Last week Saturday I hosted a baby shower for oldest daughter, she and her husband Sean are expecting their first child late April, early May. This will also be the first grandchild for us, and for his parents, so kind of a big deal.
She didn’t even really want a shower; it was actually Bill that was most excited. He was telling everyone she was pregnant even before she was telling anyone she was pregnant. He was like, ‘it’s good news, why not spread the word?’.
Now, with our new way of living and the absolute uncertainty of when we’ll return to having large social gatherings, I guess I’ll blog on about how this party for thirty came together. Please know I am absolutely heartsick about the event and restaurant and bar industry, businesses shuttering left and right. Dedicated, talented people that put their body and soul into making coming together memorable and significant are now without work, and many with nowhere to go.
I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer, and I’ve been hosting parties for decades with plenty of mistakes, some near-right disasters, and each time I learn a little more and get a little better. Maybe we’ll all have to do our own self-hosting for a while, and maybe some of the below will be helpful, or inspiring. I know I have no social plans on the upcoming calendar, yet today while earnestly gardening to take the edge of my anxiety I thought to myself I’m home alone with the man I love most and by damn I’ll make at least some of our meals together a tight little party. I’ll use the good china, put on some good clothes, light a few candles, and celebrate our life. I’m desperately missing our kids, five in Florida all together, and pregnant daughter quarantined in Boston, Massachusetts, yet I know that they too will make mealtime special for those they are with. I feel good knowing that they’ve picked up some of my habits.
Here’s the timeline:
Pick a date! I honestly think that’s the hardest part! Commit, and once you commit you can make your first move. It was hard for us to pick a date, and the date moved around a bit as we have nine unique moving parts. We couldn’t accommodate everyone’s schedules, the two youngest had college spring break on their mind and we all thought rightly so. We went ahead knowing they would not be in attendance, and it was okay. Wedding? All hands-on deck, absolutely. Baby shower? Exemptions apply.
Make your guest list. All aunts were top of the list. Bill has twelve siblings, three sisters and many dear sister-in-law’s, and he really wanted a party with them in attendance. The rest of the list was just as intimate, close friends and family.
Book some help. I like to cook. I like to serve. I kind of like to clean up, just kidding. For formal seated dinners larger than eighteen guests I always like to have help in the kitchen. Set yourself up with the help you need. I had three, David, he was in charge of the kitchen while I mingled with the guests and sat for dinner. I did set out three prototypes of how each plate should look. He brought along a bartender and a server. I kid you not, if you are going to cook yourself you need to know you are going to be busy as heck the entire day and you will never feel like you are quite ready to go, there’s always something more that you can do. At one point you just have to call it, put your faith in others with good direction and go up and shower. I was literally on my feet and in the kitchen the entire day of the event not to mention the night and days before with trips to the grocery and pre-baking cookies, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Choose an invitation. I really like hand-written things, yet this time simply went to minted.com and picked a pretty white and gold invite, added the envelope lining, and uploaded the guest list excel file. I didn’t specify a reply by date, minor mistake, and I also think that having the envelopes addressed by minted was a little too impersonal. On second thought I guess not having a reply date is okay, being human, means you’re going to miss that occasionally despite having all best intentions anyway. I’ve totally been there so I forgive everyone, always, life can be messy.
Plan your menu. Okay, so here it gets a little dicey. I’ve historically always served a big hunk of meat. I’m always recently thinking about moving away from meat being the centerpiece of the plate. My cooking has moved towards dairy and gluten free, and plant-based is my eighty twenty goal. In thinking about a baby (!), and the future(!), I just had to go with my gut and planned the menu being all that: plant-based, gluten and dairy free (risky!).
Do a trial run. Cook what you plan to serve and test it on others before the big day. This is critical. I’ve done plenty of parties trying out new recipes and shooting from the hip and most of them turned out brilliantly, this time I just couldn’t wing it. This menu was all new, never before had I cooked Chick’n. You need to get the hang of it.
Order your rentals. To order your rentals you first need to measure your space. You need to know what kind of table(s) your space can handle. You need to know the maximum number of chairs you can fit at each table. I know from experience I can fit eighteen guests in the dining room, and twelve at a 72” round in the foyer. Draw it out on graph paper, you can never plan early enough of where to put your people. Based on the RSVP’s I ordered for 32 and knew internally 30 guests would be the perfect number, as I operate from the center that there’s always room at the table I err on the upside. Tabletop included two large dinner plates, one dessert plate, water glass, multiple wine glasses and flatware per person. I wanted to serve the first salad course on a dinner sized plate, not a small salad plate.
Make your shopping list. I like to read through the recipes many times, even after cooking them. Most recipes are for serving 4, or maybe 6 to 8. When cooking for a crowd you need to be smart about multiplying, there are many things you don’t need to multiply say times 4 like Sesame-Miso Sauce, you’ll have way too much leftover. From making zillions of quantity mistakes I’ve learned you really need to thoughtfully look at ingredients and quantities and decide where to go big and where to keep it tight. Handwriting out your shopping and to-do list will keep you on task. I write out all ingredients, even if I think I have them on hand. I then go through the pantry and make sure I have the ingredient(s) and only then carefully check it off my list.
Shop. The earlier you do this, the better. I actually space the shopping out by buying hard goods and non-perishable first and then doing another run for things that need to be fresh. I was living in St. Petersburg FL for three weeks before returning to Buffalo NY three days before the party and actually did some shopping and baking there and filled my carryon with herbs and spices and frozen undecorated cutout cookies.
