THE FOODIE FILES: Hosting Mojo

By on December 1, 2015

Have fun at your own dinner party? Sure you can.

AT LEFT: Select a signature drink such as blood-orange margaritas. CENTER: Take the time to set a nice table. AT RIGHT: Send your guests off on a sweet note with a marmalade cake, for example.

AT LEFT: Select a signature drink such as blood-orange margaritas. CENTER: Take the time to set a nice table. AT RIGHT: Send your guests off on a sweet note with a marmalade cake, for example.

Jackson Hole, WY – My very first dinner party happened the week before Thanksgiving my first year away at college. It was looking like I wouldn’t be able to go home for break and I was feeling a little homesick. Taking over the dorm’s community kitchen, I spent the afternoon studying for a zoology midterm while tending to a pot of my family’s traditional Sunday Sauce (marinara sauce with meatballs and sausage). I foraged in the cafeteria for the makings of a salad, boiled pasta, and whipped up a Grasshopper Pie in my blender (an unfortunate 80s recipe that involves crème de menthe and Cool Whip). I lugged the sauce back to my dorm room, kept it warm on a hot plate, and announced down the hall that everyone should come to dinner.

You can probably guess what happened next. Guests arrived bearing contributions to the meal — a box of Wheat Thins, a bag of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies, the remains of last night’s keg. As word spread down the wing of my dorm about the dinner party in Room 301, I eventually ran out of food. I didn’t know it then, but it was my first Friendsgiving, my first dinner party, and my first potluck. And it was awesome.

Maybe I should have stopped with that first great party, but over the years I kept having people over for dinner. There was tons of fun and chaotic potluck dinners but the food was never that good. The sight of a table crammed with random dishes has never been one to make my mouth water.

Once I got into cooking, dinner parties were a way to try out new recipes on my friends. These were long, drawn out affairs where I mostly attempted to cook an overly ambitious menu entirely from scratch. By the time dinner finally made it to the table, my poor tipsy guests were too famished to notice if the food was delicious.

Eventually, after hosting probably hundreds of dinner parties and messing up every type of food using every kind of technique, I hit my dinner party stride. I figured out how many people I actually enjoy cooking for (eight to 12), how much of the meal I like to do myself (main course and dessert), and what I like friends to contribute (sides, salads, and appetizers). I set the table before guests arrive, try to cook the main dish the day before, and have a punctual friend bring the appetizer. Nobody works too hard and I get to relax and enjoy my friends. It’s still chaotic but a lot more organized. Organized chaos — I guess that’s my dinner party style.

What’s your dinner party style? I asked the best cooks I know — the women in my Cookbook Club — how they manage to have people for dinner and have fun too. Here are our tips, along with a few of my favorite Julia Child quotes, for pulling off a great party without too much work.

1. Keep the menu simple: “Cooking well doesn’t mean cooking fancy.”

2. Always serve dessert: “A party without cake is really just a meeting.”

3. Not everything has to be made from scratch. Lean heavily on our local bakeries for bread, rolls, cakes, pies and tarts.

4.  Post a to-do list on the fridge — when guests ask to help, tell them to pick a task.

5.  Cook the main dish one or two days ahead — this works especially well for braises, stews, pasta sauces and casseroles.

6. Take time to set a nice table. For more than six guests, put out place cards that tell people where to sit.

7. Good music is key! Try to match the playlist or Pandora station to the crowd.

8. Don’t experiment on your guests, at least not with the main course. Serve dishes you know will turn out well.

9. Don’t apologize if the food is not perfect: “No excuses, no apologies!”

10. Serve a signature drink that can be spiked or not. Here is mine: Blood Orange Margaritas. For one pitcher, mix ½ cup freshly squeezed blood-orange juice, 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, 3 tablespoons Cointreau, and 7 tablespoons tequila. Mix well and serve over salt-rimmed glasses full of ice. Or skip the alcohol and top juices with sparkling water and simple syrup to taste.

11. Put pitchers of water on the table and keep your guests’ glasses full.

12. What to do with a guest who’s been overserved? He or she gets treated to a prepaid cab ride home.

13. For potluck dinners, organization is key. As the host, you get to choose the theme and the main dish.

14. Take the time to enjoy your company; the dirty dishes can wait: “People who love to eat are the best people.”

15. One last Julia Child-ism: “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”

For a list of my favorite dinner party recipes, menus, and potluck dishes, visit www.jacksonholefoodie.com and type “potluck” and “dinner party menus” into the search button. PJH

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.


About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login