I think I may have gone a little overboard on the theme for this month.
Having two January babies and an incessant need to throw a party for every birthday made for a busy few weeks in itself. Then we went and invited guests to numerous ‘crazy hour dinners’, I signed up for baking for Matt’s meals night in Upwey and just for fun, ended the month with a Cocktail Party.
I also had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of hospitality a number of times, and appreciated the little touches- like the thoughtful pajamas Baba laid out on each of our beds, the platter of seasonal fruit in easy reach on the dining table, the gourmet Connisseur ice-cream and wafers in cones on the deck at the Johnson residence, the laid-back ‘any time is good for a shared meal’ approach that Alex and Monica practice, and the surprise hearty meatball feast for lunch that Jamee whipped up for us.
Hospitality. It’s a word brimming with magic and excitement for me.
I remember spending hours pouring over my mother’s glossy cookbooks, reading through her handwritten notes of dinner parties thrown, the courses she had served and created. Mum had trained as a Home Economist and used her acquired knowledge to deftly craft impeccable meals for guests and family. The joy and satisfaction of inviting people into one’s home and feeding them well somehow transposed onto my soul and has become a significant part of the way I love to operate.
I pondered a lot about the concept of hospitality this month. What makes it work, the elements that cause the most stress, things to avoid… and I came up with this (slightly random) list of thoughts and tips:
1. Planning is Key
A few years ago Dave converted me to the idea of menu planning and I can honestly say I will never go back.
Each fortnight, I sit down with our Meals Plan to set out the next fourteen meals and the ingredients needed to create them. I think forward to nights that we have invited guests along and decide what we will be serving them.
This works with party planning too. If I know we have a party coming up, I will add the extra ingredients into the normal shopping list so that I don’t have to do an extra trip. Interestingly, it often seems that the total cost is not outlandishly more than normal.
For normal meals, if I’m feeling particularly inspired, I plan in cuisines, as this method has proven beneficial in utilising all of the spices or vegetables that might otherwise have gone to waste if bought in bulk. Last fortnight was Spanish themed, though I can resolutely declare I will not be making Gazpacho again. If recreating the essence of pureed salad with soggy bread was the aim of that recipe, it certainly delivered.
2. Set Up Rhythms of Hospitality
Life can get crazy, and the thought of adding one more thing into the calendar can sometimes seem overwhelming.
One of the most valuable things we have done is set up a fortnightly dinner with our friends Nick and Laura. We have the system down pat now- they bring a (spectacular) dessert and a bottle of wine and we provide the location and dinner. The kids get to hang out with their beloved Nick and Laura over dinner, have stories read to them by more interesting people than Mum and Dad, and then after they go to bed, we get time to chat, play Jay’s Balls and drink wine. It is such a winning solution!
3. Hospitality Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth
Dave works part-time as a Teacher and part-time as the Community Organiser for our Open House community. Neither role floods us with cash, however we have more than enough to live a comfortable and enjoyable life.
By planning the menus in advance and taking the time to consider home-cooked options for parties/dinners, I find that I can create generous servings in bulk for a fraction of the cost that store bought food requires. Platters of Sushi, Burek, Meringue Cookies, Berry Trifle, Marscapone Brownies… just a few of the recent options that (mostly) utilised ingredients I already had on hand (or could acquire cheaply) yet produced a sizeable batch for serving.
That being said, I couldn’t quite bring myself to cater for the Cocktail Party less than a week after Ivy’s Safari Jungle Bash so I went with the pre-prepared options instead- Potato Wedges, Spring Rolls, Pork Dumplings, Spinach and Ricotta Triangles… with Antipasto options as well, and it didn’t break the bank. Plus, if time is money, and I saved myself all those extra nights of cooking, it has to work out somehow in the end,…right?!
4. Have the Breakdown, Then Move On
There was a moment before Ivy’s party when I looked at the time we had left, the amount I still had to prepare, the kids that were needing me outside every few minutes while I was desperately trying to churn out dozens of sausage rolls (for the party and for dinner) and I panicked. After arriving back late on Sunday night from Sydney, going out to another family’s house for dinner Monday, having dinner guests on Tuesday and the Thursday of that week, it was all looking a bit like the world was closing in,… but we rearranged some things, Dave took all the kids on multiple adventures and it all magically got done in the end.
I don’t know about you, but it is easy for me to start seeing tasks and events as ‘heaping up’, one after the other, which then just stresses me out. If I can stop that freak out process before it gets too far, however, I often find that I had more than enough time to get everything done, and that you can do a lot if you just put your mind to it!
5. Take Everything Step by Step
Every process can be broken down into little steps. In the past, my big event planning failures occurred when I tried to leave things to the last minute- icing cakes that were still warm, forging forward without reading the instructions for the cake mould and watching it collapse and drip out onto the base of the oven. Now, I make the cakes two days in advance, doing the frosting and assembling the night before the party, and try to pair preparation of the party food with the normal dinner menu for that week so that the work I was planning to do anyway is put to good use.
