Friday, July 04, 2008

Zen and the Art of Entertaining

There's a niche in the entertaining genre of how-to literature waiting to be filled. Martha Stewart helps you outdo your friends by teaching you how to make not only Christmas candies, but their individually decorated wrappers as well. Likewise, the folks at Good Housekeeping share recipes for chocolate cakes that actually burn fat (yeah, right) and the pages of Real Simple are chock full of ideas for turning recyclables into centerpieces and storage containers.

After flipping through the glossy pages of an entertaining magazine, you'll learn that throwing a Noah's Ark themed baby birthday party complete with unique marzipan animals atop every cupcake is possible. As we know, though, just because we can doesn't mean we should. And why should anyone work so hard in the name of hosting a good party? I want to know how many of these magazine articles cover the why of entertaining. I want to read about the joy or zen achieved through hours of menu planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning.

I suppose for many, impressing one's guests as the hostess with the mostest is entertaining's reward. Others derive satisfaction from making loved ones happy and baking a homemade pie is a quick way to accomplish that. For me, hosting a party is the best way to gather the people I want to see. As my dad used to say, "I love parties at my house because I know everyone there." There are two primary reasons behind this sentiment: 1) he was shy and not always enthusiastic about meeting new people and 2) my mom prepared all of the food, cleaned the bathrooms and set the tables.

As a young wife, I'm beginning to embrace domestic joys. Like my mother before me and my grandmother before her, I love hosting parties. I like trying new recipes, dusting off my favorite serving platters and lighting scented candles around the living room. At least I did love those things until I hosted two parties in the same week last month and felt completely overwhelmed by the effort.

Perhaps hosting a party wouldn't feel like such an arduous process if I were a more confident cook living in the vicinity of a fantastic supermarket. Alas, I am a novice chef and must trial run all my dishes before I serve them to guests (thus, double duty) and my local markets are far from super. Australian markets aren't allowed to sell alcohol, so a party for anyone but your friends in AA or your mommies-to-be group requires at least two stops. If you wish to impress and indulge with farmer's market produce or fresh bread from your local bakery, make that three or four stops. And that's not unreasonable when you have a car and an afternoon. However, when I hosted my book club and then a birthday party, I had neither and was completely wiped out after scouring Sydney for plantains. I had the misfortune of actually finding them and then had to go get them from a suburb 45 minutes out of town and figure out how to prepare them. After we'd washed and dried the last margarita glass, I felt like I wanted to take a good long vacation from entertaining.

Again, my grandmother loved to entertain and I remember her mentally menu planning weeks in advance of her parties. "Well, I already made the vegetable soup and froze it," she'd say. "But, Grandma, the party's in two and a half weeks." She'd always say that she wanted to be prepared because on the day of the party she'd have so many other things to do.

So, if someone were to jump into the zen of hosting literature market, maybe they would herald thorough planning as the vehicle to party peace. If I were to take a stab at dishing out not only hors d'oeuvres, but advice as well, I'd tell the hosts of the world to be realistic and take shortcuts when overwhelmed. For instance, preparing a multi-course meal is a lot of work. Give yourself a break by perfecting the main dish and let the deli do one of the sides. Or, go to your baker if you can't trust your wonky oven. Other shortcuts include: asking your friends to bring something besides wine and saying 'yes, please' when they offer to help with clean up.

Maybe I should write this hosting handbook before Thanksgiving. My darling husband wants to host Turkey Day at our house and I'd like to do that too... without throwing a 7.5 lb turkey at him or out the window.