Those of us who were alive during the '50s and '60s probably fondly remember episodes of the television programs of the day which focused on "the Boss is coming to dinner." Back then, dinner parties at home were a more formal and frequent occasion than in the new millennium. It might just be my opinion, but it seems that the obligatory "having the neighbors over to dinner" and the requisite reciprocity have all but disappeared.

These days, a home dinner party is an affair held for one's friends or perhaps business associates. I am often invited to dinners at the homes of friends if only for the reason that I can be counted on to bring some good wine. Some of these affairs have been light-hearted, thoroughly enjoyable feasts. Some, sadly, left me feeling as if I'd just spent a day in the local jail and just couldn't wait to get out.

However, one needn't subscribe to the "Manifesto" of those who'd rather entertain in a restaurant in the name of "leaving it to the pros." A dinner party can be a thing of ease and delight (and much easier on one's pocketbook than a restaurant dinner) if some simple guidelines are followed.

Herewith I submit to you some suggestions for the host/cook:

Hosting the Home Dinner Party

Unless it's your "thing," forget about Martha Stewart and her hours of preparing crafty napkin-rings, ironing tablecloths and fancy baking. Here are some ideas to make your dinner party memorable.

  • Keep things simple. Don't take planning too seriously. And most of all, have fun.
  • Woody Allen said: "Sex is like having dinner: sometimes you joke about the dishes, sometimes you take the meal seriously.” Emily Post's advice about manners, which apply most of all to a dinner host/hostess: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
  • With all due respect to Julia Child, and her fabulous tome "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," there's a cookbook that contains everything, I mean everything, the home cook needs to prepare delicious meals that will please nearly everyone. It's called "Joy Of Cooking" (Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker). It's been in print since, like, 1957. I suggest that before you go to the bookstore, pick up a pre-1981 version of the book. If it's not there, go to a used book store or get a used copy on or the like. (If you do buy it, buy the Plume edition, still in print, first printed in 1973, ISBN 0452263336) The later editions of this book, which have been continually updated to adapt to changing tastes and styles, have been mucked-around with by the original writers' daughters and a self-proclaimed Asian cooking maven. The result is that some of the superb old favorites have been deleted, and replaced by complex "ethnic" cooking which bears no resemblance at all to the real thing. Worse, the new book assumes some of the techniques which are outlined in delightful detail in the original versions.

An assumption made more and more often is that unless one is a gourmet chef, the proper dinner party should be hosted in a restaurant. Now, this is all well and good, however, not all of us have the means to host our dinner parties in a restaurant. A great dinner party at a fine restaurant from soup to nuts can today cost upwards of $150 per person. Another drawback to hosting one's guests in a restaurant is that there are things that one's guests simply cannot do in a restaurant (e.g., light a joint, linger until three o'clock in the morning) that one can in a private home.

First, let's assume one can, indeed afford a restaurant dinner party. Just think of what that kind of money will buy if you have the party in your home. Consider these ideas:

  • If one can at all afford it, hire help to assist with service and clean-up. There are plenty of agencies who send people out to do this and it shouldn't be too expensive. That way the host/hostess may enjoy the company of one's guests without being absent from the table/living room too frequently.
  • Fancy how far one's budget for liquor and wines will go. A bottle of wine available for $75 in a restaurant ought to be about $30 in a liquor store. If one of your guests is a wine snob, tell them what you're having for dinner and have them place the order for you to go to the liquor store to pick up, or have delivered. Otherwise, depend upon your wine shop personnel to recommend wines which will accompany the food being served. As far as liquor is concerned, it is perfectly appropriate to offer a bar as simple as the aforementioned wines, vodka, Scotch, Rum, Bourbon and some mixers. That's it. If the lushes want more then they can go to the local watering hole.
  • Simple food can be marvelous food. Even if you can't afford to have help, see the paragraph above about "The Joy of Cooking." That's all you need to know. And guess what? It's okay to serve cheeses as an hors d'oeuvre, a great salad, and a good roast chicken you got at the local gourmet market. Even more fun, to hell with cholesterol, buy Kentucky Fried Chicken and have a hands-on free-for-all. There's nothing wrong with eating KFC with a $150 bottle of Champagne, nothing at all.

