Entertaining, that is inviting people to my house for a meal is something I love to do. Cozy dinners around the dinning room table, great food, good wine and time for conversation is what makes me giddy with anticipation. I adore the smell of the candles just lit and the aromas coming from the kitchen. Getting dressed up in my latest outfit or dusting off an old favorite gives me enormous pleasure, especially if I can fit into one of the skinny ones. I thrive with four pans on the stove bubbling away and the oven going at full blast.
Setting the table, arranging chairs and doing the placement is to me second nature; as is, sending invitations, creating menus for my friends and then, implementing them. Finding great ingredients, grocery shopping and arranging flowers is like a game; a puzzle of items that need to be arranged and tidied up. It reminds me of playing “house” now with real things. All of these aspects are doable, easy, manageable and a pleasure when the intimate group of 8 shows up at 8.
I like doing it all and actually look forward to the few minutes of peace before guests arrive while I light scented candles around the room. If there is ever a calm before the storm, that is it.
I have always admitted to having a problem with numbers. Mathematics is not my forte and limiting my dinners to the aforementioned 8 has now become a problem. My parties tend to grow, specially the ones that I plan with lots of time in advance. This is when I get into trouble: when a cozy dinner for 8 turns into a grand dinner for 80.
This is exactly what happened at this dinner at home in the garden. I offered to host a dinner to honor the Festival of Trees, the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden’s new fundraiser, and I stopped counting at 80 people.
The mechanics of such a large group were truly overwhelming if I kept thinking of the large number. My goodness! 80 people for dinner! Where am I going to get all the stuff needed for the group? How am I going to sit them? Where are they going to sit? My solution, and something I learned to do a long time ago, is to think of each table individually. That way, it is just like organizing a series of parties for 10.
The table settings need to have a common theme and complement each other, but they don’t have to be identical. They have to have a thread of continuity and look good together rather than match exactly. I certainly do not own sets of matching china or glasses or cutlery for 80 people. With my philosophy of entertaining, I didn’t want to have to rent plates, glasses or cutlery. When people come to my house for dinner, I like the ambiance to reflect a home, not an impersonal catered affair.
Somehow I have amassed a collection of blue and white plates from different parts of the world. As long as the colors worked, all these plates found a spot on one of the tables. Some came from Turkey, others Asia, a group of plates was quintessential British and another group, our everyday china, came from a national store.
I tend to purchase plates in sets of 8 or 10 rather than full sets. This gives me incredible flexibility when setting tables as I can mix and match as I please. Blue and white plates are widely available and are the ones that look best at the table.
To make the centerpieces I grouped all the crystal and glass hurricane candles I could fine in different shapes and sizes, some held green pears and apples and others a myriad of off-white candles. Simple and incredibly elegant, the glow of the candles under a full moon (yes, I got really lucky with that) was magical. Green pears and apples happened to be in season and plentiful, but any combination of two similar hued fruits would have worked just as well.
The tablecloths were also a collection of blue and white ones and just draped them over full white skirts. Some went all the way to the floor others were mere squares that fitted just on top of the table. White ballroom chairs with white pillows finished the whole look and, again, gave continuity to the garden party.
Chinese paper lanterns are my favorite way to light any outside area, their light is diffused by the colorful paper, they are easy to install and add instant glamour. I like to keep accents in one or two tones, thus avoiding cacophony of color which is just as bad as that of noise. Red or white lanterns, orange and green, pink and beige, or even all of one color is always best.
These red ones, available on line with a mere click of the mouse, are battery powered and easily hanged with fishing lines or silk ribbons, allowing me even more time to tend to important things like the food.
Now onto the subject of food: If coming up with what to make for dinner on an average night is difficult, imagine having to feed 80 people. Did I say 80 people already? I don’t want to be repetitive, but 80 people are a lot of people and even I am impressed.
The criterion for this dinner was simplicity itself: cold. Being able to make the meal ahead of time and not have to re-heat or warm up was the key to the success. We chopped, diced, grilled and cooked in the morning. We assembled, decorated and garnished just before guests arrived. Leaving one or two things for last minute preparation is the only way to get it all done.
Passed hors d’oeuvres like shrimp fritters (my favorite of all time), classic Parmesan Cheese Puffs and Pork Tenderloin on Toast were devoured during the cocktail hour (which in my case was only 45 minutes). For dinners at home, it is always a great idea to plan a short drink period, there is always a delay of some sort and a long cocktail hour just makes everyone drink too much.
Three salads, Heirloom Tomatoes, Three Bean salad and a Rice salad were piled high in large bowls. Pheasant Tonnato, delicious breasts of pheasants, poached in flavorful broth, were covered in a classic tuna and mayonnaise sauce. This is a classic summer dish, perfect for dinner outside. Grilled sausages served with sweet apple chutney added another layer of flavor.
To end the meal, we passed plates filled with different kinds of sweets, brownies, coconut cookies and lemon lace cookies on each table. Waiters served vanilla milk or chocolate milk in cordial glasses thus eliminating the need for plates and cutlery. It is fun to break some rules of protocol and manners, especially when it means fewer dishes to wash!
I adore the idea of breaking up a traditional menu, and for my next event I am planning a first course buffet and then asking everyone to sit down. It allows friends to chat and keeps the party moving. Other times it is fun to serve dessert in a different room of the house or make everyone walk to the back garden for a sweet surprise.
In any case, make your entertaining at home easy by keeping the ambiance, décor and menu simple but of excellent quality. Good food and good libations in a comfortable setting is the best you can offer your friends.
Did I mention we were 80? ■