Sage: Throwing neighborhood party while avoiding disasters

Dear Sage:


We are new to a retirement community in California and would like to throw a meet-and-greet party for neighbors. My husband and I are recently retired physicians and haven’t hosted such a get-together in decades. After witnessing what happened next door last weekend, I’m more than a little nervous. The couple put on one heck of a shouting performance a few hours before they entertained dozens of guests. From what I could gather, they had not even figured out what to serve! The wife sent the husband to the grocery store after screaming things like ‘Why the hell did I agree to do this?” to which the husband shouted, ‘You didn’t agree to do this – you chose to, remember?” After which she told him to shut up multiple times, and he, devising a creating rejoinder, hollered, ‘No, YOU shut up. YOU shut up, OK?’ Anyway, he went to the grocery store and evidently called her to report that the store was out of meatballs and other hot dishes because the food refrigeration unit had failed. I could hear Dear Wife shouting, “Well, get some G.D. frozen pigs in a blanket or one of those stupid Hickory Farms salami and cheese baskets, or some dumb-ass carrot and celery dip platters or chips and salsa. Baked beans. Velveeta. Pizza Pops. Twinkies. Ding Dongs. Cheesis, who the hell cares at this point?” Help, oh Sage. How can I welcome my neighbors in a less exasperated fashion?

                                                                – Frazzled in West Palm Beach


Dear Frazzled:

   What? No SPAM? Ho Hos? Sardines? Frozen yak pops? Gator tail? What kind of party was that? The Sage will go out on a limb here and assume that 1. You learned a lot from last weekend’s debacle and 2. That this party was the talk of the neighborhood, and perhaps not in the most laudable of terms, and 3. You are not eager to engage that couple’s services as your party-planning consultants.

   Hosting such affairs certainly can be stressful. You should be at least a little anxious so that you plan in advance, clean your house, do the yard work, figure out whether it should be potluck, order food and, oh, not forget to invite people. At the other extreme, some people would rather burn down their houses than be social flops. They go berserk, take out a second mortgage so that they can order everything from 400-year-old scotch to Austrian White Gold Caviar  ($113,630 at last count, topped, of course, with 22-karat edible gold leaf), and fly in caterers from Paris – anything to avoid becoming the local laughingstocks. Let’s assume that you would rather be at the lighter end of that spectrum.

   First of all, The Sage would recommend that you seek advice, especially if you haven’t done this in a long time. Reach out to a relative who’s a wiz at this, or to a trusted friend who’s respected as a gracious and confident host.

   Ask for tips on everything from concept through the end of the soiree (home run if that person is with you before and during the party).

   For instance, how many people would you like to invite – half a dozen – or the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet? Where will you serve food and drinks – indoors or outdoors? Do you have the right amount of space given the size of your guest list, and the right number of rooms? Enough tables and chairs? When will you do this (the Sage would not recommend Christmas, New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving as your first venture into this sphere!)? Will it conflict with major local events on that day, like the Super Bowl or the Oscars or National Love Your Grits Day?

   Will you ask people to bring potluck dishes? This is often considered inappropriate for birthdays or milestone anniversaries or major holidays, but great for barbecues, Fourth of July, Halloween, a college football or basketball day, or theme nights. The Sage is a huge fan of potlucks, as the hosts already are doing a lot of work by figuring out a well-balanced guest list of interesting people who will complement each other … by getting their house cleaned … buying napkins, tablecloths, plates, cups and sundries … ordering at least some foods … making drinks … ensuring that everyone is well fed and, um, hydrated … selecting music … and making sure that everyone’s comfortable – all while coming across as relaxed and enjoying this time together. Fairly simple once you’ve done this four or five hundred thousand times.

   And all of those tasks shouldn’t begin the afternoon of the party. The experienced among the glitterati recommend that you start figuring everything out at least a week to several weeks ahead of time, depending on whether you need to order food, cook and freeze dishes in advance, decorate your house, build the party around a theme (such as a sport, with appropriate banners and team paraphernalia). You might also want to order fresh flowers and create a focal point – a favorite dish, a specialty drink, or a fun activity or game, such as trivia about the Peloponnesian War.

   Then again, many parties are very simple. They last a couple of hours (time span noted in invitation), and the host and maybe two or three other people bring simple appetizers.

   Let’s assume that you’ll want to do something beyond that. Try building that focal point. It could be smoked salmon, or a beef roast, or your favorite chili recipe. Be specific with your guests about what types of foods you’d appreciate their bringing – a beloved side dish, or salad, or dessert, or appetizer. Good to cite a category, rather than stipulating precise items, such as a fifteen-bean salad, a 10-pound medium-rare tenderloin, or enough Norwegian pickled herring to feed the fleet. You can be creative – ask for foods that were a cultural favorite in their family, for instance, and you can all exchange stories about ethnic foods. At the end of the party, insist that your guests take home whatever they brought, particularly if they arrived in someone’s favorite bone china serving bowl. Plus, you won’t be stuck with three hundred pounds of leftovers.

   And don’t forget to suggest that people with dietary restrictions – diabetics and those with allergies, for example –bring something that will work for them. Just encourage them not to wander around your house too long, as that vegan meatloaf can disappear before they can scoop up an ounce of it.

   On the day of the party, try to chill as much as you can. The Emily Post Institute says you should have everything ready long before your guests arrive so that you can relax and enjoy, rather than creating a neighborhood spectacle that can be heard in Nova Scotia. Other advice from the institute:

   • Welcome your guests and greet them throughout the party: “If you notice a guest with an empty glass or if there’s one person standing alone, take action and remedy the situation.”

   • Be ‘flexible and gracious,’ as when someone brings an unexpected guest (so long as that guest is not the Navy’s 6th Fleet). Don’t kick anyone out to the curb.

   • “Be the leader and the spark … circulate among your guests, introduce newcomers, and stay with each group long enough to get a conversation going.”

   • Thank guests for coming, especially for people who brought a gift.

   And if you’re a guest? The institute recommends that you reply to any invitation immediately as a courtesy to the host; arrive within fifteen minutes after the stated start time (don’t arrive early, and let your host know if you will be very late); participate in activities and offer to help when you can; and always thank your host (in written form if a party was in your honor or if it was formal or even elegantly casual).

   So, to the California doctors, the Sage wishes you well. Don’t expect perfectionism. Plan well but don’t try to emulate state dinners at Kensington Palace, unless you’re related to the royal family. Keep the party in a healthy perspective – this is a get-together for prospective friends, not an event that will likely cause neighbors to picket in front of your house if the meatballs are cold. Have fun. Start to build relationships with new friends, and then kick back, unwind, and have a few frozen yak pops to celebrate your success.

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage