Saturday, September 29, 2012

Making Your Party A Successful Event...Entertaining, Part II,

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The following is Part II of the presentation I gave at the Dawson County Arts Council in Georgia last Friday, September14, 2012.  Keep in mind these are notes. I think I covered the main points from my perspective but if you have additional tips or ideas that you would like to share with us they would be gladly welcomed.  I would like to leave a copy of this to my children and grandchildren for posterity as a blueprint should they ever want to entertain like we did "in the olden days".  

A successful party doesn't just happen.  It takes careful planning, work and organization. I don't have a magic formula to give you but I can share some of the things that have always worked for me...and a few that haven't!

In my estimation,  two things are critical in making a party a successful event. The host or hostess and her guests.   That is why I dedicated an entire post on by blog to the subject. 
The host or hostess' responsibility is to provide an environment in which the guests will  have a delightful time;  but it is the lively conversation and the "magic" of the evening that will leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who were lucky to attend.  The food and the ambiance are her domain but it is the guests who will put on the finishing touches;  so choosing and mixing them carefully is one of the most important steps in putting together what you hope will be a successful event.

No matter the occasion, organization is key to making entertaining a breeze.  Whatever the type or size of your party,  the same rules apply and they start with establishing the basics and asking yourself these questions:

 1 What is the purpose of your party? social, business?

2. What is your budget - be realistic and overestimate!

Determining your budget is perhaps the most important step  as it will determine the type of party you can have, the amount of guests, and what you can spend on food and entertainment, if any. Consider liquor, food, rentals, service, music or entertainment, and flowers or decorations to establish your initial budget. Think drinks first, as alcohol can be a major expense. Don't feel as though you need to be as well stocked as a restaurant but buy good brands.  To minimize expenses, consider serving a signature drink such as Daiquiris or Bloody Mary's.  Be inventive with your food choices as well  -- instead of a dinner party with fillet of beef or leg of lamb, have a Mexican or Tapas party by the pool.  In the Fall, Oktoberfest is a good budget conscious choice.  Serve different beers, forget hard liquor and have red and white wine for those who don't like beer.

A tailgate picnic is an easy and less expensive alternative

3. How many people do you want to invite.

Determine who you must invite first and work on other guests that will complement the group later (see my handout on the guest list post)

4. What is the date and time of the year?

Spring and Fall are a great time to entertain because of the weather, particularly if you have a beautiful garden.  I seldom entertain in the summer due to the heat and humidity, even at night, in my neck of the woods. Christmas is a great time to give a party since you already have the decorations.  Think Tree Trimming party...easy menu and you will get new ornaments for your tree to boot! (there is a menu on the blog)

A Halloween dinner party (for adults, no costumes) is my favorite in the Fall.

5. What is the location. do you have an alternative location?

Can you use the outside of your home like the garden, deck, or pool area? Do you have enough room in your house for the party you want to have.  How many can you accommodate for a sit down dinner?  How many for a cocktail party or a barbecue?  what if it rains? As a young hostess I was once stuck with 100 people inside my small house eating pit barbecue, beans and coleslaw on paper plates when it poured on my Fourth Of July picnic.  It was a nightmare!
6. What can you handle?

Will you need outside help and can you afford it.  Can you do it alone, perhaps recruiting your escort or husband to take care of the drinks and serve the wine at the table?. THIS WILL HAVE A MAJOR INFLUENCE ON THE KIND OF EVENT YOU HAVE. Keep it simple and don't take on more than you can handle.  You don't want to be maid, bartender and hostess at your own dinner party.  Young adults are more casual and lackadaisical about their parties these days, and for them it works; .but for those of us of a certain generation that  much informality does not fly.

These six questions are important and will determine the kind of party you can have, how many guests and what you will serve;   and whether it will be a dinner party, cocktails, luncheon, event party, game day, or outdoor barbecue.

Putting It All Together

Once you have answers to these questions, the framework for your party is in place -- the time, place, and style have been established. Now use this information to figure out the details. The type of party will dictate what you need for equipment, the season and budget can inspire the menu, and the budget will factor into the type of entertainment you choose and if you use a caterer. Outside of that, be creative and tailor a party you would want to attend.

Now for the fun part!

The Guest List

As I have mentioned before, guests can make or break a party so spend some time thinking about who you want to invite.  Try to come up with a good mix.

Send Out the Invitations

If by mail, send them at least three weeks in advance. Four to six weeks for a Christmas party.  Follow up with a phone call if you haven't heard from your guests about 10 days before the party

Plan the Menu

  • What time of year, what is fresh and in season?
  • What does your budget allow?
  • Is it a casual party or a more formal dinner party?
  • What are your tried and best recipes? Never serve something you haven't made before.
  • Plan on purchasing some ready made things such as the appetizers.  Skip the cheese tray.  Cheese is expensive and guests will hardly touch them if there are other more interesting alternatives around.  As an alternative, make a cheese log or serve cheese wafers.  
  • Don't overwhelm yourself or your guests with too many dishes. Your main dish should be something you can make ahead or that needs minimal cooking before serving unless you are having a BBQ.  Think casseroles for side dishes and salads that can be made ahead.
  • Plan a dessert that can be made the day before and kept in the fridge.  If you are making an appetizer ditto.
  • Make sure the menu is balanced

Via Southern Accents

Plan your grocery list
Plan the decorations if any for a theme party.

