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Let Me Entertain You December 15, 2010

My current series in progress is set in a small town and one of my characters is a culinary wizard/lifestyle guru. She teaches her students how to cook, entertain, and decorate. Why did she pop into my brain? I guess it’s my secret desire to be Nigella Lawson or the Barefoot Contessa that spurred my creativity. Really. I want to be them. I want to eat luscious food, go shopping in quaint shops, and host fabulous dinner parties. And even better I don’t ever have to worry about being a size 4 or 6 or 8 again.

Nope. I’ll get paid to look voluptuous and enjoy doing it.

Of course, given my shellfish allergy I doubt I will ever have a career as a television cooking/lifestyle hostess. This is why I create characters who can live my dream for me. However, being a romance novel heroine, my character will be a respectable size 8 because this is a fictional piece of work.

Again, I’m just fulfilling another personal fantasy here. Cook, eat as much as I like, and be skinny, too. It’s a wonderful ideal for me and love to imagine this alternate world.

The truth is that I do love entertaining, but not at the level that some famous entertainers go for it. There aren’t catered events at my house. COSTCO is a place where I can get some mighty fine platters of goodies. And Pilsbury crescent rolls are featured in many of my appetizers. The point of entertaining isn’t to impress people, it is to bring them together and create a memory.

Over the years, I believe I’ve learned how to do this quite nicely.

When I was growing up, this wasn’t true at all. My mother would invite people over to dinner. She’d stress out about the house and we minions would be forced to clean all day. This cleaning usually involved polishing her silverware (ugh), and her ranting about the cleanliness in general of the house. She wasn’t the best housekeeper so I believe she invited people over just to force the house into a state of order again.

In addition to the stress of cleaning the house, she also had great anxiety about the menu. Experiments were held on us, and we were forced to eat many culinary dishes that were not fit for human consumption. I could possibly blame this fact for my shellfish allergy. I won’t. But I want to. Finally a menu would be established. And she’d be okay for a bit.

We’d set the table, put on our best manners and act as if it was seamlessly pulled off. I didn’t mind this too much during the year, but I truly resented this effort ON CHRISTMAS DAY! Yes, my mother would host this type of event on Christmas Day. And let me tell you, it’s no fun polishing silver on Christmas Day.

I swore that when I grew up I would not subject my family to this kind of stress. At least I wouldn’t do it to them on Christmas Day. Besides, that’s my day, too. Don’t get me wrong. I want to break bread. But I’m not polishing silver or breaking my back cleaning the house. In fact, I’m pretty much of that mind all the time when it comes to hosting parties at my house. Or dinners, for that matter.

A lot of people don’t entertain because they believe it will be the stressful event I’ve described from my childhood. I’m here to say it doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. It is about bringing people together and having fun. It is about making memories.

I remember when I was a poor young woman living in a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. I hosted more dinners around that little table than I can count. I was a wizard with a can of cream of mushroom soup, garlic and onions. If I had that, and a bit of white wine, I could make a sauce that my friends enjoyed and pour it over pasta. During that same era, I also hosted many interesting dinner parties with another friend. We’d ask each of our friends for $5 then we’d devise a menu based on the money we pooled together, go shopping and prepare a meal. We had fondues, clambakes (before the shellfish allergy came to light), barbecues and more. And it only cost us $5.

One year, the year we did the fondue, we took a plank of wood, two of them, and put them on top of upturned milk crates. Then we covered them with a tablecloth. We tossed pillows on the floor and seated 12 around that makeshift table. No one complained as they stuffed their mouths full of cheese, oil and chocolate fondues. What a great night!

In the years I’ve been married, I’ve hosted dinners and parties with varying levels of decor and degrees of  difficulty. One thing my mother’s experiments taught me was that I loved to host parties. I loved the people part and the pulling together of the various elements. Sometimes my parties are BYOB and a side dish. Other times, I make a meal for 8 and we sit around the table. The size and volume varies. I have scaled back on the number of people I’ll host only because I want to socialize, too.

Tonight I am hosting a soiree for my hubby’s Scotch Working Wednesday Crew. I decided not to ask them to bring anything as they all work during the day, and I wanted to have fun with the menu. I’m providing 3 hot appetizers, two of which are hearty, and 3 cold appetizers along with an antipasto platter filled with cheeses, olives, interesting crackers and more. Most likely I’ll try to do something fun with the breakfast nook table (no one goes around the dining room table so I’ll just light some candles in there and leave it at that) and make it festive. But that’s because I love doing that kind of stuff.

And no, it won’t look like Martha Stewart’s elaborate decorations. I tend to go the Rachel Raye way of entertaining. If you are squeamish about hosting gatherings, here are some tips from an entertaining road warrior:

1) Don’t go crazy cleaning your entire house. Throw crap into baskets and hide them if you must. A candle lit house doesn’t show dust. I do a light mopping to at best.

2) Homemade is great, but store bought is great, too. If you have something you want to highlight, then make it and serve it with pride. Surround it with goodies you enjoy or foods that are easy to pull together or pre-made. No one will care.

3) Bring the outdoors inside. If you don’t have a lot of decorative stuff, then go clip some branches from your outdoor hollies or evergreens in the winter. In the summer you can clip flowering bushes, etch. Put them into every day containers that are unique. I have used soup tureens and trifle bowls for these kind of things. Really, who uses a soup tureen for soup? Not me.

3) Paper plates and plastic forks are great. Today I’m mixing and matching paper products with real mccoy stuff. That’s because it is a small group and I have tons of glass plates I can use that will be perfect.

4) If someone offers to help you, say yes! Unless you want to control the menu (today I did so I didn’t ask people to bring anything), if someone offers to bring food, say yes! You never know. You might get a new recipe for your recipe book. That’s one of the best things that came out of our Happy Hours at the townhouse in Fairfax, VA. Of course, my darling teen called them Happy Nights as they lasted a lot longer than an hour LOL.

5) Don’t apologize for the food. If something isn’t quite right, who cares? Julia Child’s said it best: never apologize. Period.

6) Don’t worry about everything matching. I have gathered a lot of silver platters and white platters over the years so I just coordinate the seasonal colors to match them. I do have a passion for dishes so I have Christmas plates which I’ll trot out, but that’s the only set I have that is “seasonal.”

7) Make a list of what you will do and plan ahead. I do make a list of the goodies I will make along with the number of people who are coming. I prep my grocery list based on the ingredients (unless they are store bought appies), then I shop for them. I make a list on the day of the event to make sure I don’t forget anything. I start with prepping the stuff that needs to be chilled (can be done day before), then move to the stuff that has to be cooked the day of the party. I pull my serving platters and use a trick I learned from a friend — I label with post its what is going where… helps me be on top of things.

8) I set up the stage–table–eating area–drink area, then give myself time to relax before everyone arrives. I usually have one thing in the oven when people get to the house. Most of our parties end up in the kitchen so I may as well wait to cook it all.

What are your holiday plans? Do you entertain often? Are you a control freak or a go with the flow kind of entertainer? And what is the best party you’ve thrown for the least amount of money?

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