This works for dinner parties too. If I can do a slow cooker meal, or the bulk of the chopping while the kids are having rest time, the craziness of the witching hour dissipates slightly, as I have more time and mental energy to set up activities or games while I prepare the final touches.
6. Everything is Better When Everyone Contributes
If someone offers to help- LET THEM!
This has been a journey of sorts for me, but I am getting so much better at saying, ‘Yes! How do you feel about making chocolate dip or bringing along some ice/drinks?’
The best example of this outlook is the Cocktail Party we threw last night. The deal was that everyone would bring one spirit and one mixer, and concoct a cocktail for the rest of us. The enthusiasm and excitement was priceless as everyone dreamed up their drink creations in anticipation! I could have invested a hell of a lot of money in booze and mixers, stressed myself out coming up with numerous options, but the ownership factor of each guest (and the money everyone saved as a result) was so much more rewarding.
7. Set the Tone
One of the things I love about entertaining is fashioning the entire mood of the event. Spotify is so amazing for discovering genres of music and creating applicable playlists for every occasion. For Ivy’s party, I drew together vintage adventure tracks, Disney jungle themed scores (Tarzan, Jungle Book), safari and African-style music to create the ‘jungle vibe’ I was going for. For the Cocktail Party, I was lucky enough to discover a ‘Vintage Cocktails, Crooners and Champagne’ playlist that fit the tone perfectly.
You don’t have to go overboard to decorate, but a few key touches go a long way. I use and reuse brown paper liberally, having cut paper bags into bunting, to the butcher’s paper that adorns the bench to save on dishes create the inviting spread. I also use tissue paper, streamers or balloons (sparingly) along with the transformation of all our chalkboards to reflect the applicable theme. I’m getting back into candles as well, particularly for evening entertaining.
This may not be for everyone, but dressing for the occasion helps set the tone and increase MY excitement for the theme! Not that I go all out, but I selected a leopard print dress for Ivy’s party and seized the occasion to wear a cocktail dress last night (both options already part of my wardrobe, I should add).
8. The Person Looking After the Kids Deserves At Least As Much of the Glory
One of the reasons I love parties so much is the time I get to spend, just me in my kitchen, dancing along to soundtracks, creating food for friends and family to enjoy. The alternative to this picture- having to squeeze in cooking time alongside of dashing in and out of the playroom to break up fights- is just a touch more stressful….
Dave’s valiant efforts in kid-wrangling while I cook up a storm are so much appreciated, and I feel quite recharged when he returns, usually with a ‘how the hell do you do this everyday?’ look on his face.
9. When in Doubt, Throw a Cocktail Party
Have I mentioned how much I love Cocktail Parties!? When this article made the rounds on Facebook, I was hooked. I pretty much booked the date in our calendar on the spot.
I provided the food, the simple syrup, ice, mint syrup and soda water (as well as the alcohol and mixers for my own concoction) and everyone else brought the rest!
We sampled Mango Mojitos, Minty Toblerone Mudslides, Cosmopolitans, Espresso Martinis, Pisco Sours, a Dark and Stormy variation, a Tequila Sunrise and a White Russian… I loved watching all the crafting of the drinks, and the exclamations of delight at the different options. Plus, cocktail party conversation is priceless- where else would you have random conversations about being pickled in red wine after death (I’m looking at you, Dan Gray!).
We let the boys stay up way past their bedtime to greet the guests (and stuff as many chips and chocolate into their mouths as they thought they could get away with)! The sense of awe and wonder in their eyes as they peered at all the goodies laid out on the table and danced to the music brought me back to my own childhood- sneaking out to join the adults as they held their own parties, joining Mum and Dad at a Nautical Themed Murder Mystery night at the Hulls house and listening in on all the conversations and shrieks of laughter as we made our own fun jumping off bunk beds and playing Murder in the Dark.
Party leftovers are awesome! Until the second or third day and you hope you never, ever see another bowl of Banana Pudding again…
Getting the kids back to bed after their foray into the Cocktail Party proved a little more difficult, until we bribed them with a party of their own the next day with the (non-alcoholic) leftovers. It worked a treat.
I love the lifestyle that hospitality encourages- open-handed, celebratory and just plain fun! Even if we have been having a rough time with the kids and feeling a little fried, there is something magical about that moment the guests arrive- perspective accompanies them and you instantly feel less caught up in the mundane/whirlwind.
Life is meant to be celebrated, to be shared with friends and family, and the simple act of sitting down to eat can be made into an occasion to remember. The connections made, the joy and suffering shared, the experiences for our own children that I hope they remember with fondness. I want our house to be a zone for all of these things- a place where people can come, be fed, relax and enjoy the magic of life together. That’s the essence of hospitality to me.