For Man's Benefit: A Woman Explains How to Throw a Dinner Party


The proliferation of celebrity chefs on TV has produced a general tizz around the idea of having people over to dinner, because the constant sight of all that fancy cooking is liable to induce feelings of inadequacy in nearly anyone. But consider that even when suave Euros like, say, Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver are trying to be all chummy and show you how easy everything is, that breezy insouciance is owing to the fact that none of them ever washes a dish, forgets where the grater is, or runs out of wineglasses and/or money. More to the point, if they accidentally incinerate something, they get to do it over again, offscreen, and no one’s the wiser. So I thought I might pass on a few dinner-party-throwing insights, only from a normal person with no cohort of food-styling elves.

The Guest List
There’s one really critical thing to worry about if you want to throw a fun dinner party, and it’s not the food: it’s the guests. Can these people stand each other? For four or five hours? If not, you have to break them up into groups of people who can stand each other, and then throw that many parties. (This is actually two tips in one, as the more dinner parties you throw, the smoother a host you will become.)

Sometimes there’s nothing for it, and you have to have some rumpus. Fractious individuals can be kept from each other’s throats (at least at the table) by means of placecards, which may seem a bit square, but are invaluable. Children like to make them, if there are any of those around; maybe ransom-note style, or with a Dymo labelmaker. Speaking of children, if your guests are bringing any, pen them off somewhere as far away as possible (someone else’s house would be good) with some videos and their own snacks and things, and somebody to keep an eye on them. That will ensure the peace, and also ensure that you won’t appear in their published reminiscences one day. Otherwise, specify grownups only-to everyone, because if you allow one little beast and not another, that is very distressing for the parents of the non-invitee. People with children are terrified about asking whether or not to bring them, so specify at the moment of the invitation.

Apart from the rules of “no enemies” and “no children,” other forms of dinner party segregation, however, are not as fun. It may seem like a good idea to throw together a party of all singles, or all marrieds. This is not the case. Diversity is always more entertaining.

Make Something You Know How To Cook
In order to make your reputation as a good host, you need provide only one or two remarkable dishes. Coulibiac of salmon is a remarkable dish, but then so is homemade bread, and the latter is child’s play, especially that slow-rising Times recipe. Homemade French bread served warm with butter you made yourself (you could mash in a bunch of superfinely-chopped parsley and/or thyme or marjoram, if you want) is so nothing to make, and really you only need a salad, a plain roast chicken and a little dessert to make a really good and memorable dinner. (This is how you make a roast chicken, and 200°C is basically 400°F, by the way.)

The secret of stress-free dinner partying is: don’t attempt anything you haven’t made before, and don’t be afraid to buy really good stuff already made from a restaurant or caterer.

Other simple and exciting things to make at home: this pasta (you need the machine to roll it out, though, or at least I do,) preserved fruit or jam (so good for dessert, with molded cream cheese and plain biscuits, or Cuban style, with saltine crackers,) or ice cream (you don’t need the machine for that, you just stir it really well a few times while it’s freezing).

Some very delicious things like stews and curries and Bolognese sauce are even better made a day ahead. Then you only need to do the rice or pasta on the day, which is a boon. You really don’t need fresh pasta for homemade Bolognese sauce, by the bye. The sturdier dried Italian pasta suits it much better. After you drain the pasta you carefully stir in maybe a third to half of the sauce, making sure it’s mixed in while the pasta is still hot. The rest you ladle on as you serve.

Dessert Is Easy
Go nuts and make a flourless chocolate cake, if you want; it takes only an hour. If you can get really good fruit, dessert is even easier. You can serve chilled, perfectly ripe peaches in wineglasses which you then fill up with champagne or prosecco (a lovely dessert that is ridiculously easy; have bowls, too, and have cream to pour over the peaches, in case someone isn’t drinking, and someone always isn’t drinking, which is why you have this pinot noir grape juice on hand). Or if somehow everyone drinks wine, serve just a little glass of dessert wine, and some sliced crisp pears and toasted walnuts.

If Your Food Is Ugly, People Will Still Eat It
The big thing is to stay calm, so that you can have fun yourself. If you take on a difficult recipe, you will only be all worried about it and not be able to think straight on the day.

Once years ago I made Beef Wellington for a friend’s birthday party with the works, this beautiful truffle butter, a whole filet, I made the puff pastry myself and cut little leaves out of it for the top, and so on. I was recklessly heady with the recent success of a batch of Tournedos Rossini, as I recall. Those are tricky because you have to sear slices of a whole foie gras, which is terrifying. Anyway, when I went to fetch my magnificent-looking leaf-ornamented structure out of the oven, the pastry had exploded in there! I guess it had convected all to heck. A-a-l-l-l-b-b-e-r-r-t, I quavered to my ex, oh God. The filet was now exposed to the elements, and the pastry bunched up around it on either side, like a burst shroud. The guests were busy with hors d’oeuvres and vitriolic gossip so they hadn’t witnessed my parallel collapse, fortunately.

