Monday, December 11, 2006

Party On

It’s the time of year when parties are thrown: office holiday parties, open houses, New Year’s parties. And as usual, I have something to say about the food that you so often find at these things, and how people need to start thinking of new things to serve. Recently I saw a bunch of suggestions on a listserv I’m on, and the number of people who repeated the same thing over and over was really surprising. The woman who asked for the ideas had compiled all the replies she got and sent them out to the whole listserv, with the thought that if any of the rest of us were pondering what to serve at a party, we could refer to this list. The only problem is that the list contained about five foods repeated 12 times each.

First everyone suggested olives. I personally don’t like olives, and I find them to be a boring thing to serve. I don’t care if the hostess has gone out and bought one of those cute little olive trays that holds them all in a straight line, and has set them out very artistically. They’re still olives and they’re still boring. Besides my not liking them, I think I find them to be so dull because they can be purchased at any supermarket at the “olive bar,” and therefore don’t require any real thought. My philosophy is, if you’re going to go to the trouble of having people over, put some thought into what you’ll serve them, and give them something that takes a little trouble. I don’t mean slave in your kitchen for days on end, but at least make something that your friends couldn’t go out and buy for themselves at their own local grocery store.

Hummus is another thing that’s much abused these days, and was much recommended on the list I saw. And again, part of my objection is that I don’t like it, and part is that it’s too easy to buy it. Hummus comes in tubs at every grocery store in the world, and all of it, to me, has a sandy texture that I don’t like. But even if I did like it, just how much hummus can one person eat? If you get invited to three or four parties in the month of December, and you get fed hummus at every one, that’s just tiresome. Mixing things up by serving baby carrots instead of the expected pita chips does nothing to enliven hummus as an offering.

The ultimate (to me) overdone party food is tortilla pinwheels. Naturally everyone who contributed to the list of ideas raved about this little gem. Just on the off chance you live in the in the middle of the Australian outback and haven’t seen another human being in 115 years, tortilla pinwheels are tortillas that are rolled up with some kind of filling (generally turkey, sometimes there’s some other lunch meat involved, or maybe some kind of condiment, or cream cheese) and sliced into one- to two-bite rounds. I think the thing about these is that they’re monumentally dull and uninteresting, but any time you read a recipe for them in a magazine, online, or in a book, it’s accompanied by someone’s gushing remark that these are the tastiest things ever, and that if you make them, everyone will beg you for the recipe.

This begging seems to be a common thread through many of the most repeated party food recipes. The idea that whatever it is will be so novel, so delicious, so irresistible, that every guest will be crawling around the party after you on their knees, sobbing and pleading for the ingredients that go in your incredible sweet and sour meatballs. As though they’ve never heard of the idea of mixing chili sauce and grape (or raspberry) jam, adding frozen meatballs, and heating them up in a crock pot. I suppose the people who publish or post these recipes feel that the image of everyone beseeching you for this particular recipe is a big selling point. Clearly it works, because these foods do seem to show up an awful lot.

Vegetables and dip made an appearance on the list too. Vegetables and dip are fine, but they’re not exactly something someone couldn’t come up with on their own. The original request, as I understood it, was for some different things to serve at a party. Anything that can be purchased already made in the produce department of the grocery store doesn’t exactly qualify as a unique recommendation. Fruit trays with some kind of sweet dip, and cheese and crackers are also not anything particularly cutting-edge.

The problem with party food is that you want things that can either be served in bulk (dips, cheese and crackers), or that can be made in bulk and reduced to individual servings very easily. I remember when I worked for a catering company, the catering director had managed to sell a client on serving some kind of flavored cream cheese piped into hollowed out cherry tomatoes. The party was for 150 people. It’s very time consuming to hollow out enough cherry tomatoes for 150 people, and even more time consuming to pipe cheese mixture into all of them. Above all, it’s almost impossible to transport cherry tomatoes with cheese mixture in them for 150 guests from the prep kitchen to a party site some distance away. Needless to say, cherry tomatoes have an unfortunate tendency to roll around, and after a 15 minute car trip, most of them were on their side, stuck to the parchment paper we’d used to line the trays on which they were being transported, or leaning drunkenly against one another with the cream cheese filling holding them fast.

