At some point in your early-to-mid-twenties you’re going to hit a fork in the road.
Oftentimes it accompanies another milestone in your life, like graduating college, moving into your first apartment or your first cohabitation with a significant other. It’s at serious points like this where you make big decisions about how you’re going to live your life, and although most people aren’t conscious of it while it’s happening, it’s at these points where you decide whether or not you’re going to be the type of person who hosts dinner parties.
For most of your early adult social life; you can afford to be less than discerning about what you eat and drink. Right about the time you hit legal drinking age it’s acceptable, hell, it’s practically required that you ignore most societal conventions concerning things like food safety, set meal times, basic nutrition, moderation and good taste. Even if you suffer the Dickensian misfortune of working in a professional kitchen at that age, your exposure to good food won’t have much of an effect on your taste as you’ll be too busy cutting off your fingers to broaden your horizons.
Becoming a know-it-all snob at that age is a luxury reserved exclusively for waitstaff and bartenders.
In fact; if you do have greater gourmet aspirations in your early twenties, and you’re not enrolled in culinary school, you will be the target of frequent mocking and derision by your peers as well as downright ostracism. 22 year old girls rarely want to hear lectures about artisinal cheese production; they’re at that party to drink Icehouse and catch chlamydia. The 22 year old girl that wants to talk heirloom bacteria strains rather than exchange them, if she exists at all, is away somewhere sipping rioja with one of her sleazier professors.
Sooner or later you either hit the point where you want to fancy-up your dinner every now and then, or you continue living off piss-beer and Totinos Party Pizzas. You might remain in a perpetual bohemian fuzz, having friends over for a crock-pot of lentils and box wine, or simply throwing barbeques as your sole plan for feeding and entertaining your friends. There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple, especially if you don’t have money to burn on trying to be Martha Stewart.
But as you and your friends get older, start careers, get married and produce offspring you’ll find that the experience of comfortably dining with friends becomes more rare, and therefore more precious over time (Unless you work in academia where dinner parties are a regular occurrence. Then you’re just a privileged dickbag). Getting wasted and eating your weight in hotwings is always fun, but your friends may not have the ability to make time for that anymore, and might want to make your dwindling visits more special.
You don’t have to be slowly dying on the inside to throw a dinner party. Just because you have the means (a usable kitchen, a dining table, more than two plates) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to host, and conversely, just because you’re in your early twenties (or merely live like you are) you shouldn’t be discouraged from attempting to throw together a feast every now and then.
Throwing a successful dinner party is, like all rewarding things in life, much like American Football. Even when keeping things extraordinarily simple, dinner parties tend to take a lot of careful scouting, planning, preparation and when you get to the actual event- a tremendous amount of improvisation. None of this, however, should intimidate you.
I have a decades-worth of experience and mistakes to draw from both as a pro caterer and as an arranger of culinary soirees spanning the spectrum from pic-a-nics and barbeques to 15 course tasting menus.
Consider the following do’s and don’ts as your introductory course.
DINNER PARTIES 101:
- Keep it simple. This is the easiest rookie mistake to make. You’re so excited to have your friends over to your new apartment and show off your considerable cooking skills, that you throw all caution to the wind and try to shoot the moon. If you’re lucky you’ll end up managing to serve your guests many hours later than expected. Instead of considering the alternative, just try to avoid being needlessly elaborate.
- No, really. Keep it simple. This isn’t a joke. You might be a really good cook, but unless you have a staff of caterers working in your kitchen, you have to consider that you alone will be responsible for all sorts of minutia beyond just cooking. Cleaning, setting the table, pouring drinks and serving food all take planning and effort. You don’t want to end up spending the whole time in the kitchen away from your friends, so plan in a way that won’t stretch you too thin. Speaking of which:
- Prior Preparation. Unless you’ve got the type of kitchen setup that allows you to be cooking at the same time you entertain guests, you generally want to spend as much time as you need to in the kitchen before anyone arrives. If you’re serving food all at once or family-style (particularly appropriate for Chinese or Mexican food) you just need to have everything set up in advance so you can just finish up a few details and begin serving.
If you want to serve courses (pretty much de rigueur for French or Italian) your preparation is much more intense. Not only do you have to pick courses (and possibly wine) that complement each other, but you to be able to prepare them enough so that they’re most of the way done before guests arrive and finish them for service as each course ends. French cuisine is particularly tough with this, but not impossible at a beginning level. I recommend this book and this book as primers on the subject; both deal with cooking for company while minimizing your time in the kitchen. I’ll get into more advanced-level stuff in a later post, but for now a good hard and fast rule is:
- JUST FEED YOUR FRIENDS SNACKS. Even if you plan on doing an appetizer course, having a few salty snacks out beforehand as an aperitivo is always a good policy. Besides helping your friends to drink more, the snacks take a little of the pressure off the host to produce food right away. You can entertain, show off your home, pour drinks and take care of any last minute details while your guests happily munch away.
