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Dear Counselor

March 11, 2011

This is the inaugural advice column, which will run every two weeks, or otherwise at my whim.

Dear Counselor Chomp,

I’m thinking of hosting a dinner party, and I never have before. Actually, I don’t even think I’ve been to more than one official dinner party, and it was awkward and no fun. (Someone once told me that dinner parties aren’t as big in Austin as elsewhere for some reason.)

I remember reading that you like them. Do you have any words of advice on the number of guests? The ideal mix? Whether it should be formal or informal? How about for food genre?

Hungry and Hopeful

Dear Hungry and Hopeful,

Austin is the perfect place to have a dinner party, because it’s casual and warm. And casual and warm are the two best qualities anyone can hope for in a dinner party, at least if they are throwing it themselves. (If you’re an invitee, you can be hoping for great food, or a great networking opportunity, or a key party. But you are not a guest, you are the host: you should aim for casual and warm.)

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck Williams, who is the Williams behind Williams Sonoma. I was doing a magazine piece on the best entertaining tip just in case people drop by, and my talk with him gave me an excellent perspective on entertaining for the rest of my life, because the thrust of his answer was, “Liquor. Liquor and a bowl of peanuts. Always keep those on hand, and you’ll be fine.” He was eloquent and thoughtful, but he explained that honeydew and marscapone and a fresh souffle are nice, but that what people really want is a cocktail or a glass or wine or some seltzer and a tiny snack, and that that and a smile will get you a long way in terms of making guests feel comfortable, happy, and welcome. Prosecco works well, because the bubbles pierce your blood with alcohol immediately, and everyone will be quickly imbued with a feeling of pleased well-being and should they need it, forgiveness.

That said, if it’s a dinner party, and you have invited people for dinner, they will expect dinner. That’s not a problem if you’ve planned it out.

Guests: Who is the party for? Start small. Invite four people you like. Invite four people you aren’t obsessed with impressing. Invite four people who like to drink, and who aren’t vegetarians.

If it’s a couples thing, invite one couple who you know well. They are your support team, and you can call on them for help if necessary. And then, invite another couple you like but whom you’d like to get to know better, and who you think would jive well with the first couple. Those people provide the color and interest.

Menu: Here’s my main piece of advice: visualize how the evening will play out. Will your brow be dripping into the lentil soup when your guests arrive? Will you swear at them for ever having been born? Or will you have on fresh clothes and a smile and join your guests in an icy and fragrant gin cocktail when they arrive?

I’ve tried both approaches, and I urge you to stride as quickly as possible in the direction of the latter scenario.

That means managing your expectations about what you will serve. It means allotting time for planning, and cooking ahead. But food that has been prepped in advance is no less delicious than food that you are cursing over. Even if you didn’t live in Texas, I’d advise you to cook something that can be served buffet-style and at room temperature. I’m serious. Maybe have hot bread, or one hot thing. But start simple and see how it goes from there and let your confidence build. A few things that are great at room temperature: broiled asparagus spears, roasted meats, roasted vegetables, grain salads.

Another tip: Fat people are supposed to wear one piece of chunky, stunning jewelry. I am not calling you fat.

However, let’s apply that concept to your party. Think of like, the most delicious thing you can think of that you can serve. Is it doable for a party? Can you make it in bulk, or can you make it beforehand? Is it going to take a lot of complex execution at the last minute? If you think it would work, make it the focus, and then think of what might complement that. You only need to fret over the one piece of fat jewelry, which is one really special thing, and let the rest of the things play complementary or supporting roles.

Do make sure to have balance. Aside from having enough of a main dish, you’ll want a starch and plenty of vegetables.

Always serve salad. It’s civilized, the acidity of dressing is a great foil for other tastes, and it’s good for you. Our go-to salad comes from a box, has olive oil, a little kosher salt, lemon and rice wine vinegar, and black pepper. It’s very easy but very good. And while I hate to burden you with this information just before your party, salad does not count as the vegetable.

Planning the details:

Try to picture the evening, and ask yourself key questions, including but not limited to:

What will happen when guests arrive?

Do you have enough spots for people to sit?

Will the kids be awake? If so, at what point will they go to bed? Will that interrupt the evening? Just plan for it.

Is there good lighting? If you don’t want candles but you don’t want the overhead light, put some Christmas lights into a bowl. Or perhaps you live in a place where the electricity is sound enough that you have a dimmer. If so, can I come to the party? I love dimmers and never seem to live in that sort of place.

Is there enough silverware, glasses, etc.?

Again: casual is fine. If your party is supposed to be one with starched napkins, ie, if you aim high, you might disappoint. Try some great paper napkins from Ikea or use a pile of colorful floppy cloth ones. If you want to serve wine and don’t have enough wine glasses, little juice glasses work well. Anyone who expects you to have a really formal or fancy dinner party isn’t worth impressing. People just like to come over.

Picture the moment of serving the food. Will you be plating it yourself? Or bringing bowls to the table? Or doing an assembly line where people bring their plates up?

Don’t forget to consider dessert, coffee, and what you’ll have on offer to drink after dinner.

I hope this helps. Certain things need to be done several times before you are comfortable with them. And I’ll bet that Martha Stewart still gets nervous before people come over. Just have fun with it, and your guests will, too.

To get your question answered by Counselor Chomp, email it to churchchomp at gmail dot com.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. A Loyal Reader permalink
    March 11, 2011 10:17 am

    Dear Counselor,
    Excellent suggestions. One further thought, avoid discussing religion and politics so as not to offend your guests.

  2. sarah permalink
    March 11, 2011 8:24 pm

    i love all this, it makes me feel like I CAN DO IT! however, i agree that austin is – very sadly – not a dinner party city. people are always late, they’ve for some reason already eaten, they’re “not that hungry”, etc.

  3. Michelle permalink
    March 12, 2011 7:26 am

    What EXCELLENT tips!! Everything you say is SO TRUE.

    After, what, 20 years, I am finally giving dinner parties with some degree of ease, although my long-suffering husband might dispute that, as he is the main target of my stress-related snapping/ranting/loathing in the 15 minutes before the guests arrive. To sooth myself I try to think about how I feel when I’m going to a dinner party, which is “happy to get out of the house and be fed by someone else” and that sometimes works.

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