But I know there are foods out there that can be easily made in quantity that aren’t cheese and crackers, vegetables and dip, hummus and pita chips, olives, and/or tortilla pinwheels. At the same time, I always get somewhat impatient when I see magazines encouraging people to make little deep fried things, or things that are really best served hot. I can speak from experience when I say that if you serve stuff like that, you’d better make sure that your kitchen can hold all your guests, because that’s where everyone is going to wind up. It’s certainly where you’ll be spending the whole party.

I read a magazine article (or maybe it was a blurb in a cookbook) that said that having guests over for hors d’oeuvers was easier than having them over for dinner. I vehemently disagree. It’s true that if you’re thinking of having 30 people over, giving them a complete dinner would be more of a challenge than offering them cheese and crackers, but to provide little nibbley things for 30 people that will be enough food to fill their stomachs and keep them from getting half crocked on the drinks you serve is not easier than making dinner for six. I think parties are fine if you can afford a caterer, but I go for smaller, more intimate groups so that no one can ever say, as they leave my house, “That was fun, but the food was so dull!”


Anonymous said...

How can you go on about how everyone else's suggestions were dull and people dont leave your house complaining of dull food offerings; yes not actually offer any suggestions? I could not think of anything interesting appetizer wise for xmas eve at dads so I quickly jumped on dessert, leaving my sister with the appetizer chore. I am making Southern Living's fabulous bread pudding with vanilla sauce. My sister will likely bring cheese and craskers. Now keep in mind that my family is full of cheese fiends, so this is not a bad choice, but merely a dull one. Lisa of course asked me for suggestions and I rattled off a quick list that embarassingly included both fruit and veg. It was: "veggies and dip, fruit, those sausage cheese balls, nuts, chex mix, Ann's salmon log, spinach/ artichoke dip, deviled eggs? "

Note that I was joking about the chex mix since i hate the taste of worstershire sauce. So much so that I can't spell it either.

What would you have suggested? Dying to know since I made your chicken salad recipe this week that you served at Jamie's baby shower.


Emma Shannon said...

I wondered if someone would call me on that. :) Bashing everyone else, but not offering suggestions of my own. OK, here goes--in the past, we used to do a holiday party every year. Some of the things I remember serving were: ham biscuits (not original, I admit), red and green pepper strips with a red pepper dip (a take on the veggie tray, but trying to be a little seasonal), a whole smoked salmon (this isn't really fair, since I have a grandmother who used to send us one every year, and it would have cost the earth if we'd bought it on the East coast), soups (lentil, chili, etc), cheese wafers, chicken skewers.

I freely admit that not all (or even any) of these things is particularly original. However, perhaps I should add a tip to creating a more original appetizer buffet--think of it as a meal. This is what I was taught when I worked in catering. You think of a traditional American meal--starter (soup or salad), meat, vegetable, starch, bread, and dessert, and think of things to fill each of those categories. And expand "appetizer" to include what we called fork food in catering--requires a plate and a fork, but can be eaten fairly easily standing up. So, Belgian endive with a blob of cream cheese & blue cheese in it (doesn't have to be done with a pastry bag--when you start getting out your pastry bag, you're starting to talk about additional time), a chopped salad, some kind of soup kept warm in a crock pot (provide styrofoam cups to eat it out of--plastic ones get hot too fast), sausage in puff pastry (wrap cooked italian sausage in sheets of puff pastry, slice and bake), stuffed potatoes (use small red potatoes cut in half, scoop out some of the insides from the rounded top with a melon baller, mash the insides using your favorite mashed potato recipe and refill the potato halves; reheat in the oven--everything but the reheating can be done ahead)...there are a few ideas. If people are going to do things like ham biscuits (which I've done myself, as I say), then cut the biscuits in interesting shapes, or provide unusual mustards or something for them. Or do a twist on ham biscuits and roast a couple of chickens and do chicken biscuits, or roast beef or even make bowls of tuna, chicken, and egg salad and let people make little sandwiches with the biscuits.

Thank god you didn't suggest your sister serve hummus and pita chips! :) And sausage cheese balls are one of my FAVORITE foods (the processed food part of my personality getting the better of me again...)