Okay, it's payback time—you owe the world an invitation. And you've got a gazillion reasons why you can't possibly have anyone over. Enough with the excuses! From an everything-but-dinner get-together to a last-minute personality potluck, O has four very entertaining solutions. Let the games begin!
I don't have the time.... I don't have the glassware.... I don't have the flair....
There are many, many reasons (or rationalizations) why the would-be-but-won't hostess hesitates to throw a party. But there is one reality that trumps them all: Talk yourself out of entertaining at home, and you will deny yourself one of life's great pleasures—and deny your friends one of life's great compliments. The pleasure, like the pleasure of making anything from scratch, is that of something of unique, imperfect charm. And the compliment is that of literally welcoming people into your space, letting people in.
You don't need money, a mansion, or an inner Martha to have a great gathering. You need friends and/or prospective friends. You need some sort of home; the cramped, cluttered, dog-hairy sort of home is perfectly fine. And you need a concept. Not a concept as in an all-girl luau or Christmas in July (although I keep meaning to do that...), but as in an idea that acknowledges any shortcomings you may be dealing with and turns them into selling points.
Take it from me, someone with absolutely no decorating, cleaning, or (until very recently) cooking skills of any kind: These are four parties that anyone can throw.
Actually, this originated as Poverty Cocktails—as in, "I'm in poverty, you bring the cocktails"—but the solvent can try it too.
Sad story: I was headed for a 20-something birthday. I had just quit my job to become a freelance writer. I was living in a basement studio. None of my neighbors knew me, let alone my birthday, and there were no colleagues to drop hints to. So I decided I was one of those mature people who just hate a big fuss being made about their birthday.
Napoleon en route to Russia had fewer delusions. Around noon, dank little drops of sadness started to drip down like an overhead leak, and by sunset, I was up to my neck in it.
Down but not out, I started dialing. To anyone at his or her telephone, I posed the same question: "Can you come over and celebrate my birthday with me this very night—in a couple of hours, in fact? And, if so, um, might you perhaps bring a cake and maybe some wine or Champagne?"
Since no one had any notice, almost no one was free to fall for this. So I ended up with one ex-colleague, a 60-ish Irish friend of my mother's, the guy upstairs whom I had never met, and three or four others, none of whom knew each other. It was tacky, it was pathetic, it was one of the most hilariously excellent times I have ever had.
Now, unless you're really young, really poor, and really bummed about your birthday, I don't recommend making everyone bring everything. But I heartily recommend throwing very small, very low-stress, very last-minute parties—and doing so very often, as I did for years after that first foray. For, as I later realized, my original approach—desperate and accidental though it was—had several built-in virtues. One, it automatically weeded out anyone who stood on ceremony, as well as anyone who didn't really want to come. Moreover, the last-minute factor ruled out my finding a whole matched set of guests (colleagues or family) free to accept, and resulted in a refreshingly motley crew. People simply couldn't get caught up in the same old blather about work or politics or whatever; they had no "same old" anything in common.
Random right-now cocktails free you to ignore the "Oh, if I invite this person, I have to invite that person" rule book, which swallows so many guest lists whole—and sucks the spark out of so many gatherings. This isn't a wedding; it's a whim.
While still living in that basement in which I could fit about eight people, I wanted to throw a Christmas party for about 50. Using the rule of thumb that one-quarter of invitees will decline outright, I calculated that I would actually need space for about 42 people. No problem: I invited everyone...just not all for the same time. Twelve (or maybe 13) invitations said 4 to 6 o'clock, implying a teatime kind of thing; nobody who showed up complained when offered cocktails. Twelve invitations said 5 to 7, 12 said 6 to 8, and so on. This way the place never got too crowded. Fresh blood was guaranteed to flow in once an hour. Yes, some people overstayed and overlapped, but only because they really wanted to...and there's always room for that.
Then again, perhaps you're in the mood for something less musical chairs. That's when I turn to the small, slow dinner. Phone up one to three people or slip a note under their doors asking them to come over and brave your attempt at home cooking, and they will show up, tickled and touched to have been asked. So tickled and touched, in fact, that if the food—or anything else—is a disaster but you remain a delight as ever, they will actually like you better for it.
That said, you will inevitably go to some effort to get ready. You will put clean soap and towels in the bathroom. You will vacuum and dust. If you're going for an extra touch of class, you may put out some flowers or iron a tablecloth. And after your guests have come and gone—assuming that you have loaded the dishwasher and swept the kitchen floor—you will wake up with a house that still looks much better than usual and a refrigerator full of fabulous leftovers.
There is only one logical response: Have another small dinner party...that night.
All you have to do is (a) plan the first party for a Friday night, so you can have the second one on a Saturday night, and (b) make something that will not look or taste like leftovers—beef Bourguignonne or spaghetti Bolognese will actually taste better on night two. Whether you're making or buying the dessert, choose something that is served individually rather than something elaborate people are supposed to drool over before it's cut.
On Saturday all you have to do is inspect the tablecloth for any really bad stains; cover any not-really-bad stains with the dishes or some candlesticks. Open the dishwasher, and instead of putting the dishes, glasses, and cutlery away, put it all back on the table. Spritz the flowers. Reheat the leftovers. When the doorbell rings, open the door. Et voilà—you've doubled your entertaining, while barely adding to your effort.
But what if you want tons of people, tons of food, and tons of time?
The problem with a dinner is, unless you have a dining area of baronial proportions, it's very hard to seat more than six or eight people, or organize a buffet for more than ten or 12.
The problem with a larger, stand-up-and-scarf-finger-food cocktail party is, it's only supposed to last about two hours. Apart from the one or two super-tipplers who can be counted on to be licking the salt out of the nut dishes while crooning "My Way" into the wee hours, everyone will clear out in time to go to dinner elsewhere—and that can be a real letdown for the hosts, who will have gone to tremendous effort getting ready, only to spend the night taking people's coats and then handing them back again.
The problem with a late-evening all-dessert party, which starts after dinner and at which numerous luscious sweets, coffees, and liqueurs are laid out on tables from which guests serve themselves, is...wait a minute, what was the problem with that one? Oh, I remember. It's at a weird time, it's only truly fabulous for the truly sweet of tooth, and nobody who's not Viennese will get it.
The solution: the Skip-Dinner Party. Lots of drinks, lots of hors d'oeuvres, and lots of desserts...all made ahead of time and strategically placed everywhere, along with any necessary forks, plates, or glasses. Granted, the host will still need to do some passing and replenishing of food, but that's intermittently over the course of a nice long party, not feverishly for two hours straight.
As for the guests, they will have great choice, in terms of tastes and timing: Those who want to come and go before dinner may do so. Those who want to come after dinner may do so. And those who want to keep talking and drinking for hours on end can do so while continually filling their stomachs—on savories, on sweets, or on both.
At least that's how it's supposed to go. I won't tell you everything that went wrong at my last Skip-Dinner Party. Let's just say it involved small pieces of bread, small pieces of meat, and timing. It turns out that, although the recipe may say it takes just 30 seconds to flay the filet, one should allow considerably longer to flay enough of it for 50 people, lest one find oneself frantically plastering bits of meat to rounds of frantically buttered baguette and damning the Merlot glaze while the doorbell rings...and rings...but I will get it right the next time. Or the time after that.