In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

How To Have A Fancy Dinner Party Without Considering Suicide 10 Minutes Before It Begins from Anxiety About Your Cooking and General Overwork

This is not the baton twirler you will soon read about but it is a REMARKABLE likeness.

At some point, you will want to have everyone over to see your fabulously designed (dining room/living room/studio/deck) that is full of unbelievably gorgeous and inexpensive furniture you bought off Craigslist because of this blog. No one will believe their eyes or their ears as you modestly recount the price tags (This can be boring for listeners. Watch for eye glaze.).

To extend the time they are willing to sit still for this nonsense, you are going to have to feed them something wonderful. Might as well have a dinner party (brunch, lunch and cocktails in a future post.) Guests are far more eager to listen to you prattle and they will nod appreciatively if they are busily scooping up this dip or that spread and filling their glasses with champagne.

There are a few simple rules to accomplishing this without the aforementioned suicidal mood swings. They come from 20 years of fantastically successful dinner parties (I still manage to be known as the chef in my circle of friends, which includes extremely competent and talented cooks who constantly wow me with what they turn out – so different and as far as I am concerned, so much more wonderful than mine. My reputation is all hoodwinkery, and comes from slavishly adhering to the rules below.)

They also come from one socially tragic 13th birthday party that I have still not recovered from. Thank god for my Dad, and Red Lobster. To wit: I was a tall, hygienically challenged 12 going on 13 in 8th grade. I was goofy but, I thought, well liked. My birthday unfortunately falls close to Christmas. I selected a date for my birthday party and invited the entire junior high school swim team, inclouding the captain who was a total dream. Well, as it turns out, Kelly Gignilliat, the tiny, adorable flute playing blonde national champion baton twirler in my grade, decided to have a party the same night, and invite the same crew. (plus scads of others I’m sure. Not me, though. )

(Really, I’ve gotten over it. I couldn’t have gone anyway! I had a 13th Birthday Party to host.)

Needless to say, 8th grade social politics being what they are, I had about 33 no shows. It was almost devastating.

Almost, I say, because my father had the presence of mind prior to the party to call Red Lobster and order up several platters of shrimp cocktail and blue claw crab claws.

The seven guests who came couldn’t believe their luck: SO MANY CRAB LEGS. All for them.

While most partiers would take one look around at all the other losers who didn’t get to go to Kelly Gignilliat’s party instead and walk right out – better to spend the night alone than wallow in group humiliation – these seven saw it for what it was: a Dionysian feast, just for us.

We ate, we drank (soda), we played ping pong and pool and tag, and those 7 remained some of my best friends through high school... where, it should be noted, I had numerous extremely successful massive parties, including one on graduation night when my dad and brother got arrested on trumped-up obstruction of justice charges. The party went on until 4 the next day, so no harm done, and the charges were eventually dropped.


Rule 1: if you serve awesome food and have a lot of no shows, no one will pity you. They will just be glad they came. And they will tell their friends, and next time, you will have more of a crowd than you are prepared to deal with.

So: prepare to do a little work. You need awesome food. But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Make lists of things you need to buy, and things you need to do (wash and iron your napkins. Please use cotton or linen napkins. Please), and things you need to prepare. Having a successful dinner party requires a little OCD.

Rule 2: Start with a bang. Have appetizers ready to go when people arrive, and have champagne glasses out and a bottle open and on ice when they get there. As soon as they walk in, hand them a glass and something to eat.

Rule 3: Make one fantastic appetizer that looks terribly complicated (and may well be.) Let the others be simple and more filling: maybe (bought) hummous and sweet potato chips, olives (rinsed and then put into fresh olive oil, with lemon zest, rosemary or thyme, and crushed hot red pepper. Put out little bowls for pits)., and fresh ricotta cheese (you will make this the day before) with shredded fresh basil or a touch of pesto on crostini. Save other cheeses for later. They are too filling. The complicated appetizer should be one bite, and it must be gorgeous and fresh. Hollow out a length of cucumber and pack in minced raw tuna and ginger – dress it with a little soy and wasabi. Or make a gorgeous, rich hot or cold soup and serve it in the tiniest of mugs with a fresh, hot handmade crouton crisped in butter. Then be all like: this old thing? Martha Stewart has a whole book on hors d'oeurves. Check it out. But just do one. More than that and you’ll go bananas. You are just trying to make a first impression. That sets the stage for everything that comes next.

Rule 4: Have set a gorgeous table the night before so you are not racing to do it before the party. You have insanely gorgeous appetizers to make (just 1 per person).

Rule 5: Have more wine than you think you will need. Terrible to run out. Don’t depend on your friends to bring enough to cover you. Store their bottles for the next party.

