Labor Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day--all are occasions to celebrate. The great thing about summer, though, is that the season itself is excuse enough for a party. And whether the featured chow is as basic as hot dogs and lemonade or as exotic as roasted rabbit and mango daiquiris, informality is the rule.
Summer wears shorts rather than suits and dines from paper plates rather than Lennox, caterer Hillary Harris says.
That's the direction from the top, you might say. "We've seen a definite difference in home entertainment since the Bushes came to the White House," said Harris, who is a co-owner of Cuisine-Cuisine in Newport Beach. "Nancy Reagan gave us elegance and nouvelle cuisine; Barbara Bush has brought back barbecues and family get-togethers."
Home-style cooking has returned, agrees El Toro caterer Frank Rayo of Frank Rayo & Associates. "Last summer we were still getting a lot of requests for dainty hors d'oeuvres and such," he said. "This summer, people have gone back to the basics--steak, broiled shrimp, potatoes au gratin. "
Outdoor grilling is the biggest trend--fish, lamb, short ribs, vegetables. "Everything but dessert," Harris said. And mesquite is out; orange wood--a local resource--is in. Red meat is in, even if cholesterol-conscious folks are cutting back on beefing up. "We do a lot of mixed grills so that people can have a little of everything--steak, fish, chicken," Harris says.
Not that the traditional tropical theme has lost any of its allure. There will undoubtedly be enough luaus in Orange County this summer to keep Farmer John in business for a long time.
Still, summer fare in general tends to be a lighter affair. "Hot weather suppresses the appetite," says Dan Wiencek, owner of House of Catering in Anaheim. "We hardly ever do heavy, sit-down dinners during the summer; that's a winter-type thing. In the summer, people like hors d'oeuvre (type food) so that they can stand around and mingle. Even weddings are more casual in the summer."
As for the trimmings, fancy breads and decadent desserts are still very popular, Harris says. "People will eat a light main course, then go for it on the bread and seven-layer cake." The trend for sweets now, she says, is "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Everyone loves chocolate." They're also eating up the fresh berries and the cobblers this summer.
Afternoon pool-side parties are, of course, de rigueur for this time of year.
Carl Grosso, president of Metal Soft Inc., a software-developing company in Santa Ana, has made a tradition of giving an annual back-yard summer bash at his Anaheim Hills home for employees and clients from around the country.
"These people are party animals," caterer Cindy Bruyn said, laughing, as she supervised the rather rambunctious group at Grosso's fourth such party the other day. Many of the 75 or so guests were sporting damp T-shirts and shorts from unscheduled trips into the pool. Bruyn, owner of Love at First Bite in Huntington Beach, had prepared an all-American buffet that featured sirloin steaks and chicken grilled on-site and also included the traditional potato salad and baked beans.
"We'd just finished landscaping our back yard and we wanted to show it off," said Mission Viejo resident Laura Mellen by way of explaining her choice of a Polynesian theme for a recent summer get-together. "We have a 10-foot waterfall above the pool, so we decided a luau would be perfect."
Laura Mellen and her husband, Richard, decorated their corner of the tropics with anthurium and birds of paradise, floated lily pads in the pool and hired Polynesian dancers to complement the Hawaiian delicacies provided by Grey Goose Catering by Maxwells of Anaheim. Laura Mellen made silk leis for her 65 guests, most of whom came dressed for the occasion in floral shirts and skirts.
Caterer Danny Brown, owner of Grey Goose, says that for a luau, "we'll roast a pig on a spit and serve traditional Hawaiian cuisine: lomi-lomi (shredded marinated salmon), poi (a paste made of taro root), haupia (coconut custard), papaya, mangos."
"It was the best party we've ever had," Laura Mellen said. "I'm already planning next year's."
A big part of the tropical theme, of course, is the tropical drink--the pina coladas, peach daiquiris and other concoctions sporting the usual parasol, pineapple wedges, cherries and mermaid stir-sticks.
Actually, caterers say, those kinds of drinks are in demand during the summer even for parties that don't reach any farther than the back-yard fence for a theme. But not in as much demand as they used to be. In fact, caterers say, no matter what alcoholic drink people are having, they're having less of it. "People just don't drink as much at parties as they used to," Bruyn says. "They've become very aware of the drunk-driving problem. We're serving half the alcohol today that we were 10 years ago."