The Art of the Big, Annual Bash

Our principessa of party-giving discusses the relative merits of having a big, once-a-year blow-out

I have a couple of girlfriends, Kansas City bluebloods, and I mean that in the nicest way. They were Jewel Ball debs together, and their fathers were lifelong friends. On New Year’s Day 1947, their fathers, both newly engaged, invited some pals over to celebrate their respective betrothals. They served punch, an old family recipe made from milk and rum, potent and surprisingly tasty. Everyone had such a good time they did it again the next year and the next, alternating houses. The Milk Punch Party, as it came to be known, became an annual tradition and so popular that their daughters continue (along with their husbands) to co-host their own version of it. It is, I think, the longest-running private, annual party in Kansas City history. A couple of years ago, one of the daughter’s twenty-something daughters started her own Milk Punch party, assuring its continuance into the millennial generation. (Email me for a Milk Punch recipe, although it won’t be their recipe, which is, of course, proprietary).

My feeling is that more of us should have a traditional party that becomes sort of our signature, although no one could expect it to last 70 years, like Milk Punch has. In fact, my observation of “signature parties” is that such gatherings continue only a fraction of that time. But that doesn’t mean they’re not fun while they last. Here is some advice for starting your own signature party.

Make it personal

Maybe you adore holiday decorating … or make a killer pot of Jambalaya (if you don’t, I’ll send you my recipe) … or love to watch the Kentucky Derby … or your roses look amazing in early June. Maybe you love T.S. Eliott and want to celebrate his birthday. Enthusiasm is contagious. Throw a party that shares your interests with your friends.

We have friends, a physician and his pharmacist wife, who own several vintage cars and are members of a local car club. For a number of years they hosted a huge party around cars (literally). They invited all the car club members to bring their vintage cars, and they lined them up next to their house, along with their own cars. They invited all their neighbors and friends, pointedly including children, which engendered all kinds of good will from parents. They served a smorgasbord of finger foods, and coolers full of soft drinks, beer and wine.

Even someone as indifferent to cars as I am found the spectacle of all those beautiful vintage models thrilling, and the sight of it probably incented more than one child to go to medical school. Everyone had fun at this party, especially the hosts, who were having a great time because they were sharing their passion with their friends.

Like most signature parties, the car party ran its course (pardon the pun), but it created many amazing memories while it lasted.

You don’t need a car collection to have a party that becomes your trademark. You don’t even need a theme, but it helps. All you really need are the things that make a party go: great guests, good food and music, plenty of hooch and a relaxed you.

Keep it simple, sweetheart

For people who care about having an interesting social life, I highly recommend having a big, once-a-year bash because it’s a great way to reconnect with old chums—and foster new friendships. You meet someone but you don’t know them well enough to ask them to “do something.” (such an odd expression, but we all use it, don’t we?)  You can put them on the list for the big party. Even if they can’t attend, the invitation will mean a lot to them. People love to be included—never forget that. Online invitation services have made it ridiculously easy to invite friends to a party, and to keep track of the replies. (I prefer Paperless Post because their invitations are great-looking and they let you buy and print physical invitations in addition to the digital variety.)

The food and drink do not need to be lavish, darling. You can make a Costco run for nibbles, then trick them out on your prettiest serving platters. Or if you are of a mind to cook a few things, email me and I will send you my favorite finger-food recipes and antipasto platter suggestions.

Regarding beverages, an open bar is lovely (see sidebar, page 34) but all you really need is a supply of red and white wine (have you tried Bota Box? Fantastic value!) and the makings for gin and tonics, vodka sodas and rum and Cokes. I do recommend hiring a bartender if you’re having more than, say, 15 guests. It’s the only way to keep a bigger party humming. Party Personnel (913-451-0218) can provide you with a highly capable bartender. They charge $35 an hour, with a four-hour minimum—which isn’t a lot of money when you consider he or she can help you set up and/or clean up.

Don’t call it an annual party

Unless you feel really confident you’re going to feel like having it every year, don’t announce that it’s going to be an annual party. You might not want to do it every single year, and it’s certainly okay to take a year off.

My husband and I used to have a big, rowdy St. Patrick’s Day party every year for about ten years. We opened up the whole house and invited everyone we knew.  I worked way too hard—I made all the food myself, toiling in the kitchen for weeks in advance, and served more than people expected or probably wanted. In fact, I would have to say the reason we quit having the party was it stopped being fun for me, and the reason it stopped being fun was because it was too much work. Since I had made the mistake of proclaiming it an annual party, there was confusion and (I think) resentment that first year we didn’t have the party from friends who thought they hadn’t made the cut.

One of these years I just might start up the St. Patrick’s Day party again. But I won’t tell everybody we’re doing it every year.

You can’t beat the buddy system

My Milk Punch friends have a good thing going. Consider partnering with a pal to share the expense, labor and fun of hosting a big party. I have a couple of singleton pals, a man and woman who are devoted friends and share the same early June birthday. Every year they co-host a big dinner party on the Saturday night closest to their birthday. They never indicate on the invitation that it’s any kind of birthday celebration—it’s always for “drinks and dinner”—but everybody knows. All their friends look forward to this party, partly because the hosts always have such a good time at it. And you always find an interesting mix of people there, since it’s both of their friends.

The Full Monty

Spaces_034-2A well-organized bar is an important ingredient of a fabulous party. Here are a few tips for stocking and organizing a full bar

•        Buy plenty of ice. You’ll need it for chilling as well as serving drinks. Plan on one pound of ice per guest.

•        Have twice as many glasses on hand as guests.

•        Provide several interesting, non-alcoholic options for non-drinkers and designated drivers.

•        For a two-hour party where you will serve only wine and/or champagne, you’ll need one bottle for every two guests. Have a mix of red and white, unless you fear red wine spillage, in which case it’s okay to serve only white.

•        For a basic “open bar” you’ll want vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, wines and beer. For a more complete bar add tequila, bourbon, scotch, vermouth, sherry, and brandy.

•        Mixers include orange juice, soda, tonic, ginger ale, cola, tomato juice, Tabasco, lemons, limes, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce.

•        Have coffee available at the end of the party. Call an Uber for any guests you believe shouldn’t be driving.

Questions about entertaining? Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: essentialentertaining@spaceskc.com. Follow Merrily on Twitter @MerrilyJackson.