Rule 6: If this is the kind of dinner where you are trying to wow people, your dinner menu should be something people either universally love or wouldn’t attempt to make for themselves. And it better be good. But it also needs to be something that doesn’t require last minute prep. My go to entrée for this: Nobu’s Black Cod with Miso. It marinates for three days, then just pops in the oven for a few minutes when the guests arrive. It smells nutty and mysterious… most people don’t cook with Miso paste so they’ll be all “whu?”

Rule 7: Have something really accessible and rich as a side dish – like a fantastic upscale mac and cheese, or potatoes au gratin with sour cream and gruyere. They can both be prepared in advance, then sit in the oven with the fish while it cooks to warm up. Make more of this than you think you will need, because people will scarf this down, especially the people who think they hate fish so don't try the black cod with miso. These people should not be invited again. Unless you really, really love them.

Rule 8: Make a big salad with the best greens you can find and THIS IS IMPORTANT homemade vinaigrette. Wash and dry the lettuce, if necessary. Put the vinaigrette in the bottom of the bowl, pile the lettuces on top. Don’t toss the salad till it gets to the table or everything will be soggy and horrible. Don’t put too much dressing on it. And if you pass around a bottle of dressing, I don’t know what to do with you. I give up. (bottled dressings have emulsifiers and are almost always too sharp for my taste, and are full of terrible unpronounceable things). Vinaigrette is simple – 3 parts good olive oil, 1 part acid (vinegar or lemon juice or blood orange juice or or or, or some mix thereof), a little dollop of Dijon mustard – not too much – you can add more but you can’t take it away – salt at the end.) Don't put a bunch of things in the salad. This isn't the Golden Corral. Just good lettuce and vinaigrette.

Rule 9: Buy (or make… if you’re going for Dinner’s quite easy and soothing to make, but people think its hard so they will be impressed, and your house will smell like heaven) good bread. Warm it in the oven just before serving. I have a pain aux noix rising right now in a cast iron Dutch oven. Took no time at all.
Rule 9.5: Don't attempt to plate the food for your guests. This is not a restaurant. Serve it family style. It's a great ice breaker, if the chamapgne did not have the desired effect, and will remind people of (hopefully happy) loud family dinners growing up. It will occupy everyone with noise and movement, and gives you a chance to toast your guests and thank them for joining you. They will toast you back.

Rule 10: If dinner is going well, have a cheese course. People love it because how often do you get to eat three or four different kinds of cheese at once? You can plate it up in advance. Let it sit at room temperature while you eat dinner. Serve it with walnut halves and maybe some honey. A bowl of pears or apples would also be nice. No one will take them, though. Let people finish off the last of the bread with the cheese.

Rule 11: Just when they think it’s coming to an end and you suck for not giving them a real dessert, bust out dessert. It must be chocolate. Pots de Crème, a Chocolate Stout Cake you made the day before (cream cheese icing), chocolate waffles you make tableside and serve with salted caramel ice cream, homemade chocolate ice cream sandwiches. It must be chocolate. You can serve an apple or other fruit tart or a pie, but unless you also serve chunks of dark chocolate, passed around on a little plate, everyone will leave vaguely dissatisfied. You need to start and end with a bang (chocolate is the bang) and everyone will forget anything you screwed up in between.

Rule 12: if you are feeling REALLY ridiculous and want to impress, have made homemade sticky buns or scones for your guests and send them out the door with each one wrapped in parchment paper (tied up with string. This will be their favorite thing I promise) for breakfast the next day.

You’re welcome.


  1. LOVE IT!!! Will attempt it after we're done with the renovation. And by we, I mean you and I, LOL

  2. Hi! After reading your comments over at Apartment Therapy, I had to pop by your blog. So fun...and great taste too!


  3. Thanks Kathleen. Checking out your blog now!

  4. Awesome. Best dinner party advice I have ever read!

  5. I am thinking, ummm, I was one of the seven that showed up for the crab claws. Never laughed so hard. I especially love the way you didn't spell the baton twirler's name correctly lest she were to find out you were writing about her on your blog. Love you, Pam! Mandy

  6. And don't forget the other important rules
    - make or buy lots of ice
    - own a nice apron to put on before people get there and after you toss the dirty one in the hamper
    - empty the trash and the dishwasher right before the party
    - comfortable shoes
    - put out fresh water and wine glasses on the table and start over when it's time to sit
    - make sure no one can see your kitchen from the table! screen, fabric "door", whatever it takes!
    - assign people tasks so they feel helpful - refilling glasses, stacking plates, etc. they will want to do something and will invade your kitchen.