
When she tells you something, you have a feeling that she thinks it would interest you, not that she she wanted to tell just anybody."
Behind the conversation you had better have a good soundtrack. Exactly what that soundtrack should be depends on all sorts of things. Is this a social, family or business affair? Are these close friends, aquaintances, family, neighbors? What kind of mood are you trying to create? Can you afford live music? Do you want to just let the music run itself, or are you prepared to constantly manage the records, CDs, tapes, whatever?
Depending on your answers to these questions, and assuming you can't/won't pay a band for the evening, you will need to either raid you own record and CD collections, or invest in the right music.
It is best to start a party with the music that will set the atmosphere.
Light Hindustani Classical music playing in the background never fail. Keep the volume low. Spread the speakers in as many locations as possible. Avoid mixing different lead instuments. Vocal can always be mixed. But dont mix Hindustani, Karnatik and Filmy Songs. Old Hindi film songs also gell with most crowds. Fast and loud music to be avoided unless you have a seperate guest area who lke to tap their legs to the music. Dont boast of your music collection to your guests. Someone may request for an odd number which may irritate others in the gathering. Ghazals go well with drinks, specially alcoholic ones. Avoid regional languages unless all the guest belong to one region. .
Lounge and exotica are good when you want to evoke a certain feeling for yesteryear. That time when gender roles were clearly defined, movies were still on the "silver screen," chivalry wasn't dead, everyone was book smart, and drinks were simple and cold. Jazz is great when you want to provide background for less esoteric and more intellectual conversations. It seems to lend itself to a certain bohemian sophistication. Acid jazz will work best late at night in a very urban setting. The widerange of selections with acid jazz gives you more diversity, but is seldom as appreciated by your guests. Sixties easy listening sets the tone for a more wild, "swinging," kind of evening. Moog music and orchestral covers of the Rolling Stones always urges people to indulge in more drinks for some reason. Make sure the bar is well stocked. Rock and roll is always fun, but not conducive to good conversation, or relationship builiding. Not to mention that your sure to offend someone with whatever you choose. Finally, seasonal and international music are the easiest. Music for Christmas parties, Cinco de Mayo celebrations and so on, bring their own atmosphere and will inspire a festive and joyous spirit that is sure to be felt by everyone.
Ending a Party
The host should have predecided when to end the party allowing fow small extension. One person from your side should accompany each group of departing guest to the door. Thank the guests for the pleasant time they gave you. Many a host often neglect this ritual after a physically tiring evening. Doing it to a selective group in the gathering can leave a bitter feeling in others.
This article is being updated in a more typical Indian context along with menu planner.