What are the ingredients for an unforgettable summer party? A palatial estate? A chef from a four-star restaurant? Famous musicians playing poolside?
If you don’t have any of these things, what then? Are you just doomed? Doomed to a lifetime of barbecues and parties at which banged-up coolers full of soda cans hide in the shade of the garage and the appetizers are whatever was on sale at Sam’s Club?
No! A thousand times, no! You are not doomed to dull parties. All you need to turn this summer’s fun in the sun into something really memorable is a couple of good ideas and a commitment to details, say Carolina Buia and Isabel C. González, coauthors of the new party planner and cookbook Latin Chic: Entertaining With Style and Sass (HarperCollins, 2005).
I spent a few days poring over photos of the themed parties, luncheons and dinners around which the two have arranged their book and encountered all kinds of brilliant little touches that I never could have dreamed up.
Call me crazy, but I’m beginning to think that a great party has something in common with a good yoga class: It captures your attention in such a way that the present moment vibrates vividly before you. The difference is, instead of using your breath to distill your attention, for a party you use details. Lots and lots of vivid details.
Details like seashells used as salt and pepper shakers, lime rinds as dishes, eggcups as place-markers, port glasses as soup bowls, dried corn husks as disposable dip or nut holders. Details like music, glassware, garnishes and flowers all grouped around a theme. Lots of special, inspired little touches every step of the way.
Latin Chic author González, who is also an editor at Teen People, says the reason she is so good at identifying these important little details is because she grew up watching some real party pros. “My maternal grandmother was an incredible cook,” she explains, “and my other grandmother was definitely not – but boy, could she throw a party. She was putting flowers in individual votive holders years before I saw that in any magazine. An hour or two before the guests arrived she would wander here and there, adjusting various little things, until somehow everything just came together to feel perfectly special. I couldn’t help but study her as she went. I was in awe.”
Now, González honors her grandmother with that sincerest form of flattery – imitation – by doing the kinds of things her grandmother did at parties. “I’m a big fan of doilies – doilies can spruce up a coffee table like nothing else. Serving dishes do more than just hold things,” she advises. “If you present things on trays instead of plates, or have bowls on trays, everything just seems more special. I buy vintage mismatched cheese knives from flea markets; they’re so much nicer than something plastic. And I always like to make the drinks look pretty. That doesn’t mean they’re pink with an umbrella, but it could mean you just pick out the prettiest mint sprigs to use as a garnish. My grandmother taught me that 2 percent more effort can yield 98 percent more enjoyment – and it gives a little more depth to the experience, too. That’s living life to its fullest.”
González’s coauthor Buia thinks that this type of attention to detail is appreciated today more than it ever was. “Because we live in such a fast-food culture, if you actually do bake a cake, you get an incredible amount of validation for it,” Buia says. “All your friends gather around, and they’re crying out, ‘Oh my god, this is homemade!’ so you really feel appreciated. It’s not like it was in our grandparents’ generation, when everyone baked. I feel like, for a long time, women were confined to this Betty Crocker homemaker role. Then the pendulum swung the other way, and everything was about career and independence. Now I feel like it’s a really great time – because you can have your career and your Betty Crocker moments, too. You can get a totally different kind of satisfaction out of each of them.”
Do you agree? If so, consider this your summer to have your cake and throw an unforgettable party around it, too.
Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated five times for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received the award for her restaurant column in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.