Advice from a party animal
It started fairly small. We’d just have a few close friends over to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. The guest list grew. We couldn’t leave her out … he’d been a very good friend over the years … if we were going to invite them, we’d have to invite … When the number reached fifty we cried “enough!”.
What about a theme? I wanted speeches. You only hit fifty once. If we’re going to have speeches let’s make it formal. Black tie or kilt would add a little gravitas to the occasion. We couldn’t have guests in black tie eating sausage rolls from paper plates. It would have to be a sit-down dinner.
A banquet needs live music. We’re all getting a bit past heavy metal. Classical might be a tad too starchy. A jazz quartet was booked for the night.
What about drinks? I had some birth-year port for after-dinner toasts and a decent selection of wine amassed for the occasion. Champagne cocktails on arrival seemed a good idea. They’d get everyone in the mood. We needed an alcohol-free punch for the non-imbibers plus a choice of tasty fruit juices and mineral water.
We’d do the food ourselves as a personal gesture to good friends. It must be simple, hearty and tasty. It should also not involve too much preparation on the night. An entrée of antipasto with olives, salamis, artichoke hearts, cheeses and hot smoked salmon. A main of roast fillet of beef with fresh asparagus and roasted vegetables. A dessert of rich, moist chocolate cake with wild berries and whipped cream.
Finally it was bigger than Ben Hur. The sound police shut the band down at 11.30pm. I was staggered at how much wine my close friends were capable of drinking and had to replenish stocks around midnight. No one really seemed to appreciate the virtues of my 1947 Dow port at one in the morning – I could have served them Robard & Butler Artillery and they’d have been just as happy. The last guests left at 4am. Everyone declared the party a great success.
I hold a party, attend a party or offer advice on planning a party at least once a week. I guess that makes me some sort of party animal. Thirty-plus years of partying has taught me much about the key ingredients for a successful bash.
Every party starts here. It’s important to think about the guest list before you even set the date. Compatibility is the key. That doesn’t mean that all the guests need to fill the same profile – a room full of chartered accountants, for example, doesn’t guarantee that the party will be a roaring success. In fact sometimes contrasting characters can be more compatible. Try introducing an attractive blond twenty-something to another attractive blond twenty-something and you’ll get the idea. Some of the dullest parties I’ve attended have been populated with people who too closely match each other.
I like to start with the key guests – those people who, for whatever reason, you must invite. When adding further guests it’s just a matter of considering how they’d get on with the core folk. Inevitably there will be a mix of friends and strangers. Don’t let the friends cluster and exclude the strangers. It’s important that guests should, like the ingredients for a successful chocolate cake, be thoroughly blended. Once the guest list has been established you can begin to consider food, drink and music.
Nothing kills a party quicker than running out of drinks. Many wine stores are happy to supply on a drink-or-return basis provided the labels haven’t been damaged by a soak in icy water.
One bottle of wine per head is a generous allowance. That level has been exceeded by me on only two occasions – one of those was my fiftieth birthday.
I vary the quantity of beer depending on the tastes of my guests but always order more than I think I’ll need. You can keep wine and beer chilled in large containers of icy water. I use old galvanised wash tubs.
A cocktail on arrival is a good ice-breaker. Allow one-and-a-half cocktails per head as most guests will switch to wine or beer after one glass. Sparkling wine is another great party starter. Serve it in champagne flutes that have been stored in the freezer for extra effect and to keep the wine cold or serve champagne cocktails with fresh fruit juice or a dash of fruit liqueur (cassis is my favourite).
One bottle of white wine to two of red is a reliable ratio. Choose a variety of wines to suit a range of tastes. I recommend Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and (off/dry) Riesling in descending order of popularity. For reds a mix of Pinot Noir, Shiraz/Syrah and Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot usually hits the spot.
Non-alcoholic choices must be offered. Mineral water is always popular but jugs with water, ice and orange or lemon slices are fine. Have twice as much chilled water as you think you’ll need and offer it to guests throughout the evening. Fruit juices and soft drinks are other options.
Supply twice as many glasses as there are guests – it will save you having to spend half the evening washing glasses. Glasses can be hired or sometimes loaned from a wine store.
If guests bring a bottle of wine as a gift I always open it unless they insist otherwise. There’s nothing worse than going to a party armed with a bottle of wine you’re eager to taste only to see the host stuff it in the cupboard. When I’m invited to a party I always say that I’d like to bring a bottle of wine and ask whether they’d like me to choose a bottle as a gift or to drink on the night.
I read somewhere that an African tribe re-captures runaways by beating a drum in time to their heartbeat and gradually increasing the tempo until they get worked up into a frenzy and fall over. The same principal applies to party music. When guests arrive the music should be relaxed and soothing.
Lift the tempo as the party progresses and level out into a holding pattern before your guests go into a frenzy and fall over. When people begin to dance stick with whatever musical genre has inspired them. On no account should the host try to get people to dance. Dancing is a spontaneous and voluntary activity.
Party food should be tasty, generous in quantity and able to be eaten while holding a glass of wine and without exploding hot grease or sugary breadcrumbs down your shirt front. I like to see whole wheels of cheese, baskets of bread and fruit, and a large side of salmon rather than a collection of bowls that look as though you’ve cleaned out the fridge. The food should be theatrical. It should look as good as it tastes.
If you plan to provide sausages don’t fill a plate with snags, buy a spiral sausage and let guests cut off the lengths they wish after they’ve admired its artistry. Spare a thought for your carpet before you supply rice or couscous.
When serving barbecued food don’t adopt a production line approach by cooking all the steaks and sausages before presenting guests with an unsightly pile of rapidly cooling meat. Cook food to order after establishing how each person likes their meat served. Alternatively let them all cook their own and there will be absolutely no complaints.
Be as generous as you can afford to be. Be organised and plan well ahead so there are no surprises on the night. Never overestimate the maturity and intelligence of your friends. What works at little kids parties will work for big kids too.
Organising a successful party is hard work but worth the effort. When the last guest has left and you’ve cleaned up the mess you can sit back, relax and wait for the party invitations to roll in.
First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Nov 2006.