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It's Been Surreal

August 31, 1995|BOB BLUMER

I have never been fond of proper behavior, formal attire or tradition for tradition's sake. While others relax with a glass of wine half an hour before the party starts, I inevitably get caught in the shower--albeit with a glass of wine in hand--as my first guests arrive.

What follows is a collage of observations, experiences and recipes culled from my action-adventures as a host, gallivanting gourmet and charter member of the "unmonied elite."

The formula for fulfillment in the surreal world of dinner partydom is simple: Shop for the freshest available ingredients, master a few select dishes, buy some spirited CDs, invite a wild-card guest and train your friends to arrive with fine wine. Follow my suggestions when they feel right but never fear to veer off the egg-beaten path. Missing ingredients, mismatched utensils and haphazard kitchen gaffes will all melt into comic irrelevance amid the smoke and sizzle of a little spontaneity.

So grab your corkscrew, forget everything the tea and crumpet contingent taught you about traditional dinner party etiquette and let the surreal times roll.

Who

Think of your party as a chess game. To play, you need an assortment of kings, queens, bishops, knights and pawns. It's the "chemistry" between the pieces that makes the evening work. Too many of one piece, regardless of its rank or "moves," will not lead to checkmate.

In addition to an eclectic mix of personalities, I like to invite one outspoken, controversial "ringer" whom I can count on to invigorate the conversation. I make a mental note of these types when I meet them at other events, and I lure them to my parties with the promise of fine food.

In the chess game of life, the triumphant host sends each guest home feeling like a king or queen--never the pawn.

Send in the Clowns

On some occasions, it's fun to introduce "new blood" to a party at the point when the energy level typically wanes.

If you have invited "vibey" friends who can't attend dinner because of previous commitments, turn a negative into a positive by asking them to come late for dessert or after-dinner drinks. Their arrival will inject your party with a surge of fresh vitality.

Neighborhood Watch

For intimate dinner parties, pacifying the neighbors should not be a concern. However, if your intimate intentions evolve into a massive social event, it is wise not to ignore your immediate neighbors.

Inviting them is the old standby. Unfortunately, it's not always desired, or appropriate. An advance note or phone call can work wonders, as will the habit of bringing them goodies after the party, thereby creating a Pavlov's dog effect (put up with the noise, get a treat).

Children

[I like children] if they're properly cooked.

--W.C. Fields

*

I have always found that children act most like adults when being treated like adults. This is not to say that you should serve them the same truffle risotto that you are serving your other guests. But if kids are expected at your dinner party, create a party for them that's just as special as yours.

Dress up a room they can call their own; treat them to goodies they might not get at home. Rent some movies. Bake some cookies. Roll some peanut butter and jelly wheels. Pop some popcorn. Toss in some arts and crafts supplies and party hats and leave them to their own devices (avoid too much sugar, or the whole room might explode).

If you are expecting more than a couple of kids, a communal baby-sitter can be a worthy investment. If you don't have kids at home, conduct a quick sweep of low-lying surfaces for breakables and sharp corners.

Involve your own children in as much of the preparation as possible (i.e., designing name tags and decorating the room). Then give them an early lesson in strategic negotiating by allowing them to stay up until a designated time in exchange for a guaranteed, unaccompanied retirement. Of course, if they're old enough to help clean up--well, that's another story.

What

It's OK to be selfish. The first thing to consider when selecting a menu is where you want to spend the majority of the evening. If you are fortunate enough to have a kitchen that opens into the living room, and you consider cooking a spectator sport, then starting the meal preparation after the guests arrive is no problem.

If, on the other hand, you are the type who prefers to mingle with a glass of wine in hand, a selection of dishes that can be completed entirely in advance might be more practical. A mix of the two, weighted slightly toward pre-prep, is always a safe choice.

I use one fundamental rule when determining how many different items to prepare: Make a minimal number of dishes, but make each one memorable. A finger food, a salad and an entree served with fresh bread should be enough to satiate any guest's hunger, as well as his or her palate. The equation is simple:

distinctive + robust = memorable

Finger Foods.

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