It looks like a vulva, Albert said, and so it did. I carved it in the kitchen, hiding, in the most abject state, and served it in total misery. Surprisingly, it tasted fine (because you can lather a brick with truffle butter and it will taste fine, let alone a fillet steak.) My wretched daughter immediately christened the disaster Beef Poppington, and none of them will ever shut up about it. I have never really recovered from this blow. Now I plan like a freaking general.

Planning: Two Days Out
For optimum serenity, the time to begin throwing your party is at least two days before. (You’ll have made invitations, oh, a week to two weeks previous.) Make sure the seating is all in order and clean, tidy up a bit extra (especially the bathroom guests will use), get all your serving stuff together and do the shopping. Polish glassware and deal with the linens. Or have paper ones, that sort of stuff doesn’t matter; it just matters that everything is really clean and orderly. Make sure that every plate, every dessert dish, all the flatware, every glass, every serving dish, is ready.

The day before, do all the cooking you can, to the last bit-even make salad dressing, down to the littlest things. (There is no need ever to buy salad dressing; vinaigrette or the best dressing ever can be made in one minute and is infinity times better than the bought kind.) Set the table, if possible. If not, set the table in the morning, before you really get cracking; arrange the flowers and put them somewhere the cats won’t get at them. (Also, let the allergic know that you have cats.) Make sure flower arrangements at the table are low enough to see over, unless you mean for them to serve as a screen between those who revile each other. Having these preliminaries out of the way steadies the mind enormously.

It’s worth buying fruit and vegetables at the farmers’ market, if you can manage it. There are still some tomatoes at this time of year! Just cut them up (peel them only if the skins are very heavy) and throw a little olive oil, salt and pepper on them. Salad! And delicious. If you chop the tomatoes rather fine first and chill them for a while after you dress them, they are lovely served on hot, freshly made rice. An unusual French side dish that I stripped down from an old Vogue magazine (they used to have recipes all the time, before they declared war on eating).

The crucial thing about provisions is that they be plentiful and ready to hand. Within one minute of arrival each guest should have a drink and a comfortable place to roost and converse. Within two or three, there should be a snack available, even if it’s just a few olives, crudités and bowls of stuff to dip them in. Nuts can be made more inviting with a brief warming in a hot oven with a little olive oil and maybe a bit of chopped rosemary. Provide for each guest to refresh his own drink-punch is really nice that way-so that you are free to make your last-minute preparations unhindered. Have fresh juice and stuff around for people who aren’t drinking. Make sure there is a water glass for each person and pitchers of iced water available throughout the party. I like to put cucumber slices in there; they are pretty, and it makes the water taste really good. Cocktails are kind of a bother unless you can deputize a bartender, because they have to be made one or two at a time. Beer, wine and punch are far easier to manage.

The best stuff to serve at a party will still taste good at or near room temperature, or won’t get tired from being kept warm. Cream sauces deteriorate once they’ve cooled even a little, but plain baked chicken can sit for a while and be fine. Oil-based pasta sauces hold up a lot better over the hour or so it takes people to finish eating. You’d think that french fries are so simple, but you really can’t have them at a big party unless you’ve got help in the kitchen, because they go off their peak almost instantly; that’s true of fried things generally. Stews (tagines, curries, daube, etc.) generally will be fine kept over a low flame for ages, just give them a stir now and then.

If you are serving more than six, buffet service is best. Then people can go back for seconds whenever they like. If you have good hors d’oeuvres that can sit for a while, like marinated mushrooms or a Spanish tortilla (even better made with scallions instead of yellow onions-also, this is a perfect light entree for vegetarians), they can stay with the buffet, in case people would like to graze on those a little more. Tidy up the tables, remove stray napkins and glasses once in a while.

Unusual Hostess Gifts
A tricky eventuality that is rarely discussed: if someone brings… let’s say, unusual party favors (at my house, such things are invariably produced and often smoked right before dessert by an agèd hippie), these should be freely shared. This includes cigars and anything else. Those little cabals that form in some corner of your house are depressing to those who haven’t been invited to share; even those who would refuse would like to be asked. So make the perp offer to everyone, if you can. (I have been thinking about laying in my own supply for use in these cases. I wonder how long it keeps in the freezer?) There should also be room for those who don’t indulge to get far, far away. Your local customs may vary. It should be noted that a dinner party does not usually involve the use of hard drugs, unless you are on Fire Island or are a South American drug kingpin. In which cases: you already know how to throw a dinner party.

The Most Important Thing
Finally, make sure you have one hour before guests arrive for self-beautification, and then after you look wonderful, you can sit down for a minute with a book and a drink and completely forget that there are people coming over. Then the doorbell rings, and the fun can begin.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and

Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

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Photograph by Cia de Foto, from Flickr.