If this is one of your first dinner parties, it might make more sense to simply forgo a formal meal and serve nothing but a variety of little dishes. This frees you up immensely, especially if you strategize properly. You can have a whole variety of cold or uncooked items out before your guests arrive (Olives, pickles, nuts, cheeses, hummus) and depending on peoples appetites you can systematically bring out more à la minute dishes (seafood, grilled vegetables, tartelettes).
As trendy as tapas are; they’re a really good way to go and have been a standby for me since highschool. Part of the beauty of tapas is that you can make the bulk of what you serve humble (and affordable) dishes like tortilla de patatas (a potato omelette) and supplement them with fancy items like imported cheeses.
Tapas are merely the tip of the iceberg for small-plate possibilities. French Hors d’oeuvre, Russian Zakusi, Turkish Meze, Chinese Dim Sum, Korean Banchan, Italian Cicchetti and even the much-maligned Scandinavian smörgåsbord all work on the same principle of many small plates making up a meal. Even if you don’t stick to a particular culinary framework you can apply the small plate structure to just about anything you want to make. Plus it’s a great way to show off your versatility.
- Don’t Panic: This is the most important thing. You’re not cooking for the Queen of England; you’re just throwing a party for some friends. Prepare well and don’t forget to breathe and you’ll do just fine.
- Don’t be coy with your guests: Information is key, and although you’re putting a lot of time and energy into having the perfect evening, your friends (especially the younger ones) might not be on the same page with you or appreciate what you’re trying to pull off. There were a couple of times in my early twenties where my wife-to-be and I went through the ringer putting together a nice dinner party for our friends only to have them flake out at the last minute.
Part of the reason for this is that my friends are jerks, but a big portion of the blame was on us for not communicating what we were doing. We might have known what a big deal our dinner was, but our friends had no clue it was a real grown-up dinner party and not just another bonghit-ripping conference.
So when you invite them; let your guests know exactly what they’ll be in store for. What kind of food you’ll be serving (especially important if you want them to bring wine or beer), degree of formality and what, if anything, your friends need to provide will let them know that this isn’t just a casual beer bust.
- Don’t depend on a Facebook RSVP: Get direct verbal conformation that your guest is attending; that way you avoid looking like an asshole when they don’t show up.
- Don’t run out of food or booze: If you’re unsure if you have enough of everything to serve your guests, and they aren’t bringing anything to contribute, don’t throw a dinner party. It also wouldn’t hurt to stock up on extras like coffee, mineral water, soda (for the non-drinkers), toothpicks, aspirin and tampons. You may feel silly having some of those things, but people will think you’re The Batman when you’re able to provide them upon request.
- Don’t get your guests too drunk: Unless they’re attractive and single and no one has anywhere to be the next morning.
Here’s some Do’s and Don’ts for first time dinner party guests:
- Bring Wine. Or beer or tequila or whatever your host asks you to. Be sure to ask, especially in the Midwest where people aren’t always forthcoming about their needs. Make sure you know exactly what your host expects from you. If they turn out to be barbequing outside, you can bring a mini keg and flip-flops. If they’re doing a full Italian meal, ask them what kind of wine you should bring.
If you have no idea about that; bring sparkling wine. It goes with EVERYTHING, is easy to drink and is as home in a plastic cup as it is in a crystal flute.
- Show up if you say you will. This is another problem that seems specific to Minnesota. People will RSVP in writing and verbally, and still manage to not show up to your shindig because they had to go see some shitty indy-rock band. This happens less and less often to me now that my friends know what an awesome cook I am, but if your friends do this to you more than two consecutive times (and they don’t have a baby) then they aren’t really your friends.
- Show up full. This has to be the biggest asshole move in the history of dinner parties, and surprisingly, I’ve had a couple of people (that I don’t socialize with anymore) pull this one on me. It may seem like an obvious thing to show up hungry for a meal, but some people think it’s perfectly acceptable to show up to your dinner party carrying a freshly crumpled Wendy’s bag under their arm. Unless eating constantly is a medical necessity for you (i.e. You’re a defensive lineman or you’re from Wisconsin) try to show a little restraint before you arrive.
- Talk about Politics, Religion or Sex before desert is served. I seriously shouldn’t even have to say this, but Midwesterners (yet again) need to take a page from the South and learn the art of polite conversation. I’ve been to too many dinner parties to count, hosted both by young and old, where the guests (and sometimes the host, WHICH IS SUPER AWKWARD) let loose on a number of controversial topics. I’d say to treat dinner conversation as you would a conversation with a stranger on the bus, but Minnesotans (Minneapolitans in particular) don’t seem to have a problem discussing Middle East politics or abortion on the bus, so that’s not a very useful rubric.
To those people without a social filter: STOP ASSUMING THAT JUST BECAUSE WE ARE EATING TOGETHER THAT I SHARE THE SAME POLITICAL/RELIGIOUS/SOCIAL VIEWS THAT YOU DO! Most of the people sharing this meal with you came to eat and have a good time, not have a cyclical dorm room debate that accomplishes nothing and pisses everybody off.
I hope this has been helpful. Let me know in the comment section if there’s anything you’d specifically like to know for the second level Dinner Party Class. Also feel free to share your horror or success stories on the subject.