Make a list of "incidentals"  Do you need scented candles for entry, guest bathroom and living room.  Do you have enough unscented candles for the table, cocktail napkins? What flowers will you need? on the table? throughout the house?
How about the guest bathroom? guest soap? guest towels? scented candle?
Setting the table.

Plan a theme for your table ahead of time.  If you are having a sit down dinner, choose the tablecloth, napkins etc. Plan the flowers. Come up with a flower arrangement or arrangements for you dinner table that are low so guests don't have to strain to see each other.  You will need place cards! thus eliminating a headache trying to remember who sits where at the last minute.   Take everything out and rehearse with one place setting.  Choose your serving pieces.  Does anything need to be polished or replaced?

Liquor and wine.
Make a list of what you will need. Don't forget to include the mixers such as tonic and soda water. While you are at it, add lemons and limes and olives to your grocery list. This is one of the things you can plan ahead and purchase right away. Serve good brands.  If you can't afford them, just serve a signature drink such as daiquiris or Kir Royal and wine.  Bloody Mary's and Bellinis are my favorites to serve for a luncheon.
Get as much of this done as you can one week before the party.  If I am not having live music, that's when I pick out the Cd's I want to play that night, a very subtle mix.  Diana Krall is high on my list

David Hicks bar via Habitually Chic

The day before the party is your big work day.  That's when you will set the table,  the bar, make dishes that can be prepared the day ahead, arrange the flowers and take out all your serving pieces.
The day of the party is for incidentals, and making one dish that must be made that day such as rice or a green salad. Plan on having a friend or the help pick up extra ice. You want to be rested and relaxed... the best is yet to come!
By the time I go upstairs to dress, everything is in place.  If I have service staff, I have them come in at least one  hour before the party starts so I can detail the menu, the drinks, when dinner will be served, what needs heating etc. I leave hand written notes in the kitchen with temperatures for warming etc. to remind them.   I have a thing about uniforms for the staff, whether it's one or more,  which I will not go into right here.  Suffice it to say if they don't have a uniform and I don't have one for them, black skirt or pants and a white blouse is a must.  If the party is formal and I am paying professionals, I expect a bartender in jacket and tie and a maid in maids uniform.  I give myself at least an hour to get dressed, have a drink to fortify my spirits and take one last look around the house.  When that door bell rings, it's showtime!

Truman Capote getting ready for his Black And White Ball


  1. Honestly, this list would frighten most people. Simplify simplify simplify. And hire help if you can.

    When I worked in private service, I most often did the cooking for dinner parties as well. We never invented the wheel for parties--it was always a formula and we stuck close to it. In Newport RI we often had cookouts and gingham dressed tables. In NYC we served chicken pot pies or meatloaf unless it was a birthday party or the holidays. Guests haven't had it before, it didn't matter that the host and hostess had had it twenty times already. The evening was about being with friends, not about the food or drink.

    When I throw a party, I now stick to the formula of what I like: champagne, a buffet of enormous shrimp cocktail, beef tenderloin sliced from the loin, a large cheese selection, crudite and fruit of some sort. Dessert is chocolates. We all stand around and drink and nibble, no one goes home hungry. Sit down dinners are different indeed but as I can only seat 6 guests, I usually opt for standing parties.

    Anyway, keep it simple.

  2. Joseph, dearest,

    When you are eccentric and wealthy or Marjorie W. Post you can get away with chicken pot pie and meatloaf. But the rest of us chickens cannot get away with such simplicity. My mother would have kittens if she found out.

    Anyway,it was a presentation on the art of entertaining. I had to talk for more than 2 minutes!

  3. "My mother would have kittens if she found out." That's the funniest line I've read in a long time. And honestly, don't you think your wonderful Mom would approve of pot pie and meatloaf? We even used Bill Blass's recipe. And of course, foie gras and truffles in teh pot pie.

  4. Joseph, I'm not WASPy enough to get away with such a menu, which is why I'm such a fan of this blog. That said, your menu does sound great and I'll never turn down shrimp cocktails, beef tenderloin and champagne.

  5. A very insightful analysis. I think in real life a lot of this is simplified because one factor leads to the others--for instance, the theme of the party suggests the guest list and the menu.

    I couldn't help noting the casual "plan the grocery list" item. This is not how things work in Taiwan. There are grocery stores here, but they tend to run out of many items, and not restock them for long periods, including staples such as sugar, flour, etc.

    What you need to do is either go shopping and then see what you can do with what is available that day, or else start shopping well in advance, stockpiling some ingredients and freezing others, including meat or vegetables such as okra (for gumbo!).
    --Road to Parnassus

  6. I am enjoying your blog. We entertain quite a bit and am always on the lookout for new ideas. I have a question, however. The photograph at the top of this page (Making Your Party a Successful Event...part II) show the knife and spoon on the left side on the plate and the forks on the right. Is the image inverted or is this a creative way to set table?

  7. Definitely an inverted image. I just noticed that. Thanks.

  8. Such an easy way it seems to have a great party. This is so well explained.

  9. These are definitely the best ways for a successful party.


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