I try so desperately, darling, not to bore you in these pages. But after writing this column for 10 years, I can’t stop myself from banging out, in different drumbeats, my same Essential Entertaining rat-a-tat-tat: keep the lighting low; focus on your guests; don’t skimp on the hooch; remember, if it’s perfect everyone will hate you.
I don’t know if Maya Angelou was talking specifically about party-giving when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” But it is so applicable to our topic, isn’t it? As we head into the fall festive season, a checklist is in order—an inventory of party elements that make your guests feel good. I have banged my drum about most of these before, but herewith are some new ideas and favorites, from me as well as my party-giving friends.
VIP welcome, CHECK
You want your guests to feel joyful and relaxed the moment they arrive. If you’re planning a large party in the colder months and you have the dough for it, valet parking is an extremely hospitable touch. Valet companies charge according to many variables, but $400 would be in the ballpark for a private party. I’ve always been impressed with Universal Valet of Kansas City. I went to an event recently, staffed by one of their competitors. Long story short: we waited an hour for my car. Well, maybe it was 20 minutes but it seemed like an hour. If you provide valet, don’t forget to mention it on the invitation, as it will affect footwear choices.
Speaking of invitations, those that arrive via U.S. Post are becoming increasingly rare and cherished. If you have time to send written invitations, do it, do it, do it. But if you don’t, have the party anyway. Paperless Post are my favorite electronic invitations.
Sensory experience, CHECK
I love to arrive at a house that looks like it’s having a party, don’t you? The sight of luminarias lining a sidewalk makes my extrovert heart sing. With battery-operated candles, luminarias are not the chore they used to be; you can buy kits online for a song.
The olfactory sense is the one most closely linked to memory and emotion. So make your house smell divine. Have you tried Mixture candles? They are hand-poured in Merriam, Kansas. Mixture’s Pumpkin Spice fragrance is perfect for fall parties, and in a couple of months, Siberian Fir will have your house smelling like a freshly cut Christmas tree. You can find them at Stuff in Brookside, one of my favorite shops in the city.
Fresh flowers, CHECK
My friend Chuck Matney is co-owner of The Little Flower Shop in Westwood Hills. His flower arrangements are so luscious you want to eat them. Chuck calls flowers the piece de resistance of any party. He describes the joy he feels leaving a venue after doing the flowers. “When we get there to set up, even the most gorgeous homes feel sort of empty, until they have flowers. Just a few well-placed blooms can give a room life and cheer. It makes me so happy to look at the rooms after we’ve finished them.”
If you can’t afford Le Matney, you can be guided by what flowers he loves to put in fall arrangements: “I draw inspiration from what’s locally available,” he says. “Fall hydrangea, coxcomb, dahlias, sunflowers, ornamental kale and a variety of foliage and berries.
“In addition to a centerpiece for your table, it’s thoughtful to incorporate a small nosegay for guests to take home. I always prefer simple and elegant,” he says.
Music brings energy, spirit, soul. Especially live music, which adds such élan to any gathering. For smaller parties, a single jazz guitarist is a great addition because he is completely self-contained; give him a chair and an electrical outlet and he is in business. Through my Grammy-winning friend Charles Bruffy, who knows great music when he hears it, I’ve found a terrific, very reasonably priced jazz guitarist, Rob Whitsitt. His sophisticated stylings add that certain something, without drowning out conversation. You can reach Rob at 913-432-4182.
No one will judge you if play recorded music. My new favorite party music comes from the Pandora channels Hipster Barbecue and Hipster Cocktail Party. They’re a perfect blend of old (Ella, Sinatra, etc.) and new (The Weepies, Noah and the Whale.), all up-tempo with something for everyone.
Great vino, CHECK
My friends Susan and Charlie Porter, anesthesiologist and cardiologist respectively, are experienced hosts, wine aficionados and all-around bon vivants. “When the weather turns cool, we focus more on smaller dinner gatherings with friends and family,” says Susan. “In fall we transition from the cold crisp rosés and whites that are so delicious poolside into more robust reds that pair well with roasted and grilled meats and fall vegetables and soups. We favor the Sonoma Coast region—around Sebastopol and the Russian River Valley—pinot noirs, which are lighter but are incredibly delicious with almost all meats and fishes.”
Sue recommends pinot noirs from wineries Sojourn Cellars, Lynmar, Freeman, Shane, Three Sticks, Kosta Browne (“not for the faint of wallet but amazingly good”), Cellars 33, Williams Selyem and Thomas George.
“We often bring a nice magnum of Italian brunello, super Tuscan or barolo to the table to accompany the main dinner,” says Sue. “Weather permitting, a blaze in the outdoor fireplace accompanied by some cognac or brandy after dinner finishes off the evening pretty well—and the conversations at this point can be really illuminating!”
“The other wonderful after-dinner drink we have learned to prepare is flaming coffee made with Irish whiskey, finished off with whipped cream,” Sue says. “But it takes some practice.” Sue has graciously offered to share her flaming coffee recipe. Email me and I will send it to you.
Uber for the over-served, CHECK
All it takes is a smartphone and a credit card to set up an Uber account that you can use to send tired or over-served friends home in safety, luxury and style—on you. Uber offers several tiers of service, each for a different price. If you really want to pamper, pony up for the badass UberBlack and dispatch them in the comfort of a black town car or SUV. Contact uber.com
My friend Sarah Strnad is a passionate cook who entertains easily and often. When she has people over, she makes a point of cooking in overabundance, just so she can send guests home with delicious leftovers. So serious is she about this that she goes online and orders restaurant take-out containers in bulk—the really nice, aluminum foil kind, not the cheesy styrofoam—and has them at the ready to dish out the yumminess as friends depart.
Her seafood gumbo, loaded with shrimp, chicken, chorizo and okra, is a trusted standby in the cold months, as is her mushroom and leek soup (“sometimes with barley, sometimes without”). Other go-to recipes for fall parties are her stuffed mushroom caps and her blue-cheese artichoke dip. “Both go great with cocktails and are easy to throw together, when it looks like you worked hours,” Sarah says.
She’s generously offered to share her recipes. Email me and I will send them to you.