Do a seating plan. This is a necessity even for small gatherings. No one really wants to stand around wondering where they should sit. As the hostess you can seat people so that the party hopefully won’t have awkward lulls by being strategic. You know who can carry a conversation and be entertaining and who might be on the reserved side. Think it through and again write it down. I did the seating plan for thirty on a piece of grid paper on the return flight home, it was one less thing I had to think about at crunch time. Doing a seating plan also entails place cards. Do them early, decorate them nicely if you are up for it. At go time all you have to do is pull out your grid and place those little cards around knowing you’ve got it.
Write or print out Menu Cards. This is a nice little touch and let’s your guests know what they can expect. If you’re really on your A game, you can include the wines that will be poured.
Buy the wine. Or have your husband or your daughter or both buy the wine. I’m lucky, husband and daughter know wine and like to buy so I left that all in their good hands. You can always simply take your menu to the wine experts and put yourself in their good hands, that works too.
Make a playlist. Music is essential and this is where I usually screw up. I like to pass this off. For this go-round I put Sarah in charge.
Set the table. This part is fun, and pretty. Honestly, I spent hours in St. Pete’s googling luxury table linens, both rentals and for sale. Really couldn’t find anything I was absolutely enamored with that was less than a zillion dollars. When it came down to it, I borrowed linens from dear friends, and they were perfection, thank you Nancy and Vicki, it does take a village. Getting the glassware, flatware, and linens on the table really gets you in the mood.
Flowers. Okay, I don’t work with a florist, I know I know. I should be supporting a local business for this yet it’s one place where I can keep costs down by doing things myself. And I like simple, usually just one or two colors. Often, I will pick stuff from the yard or cut small branches from herbs or flowering bushes and put those in small containers and run them down the table. For this party I ran out of time and sent husband and daughter on the wine and flower run and he came back with three small bunches of orange roses, I had asked for yellow, any good-looking flowers that they had. Here’s a really good tip: when the man in your life brings you flowers in any color at all you love them up and use them in the very best way you can and you don’t go out and buy more even if you think they are not enough for the vibe you want to create. You go with what you’ve lovingly been gifted, and you make it work, and it will. And absolutely no comments like ‘is this all they had?’. Say thank you sincerely and move on. I was under the wire timewise so I handed those flowers off to my daughter and said, ‘here, do what you will’, and she handled it effortlessly.
Signature Cocktail. A Signature Cocktail can feel fun and set a celebratory mood. Sarah has a knack for that kind of thing, so I asked her to run with it and she and her friend Danny knocked it out of the park. How cute is that miniature rubber ducky? Bravo Sarah and Danny, thank you so very much.
A little novelty. I like a small element of surprise, always have. I’ll never forget when I had my youngest daughter’s second birthday party, I baked cupcakes and cutout cookies in the shape of the number two. I decorated each in pastel colors and then stuck a cutout cookie into the cupcake and put the whole miniature plated dessert underneath a paper party hat. When guests went to put their hats on, these were mostly adults and cousins as it was a great big family party, they were so delighted to see that fun little cupcake underneath their hat- unexpected and a tiny little touch of surprise. For this shindig I hired a bagpipe player- a little out there for sure yet the party was the first week of March, Caroline and Sean both have Irish lineage, and I thought it would be kind of fun as guests were arriving. I admit it was a little loud and a little over the top, I hired him for one hour and actually sent him on his way after forty-five minutes. The good thing is we can always tell this child how he or she had bagpipes at their very first party.
Make a toast. As the host it’s always nice to have something prepared to say to thank and acknowledge your guests. I absolutely like to keep this very short and very personal.
Favors. I also like to send guests on their way home with a little parting gift. I usually do edible, and usually cookies. I don’t like to gift trinkets as I think we all have way too much stuff.
Hors d’oeuvres. Now here I’m conflicted. When my boys walk in the door for any type of family gathering, they are always looking for something to snack on and give me heat if I have nothing out, even if I’m doing a multi-course dinner. I like to please, and I feel the pressure, so I usually comply. If I’m having a catered party of course I do hors d’ouevres, mainly because of course someone else is doing the work. For this party I intentionally left them out. As the theme was plant-based and clean eating I didn’t want to junk up the feel and I didn’t have time or energy to make tiny pretty little appetizing bites. I suppose I could have put out potato chips, those being my absolute favorite especially when taken with champagne, yet we were having mashed potatoes with the entrée, so I simply skipped. I’m sure some of our guests were wondering where the heck the food was but I must tell you that when the entrée was served and cleared there really was nothing to very little left on those plates. Success.
The day after. This is funny, to me at least. The next morning when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was, what day it was, or even if the party had happened or not. I didn’t know if I had to still get up and cook, it was the strangest feeling. My delirium wasn’t from the after-effects of too much alcohol, it was in fact from putting myself completely out there, and it was okay. It meant I gave a good effort, loud bagpipes and missing hors d’oeuvres and small flower arrangements and all.
So that’s about it, I know this is a long post, whatever. It was a fun and memorable evening and I’m thankful we did it. Her Boston shower for his family and her NYC friends has been cancelled. There will be more parties down the road, I’m sure. For now, I’m staying in and cooking for two while wishing the entire world at large health, wellness, and financial stability. God speed.
Photos and images are not the best, we were much too busy celebrating and enjoying each others company. I’m simply happy there was so much love in the room, thank you all. To Caroline and Sean, your first child is undoubtedly blessed.