I think I have had a life-crush on Martha Stewart ever since I knew she existed. Truly. I don’t really even mind the insider trading thing, because well… I love a comeback. Do I think it’s unseemly to know right from wrong, and still do wrong? Absolutely. But who can deny the majesty of this “simple” wreath chandelier? Or the perfect presentation of desserts set out for expected carolers?
Not me. While I would love to entertain for a living, I sort of need to make a living in order to entertain. I don’t have a team of stylists. I do have a dog that likes to decorate the condo with various half-chewed stuffed animals when we have company, but no… no team of stylists. I can’t pay chefs to cook lavish meals for in-home dinner parties, and the closest I’ve come to having someone food shop for me is Peapod (a veritable life-saver when there’s a blizzard pending and you’re nearly out of TP). I have never successfully sewn a pair of boiled wool slippers for my every member of my family, though I did successfully print Martha’s handy templates. That has to count for something.
While it’s unlikely I will ever become Martha Stewart, Jr. (I’ve heard the name change process is a real bore, plus I rather like the new last name that’s waiting for me in November 2012), and it’s equally unlikely that I will have her resources at my disposal, a girl can dream… And then wake up, use what resources and creativity and flair she does have, and throw a damn good party. Or decorate a damn lovely condo. Or bake a damn tasty cake.
I don’t know why I just said damn three times. Probably for emphasis. Did it work? Entertaining is not just for the Marthas of the world. It’s also for mortals like you and me. Want to know how I trick people into thinking I have my act together? Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyway.
Set the stage
Every Wednesday this Advent, I’ve hosted faith sharing for fellow Jesuit grads. If that sounds interesting to you, I’d be happy to elaborate. If you now think I am a crazy Christian, I’m happy to affirm your thoughts. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all! Back to Wednesdays. Our group arrives at my condo just before 7. I rarely get out of work before 6. My commute is usually painless, but every once in a while, the person ahead of me forgets how to drive. I try not to give people the aggressive horn toot on my way to pray, but um… sometimes it just happens. I’m often left with all of 20 minutes to make sure our condo is guest-ready, set out food and drinks, find matches (I can’t talk about God without candles. Just kidding. Kind of.), put my face back on, and turn my work-brain off. The key here is planning ahead. And having a fiance who can field my panicked “I am stuck in a meeting and I forgot to vacuum” phone calls.
It’s no secret that I am list obsessed. When it comes to entertaining, I have this one memorized and use it for brunches, neighborhood Cinco de Mayo parties, and Yankee swaps with my best pals.
They’ll be here any minute and this place looks, um… lived in!
- Empty the trash barrels
- Wipe down the counters and sinks
- Light candles and safely dispose of the matches
- Turn on the electric fireplace
- Herd Clark’s rogue toys
- Set out plates, glasses and napkins
- Fluff the cushions on the sofa, and bust out the Scotch fur fighter
- Dust and vacuum, if necessary and time allows
This whole process rarely takes more than 10 minutes (when we live in a sprawling mansion, I anticipate it may take longer), and keeps me just busy enough to gain some mental distance between my work day and what lies ahead. Survey your home and prioritize before you turn into a cleaning machine. Think about the places people actually notice. Just last week, someone commented on how clean our bathroom was. If that person had stepped foot in my shower, or poked their head under my sink, I imagine they may have felt differently. People will likely not open your dryer, or duck into your closet, so rather than fold your laundry and organize your shoe rack, spend those minutes tidying your living room.
I would be a hot mess if I didn’t have a timeline in mind. If I have more than 20 minutes, that timeline almost always includes 19 minutes for freaking out when I burn something in the oven. I make sure that if I need to get dressed or changed, this is not the last thing I do. Inevitably people show up early, and no one wants to be greeted by my 11 year old Boston College tee shirt with the gaping hole in the armpit. Once I am feeling presentable, I might pour myself a beverage, or dance around a bit to my favorite jam of the moment. A relaxed hostess makes for comfortable guests. A drunk hostess likely has the opposite effect, but that’s a different post for a different day.
Decor need not be a chore. A vase or two of simply arranged flowers goes a long way. Three of my current favorites: a bouquet of kale, a tall vase of white tulips, or a few branches of holly.
Keep food simple, but special
When it comes to food, I’ve mastered a few dishes that take minimal effort, but are just special enough to impress and can be presented in a fun way. Appetizers and desserts are key here. I love hosting casual gatherings where you don’t necessarily sit down for a “real” meal. Mostly because the last time we did that, I undercooked the chicken breast (what’s a vegetarian to do?) and nearly killed Nick, my brother, and my sister-in-law. Still sorry about that.
A few options to consider:
- Phyllo cups with brie and hot pepper jam
- Brie en croute with pomegranate arils
- Mini Greek salads
- Melon salad with bocconcini and basil
- Homemade dark chocolate and almond butter cups
- S’mores on a stick
- Brownie bites
- Open-faced mini cucumber sandwiches
Many of these snacks can be made the night before, or are easily prepped. I like to keep our kitchen stocked with many of the necessary ingredients on hand, just in case the Pope or my sister drops by. Pre-baked phyllo shells were a genius invention. Same goes for those little loaves of bread. It may be because I am a shorty, but I always gravitate towards miniatures.
Fresh vegetables are an easy fix, especially when coupled with a Greek yogurt dip containing every single spice in our cabinet, and every herb in our refrigerator. That keeps people guessing. Oh, and cheese. Who doesn’t love an artfully arranged plate of cheeses? Someone I don’t want to know, that’s who (I make exceptions for people who are vegan or lactose intolerant, obvi.).
Pop that Crystal. Or the $9.99 Prosecco.
When it comes to beverages, I have one word for you: bubbles. Bubbles make everything more festive. Nothing says, “Oh maaaaaaan, am I having a good time!” quite like a glass of Prosecco, or perhaps some sparkling water with a splash of pomegranate juice. As a regular on the designated driver circuit, I always appreciate when tap water is not the only alcohol alternative.
Speaking of designated driving, if you’d like an early Christmas gift, remind me to tell you about the time I was the DD at Nick’s fraternity formal. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll nominate me for sainthood.
Keep a stash. Of cute paper goods.
I tend to keep the presentation clean and simple, using a big ol’ white platter and matching plates. We have a little stash of fun napkins and paper plates and the like tucked away in one cabinet. Homegoods is a goldmine when it comes to cute, inexpensive cocktail napkins (imagine the things I would know if my brain weren’t full of thoughts like that one?). In a perfect world, I would use recyclable cloth napkins and strictly bamboo plates. But, um… this isn’t a perfect world. Sorry, Al Gore. 🙁
We keep platters, bowls, a cheese board, extra vases and other items we use almost exclusively for entertaining in that same cabinet. It’s like one stop shopping. Except that it’s free, and the inventory never changes.
Play it cool.
The bottom line is this: I’m not Martha. I’m Elizabeth. My friends come over to hang out with me, not a lifestyle mogul (likely because she won’t return their calls either). Entertaining, decorating, cooking, baking, playlist making, and mood setting are things I love to do. If you’re having fun, you’re likely doing a good job, right? Just be cool. And in the words of my kindergarten teacher, be yourself. Nobody likes an imposter… even one that can turn a wreath into a chandelier. For the record: I haven’t tried. Yet.
Also On Tap for Today:
- Answers to 25 dinner party dilemmas
- How timely! Throw a bash with less trash from the Whole Foods blog
- Wrapping a few more pressies 🙂