how to throw an almost-perfect dinner party for 10: part I, being prepared for...

The Art of Hosting a Dinner Party for Ten..
Almost-perfect is our operative phrase for this little blogging session. 

I'm going to walk you through our first "real" dinner party---ever---and what we did well and what we need to work on. I find this sort of information invaluable for those of you starting out in your first marriage, house, etc. 

"The Ten" invited to the aforementioned dinner party included 4 couples who have taken great care and love to mentor Hawk and I in the art of hosting. While I wouldn't say this is necessarily a lost art, I do think my generation has little experience in hosting them and only a dip more experience as guests.

What defines a "dinner party" vs. "friends over for dinner?"
In our reflection, we find the primary difference to be about the intent: what do we intend for our guests? The answer defines the difference between the two types of dinner. 

When throwing a dinner party, we want our guests to have an experience. By this, we mean that from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave, our guests should feel that they were hosted, that is, a) that their hosts prepared the space for them, b) prepared a menu (versus "food"), c) prepared the bar, and d) prepared entertainment.

These preparations differ from "friends over for dinner" in that the latter requires little forethought, little preparation. Sure, the counter may be scrubbed, floors swept, and great food served, but when a friend comes over for dinner in this way, it is as if they are in their own home.

A dinner party requires that guests receive an experience of being prepared for, attended to at every moment, and enjoyed despite any mishaps.

Today, we will explain how we prepared for our guests.

First, the Menu.
Jen chose the menu three days prior to the dinner. She went for a combination of foods that are both tasty and on the gourmet side, and also were repeats. Here is the menu:
Pancetta-wrapped Filet Mignon with Sun-dried Tomato & Goat Cheese
Rice Pilaf
Boston & Romaine Salad with Raspberry-Kick Vinaigrette
Momma Shedd's Homemade Toffee (what is possibly left after our Christmas feast!)
Two bottles of red wine, one higher-quality, one lesser
Twelve-pack of beer for non-wine drinkers
Soda, regular & diet

Here's what made this menu wise:
Jen has made the steaks before, and they were incredible! All the ingredients are readily available at the local market. The rice pilaf was a brilliant box mix (I'm out, so when I remember what it is, I'll post it if you want to know), so no pressure there. The salad was simple--just lettuce and homemade dressing. The dressing is a very simple and tangy recipe Jen altered. Since we had the rice, dressing ingredients, and twelve-pack ready, our total bill for 10 guests including 10 cuts of 8 oz. filets came to just shy of $75.00!

Here's what made this menu stupid:
Ugh. That's a later post. I promise. All the dreadful details will be brought into the light.

Second, the space.
Hawk had to work late, complete mandolin lessons, and coach the evenings prior to the party, so that meant that Jen had to get a few things done ahead of time (see the checklist below). Remember, the hosts must be ready to receive guests. No running upstairs to shower or do hair. The party was Wednesday, so on Monday night, she scrubbed all the hardwood floors throughout the living and dining rooms. Really scrubbed. Washed as many dishes as needed to be washed, and picked up anything that was laying around and shouldn't be. Not true, complete cleaning, just enough to make it easier the day-of.

Jen scrubbed the kitchen sink (yes, before preparing dinner!), the powder room sink, around any other obvious bathroom areas, and the top of the wine bar.

Here's a good checklist for housecleaning in preparation for a dinner party:
KEY: No one will notice what IS clean, but they'll take fierce mental notes on what isn't.
1. Scrub floors. Nothing is worse than muck on the floor. It's the first thing people notice as they think, "should I take off my shoes?" and then look down toward their shoes.
2. Dust all flat surfaces Never underestimate it! We are not good dusters. Meaning, we've dusted twice in 5 months. Oops. But a quick once-over of all the flat top areas in any room in which we'll receive guests really makes a difference. No one will notice if it is, but they'll feel like everything else is a little dirty if it isn't.
3. Wipe down mirrors. Humans can't help but check themselves out when they walk by a mirror. A good host makes sure they notice themselves rather than foggy dust.
4. Double-check the toilet paper, towels, and soap. I had to reload both tp and soap in our powder room. It was used quite a bit that evening, so I'm glad I had the forethought to do this. 
5. Sweep under and around the dining table. I hadn't even realized that there was just---stuff---under there. 
6. Fill the ice-trays. Makes sense, right?
7. Re-clean any spotted wine or water glasses. This one has caught me off guard in the past. Our wine glasses used to dry with a cloudy rim. I've since remedied this problem, so now I'm more attentive to what isn't done correctly.

Third, the tone.
Hawk is the musical one in the family---by leaps and bounds, but I have a good sense of relaxing music. Not always good tailgate music, but a girl can't be perfect all the time.

So with a new itunes giftcard, Jen downloaded some Madeleine Peyroux. She's fantastic. We had some Punch Brothers & Chris Thile waiting for when things got going. We made sure all the music was ready so we could enjoy it as we prepared and ensure that nothing was off kilter.

Fourth, the host.
Knowing that Hawk would arrive 15 minutes before our guests, that meant showering, hair, make-up, etc. had to be completed at least 2 hours before guests arrive. Jen's hair takes forever to dry, and she never blow-dries it because she'll look like someone in high school in the 90's (c'mon, you know exactly what we mean). This meant that Jen scheduled off from work beginning at 4:00pm, went in to work early that day, and made sure to leave the house as clean as possible so that most of the time could be spent on the food prep. By the time Hawk arrived, most of the work was completed. We are lucky to work so well together in these instances; Hawk came home and jumped right into setting the rest of the table items, filling water jubs, the decanter, ice trays, etc. Then, he made sure to be ready to greet guests when they rang the bell, take their coats, and offer them something refreshing to drink. 

{devote}Nonetheless, we had a 3-minute fight. 3-minutes in part because in 6 minutes, our guests arrived. Being under a bit of stress of course placed stress on our marriage, even for those brief moments, but those moments can build into bigger matters later. So we paused in the midst of our preparations and did a quick check of why we were both irritated, talked it out, settled it (each choosing to relax our stringent requirements), and give a little kiss before returning to our duties. Had we not paused to settle things, our friends would surely have sensed something between us, and we would have been tempted to treat each other with less love and dignity. Pausing to settle the matter and to both apologize meant that we were free to enjoy and be enjoyed.

Fifth, the guest list.
This is an often overlooked but essential ingredient to a memorable and pleasant dinner party. We have attended a few over the years in which the mixture of people didn't truly provide opportunity for conversational ease. Things felt forced. If the mix isn't thought out, guests might feel like hosts themselves, having to entertain the person next to them instead of enjoy the person next to them. For this party, we were lucky; 3 of the couples are good friends and have hosted us at least once in the same way. The fourth couple is acquainted with two of the three (sounds like a riddle) but hasn't known everyone as long.

So there's our short list of preparation. Short in that is was easily accomplished and spread out over three days.

Check back tomorrow for Part II

~j & Hawk

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