If you do decide to get creative and cook, beware the following no-no's:

  • The only thing that one should purchase for the party from the Supermarket's freezer is the dessert. No ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Use nothing from a metal can. Nothing but for tomatoes/tomato sauce. Some jarred three-bean salads, pickled beets, and fancy relishes are alright, as well as jarred, marinated artichoke hearts.
  • Wine that comes in a bag-in-box is not wine. It's fermented grape juice stabilized and enhanced with chemicals. The same goes for the results of other chemistry experiments now labeled and sold for mass consumption such as "raspberry Merlot" and "Alize" of any flavor. If you're clueless, a) pick up some of the stuff you like yourself — for yourself; b) consult an expert — you'd be surprised how helpful wine store owners are if you just come out and say "hey, I'm a novice at this."
  • If your home normally uses lo- or no-fat milk, margarine, and the like, don't assume that your guests are as health conscious. Buy light cream for the coffee, buy butter, buy real milk for cooking, if necessary.

If you don't know what kind of salad to make, find all sorts of exotic goodies and make some very good dressings (olive oil and wine vinegar will do, also) don't use bottled dressing; they're full of sugar and other additives. Set all the goodies and some field greens out on the sideboard along with some nifty salad bowls and let your guests make their own. Some suggestions for your salad bar (because even adults like to play with food):

  • boiled eggs
  • Marinated artichoke hearts
  • Lightly-cooked and chilled French String Beans (haricots verts)
  • Three-bean salad from a jar
  • Various kinds of cheeses, sliced, shredded or chunked
  • Olives. One can never have too many olives
  • Fresh fruit, peeled and cut-up
  • Sliced raw mushrooms

Finally, if the centerpiece of the party is going to be something sit-down, like a movie, visit the local gourmet store and get snacks, including plenty of microwave popcorn. If there's going to be marijuana smoking involved, I suggest that before going to the store to purchase desserts and after-dinner treats like candies, ice-cream confections, bakery specialties, get high yourself so you don't buy too little!

On the other side of the coin, if this party is de luxe and the attendees are far too erudite for some good old-fashioned fun like a movie or cards, be sure you obtain the following:

  • XO Cognac
  • Fabulous coffee, served not only with cream and sugar but with chocolate shavings, cinnamon sugar, and whipped cream
  • Cigars which cost at least US$5 apiece for each guest

This way those who do smoke the cigars often will have great fun trying to keep from laughing at the idiots who smoke rarely or not at all.

A Few Final Thoughts

A close friend used to hire a rather large suite at a good hotel for every New Year's Eve and serve an entirely cold spread. His own home was furnished with priceless antiques and therefore his entertaining was limited to outdoor affairs in the summer months. Of course, this is a very expensive option but I thought I'd throw it out for those who, for one reason or other, cannot entertain in their own homes.

If your decision on cheese, foods, wines or liquors are made based on the need to impress someone else, you've invited the wrong people to your party. Such persons are, indeed, the ones who should be taken to a restaurant for dinner.

When in doubt, buy more. Make your table a groaning board. The left-overs can be frozen, and there's nothing more embarrassing than running out of anything when entertaining.

I've discussed here a feast for only three of the senses, basically. If all of your guests are of the same musical tastes, by all means, have everyone bring their favorite record. Discuss. This leaves us to the sense of sight.

The party that will always stand out in my mind the most was a surprise shower (the invitations specified modest gifts) for a bride- and groom-to-be. These two folks were the image of propriety when they had to be, but deep down inside they were a couple of devils. So were most of their friends. The hostess served a lovely, simple meal of fresh Mozzarella with tomatoes, filet mignon, two vegetables, and an assortment of Italian desserts with strong coffee, whipped cream and assorted cordials. The salad and dinner had been cleared by the hired help, and who should walk into the room bearing the dessert and coffee but a man and a woman wearing nothing but the tiniest of underwear (and tans that left me green with envy). I mean, these two individuals were stunning. This was an ingenious alternative to the rite of the stag party where only Heaven knows what goes on, and the boring bridal shower where everyone oohs and aahs over small kitchen appliances. Suffice it to say that by 2:00 in the morning all the boring guests had left. By 2:30 the two models were fucking like minks on the living room rug, and by 3:00 the party had turned into a semi-orgy.

Well, cheerio and good luck! Entertaining needn't be drudgery and can turn out to be rather fun!