You want to know my secrets to hosting a good party? Okay, there are two:
One, have enough booze. Actually, have more than enough booze… look, just don’t run out of booze, okay?
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Two, make it a potluck. A potluck doesn’t have to mean macaroni salad (though I do make a fancy one with two kinds of cheese and balsamic vinegar, thank you very much) but it sure can. In fact, I got my start in food and lifestyle writing after I hosted a casserole party in my tiny Brooklyn apartment a few years after I left Kansas City for the East Coast. I was so serious about everyone participating that I turned it into a competition; teams of up to two had to sign up ahead of time to bring a casserole, and the crowd voted by secret ballot. Midwestern transplants clamored to get in, the media caught wind, and before long, I was way in over my head writing a casserole cookbook for a major publishing house. The most important part? Everyone had a great time and begged me to make it an annual affair, which I did, for years.
A decade later, even my wedding was a potluck of sorts. Instead of a cake, my husband and I cut into a whole roasted pig (I could go the rest of my life without cake, but I live for pork). To cover the sweets, we asked friends and family to make desserts for the reception. There was no pressure obviously, but when guests RSVP’d, they had the option to sign up to bring a cake, a pie, whatever. The result was a beautiful table packed with everything from gorgeous chocolates made by a well-known pastry chef, to cupcakes from a box mix that were decorated with much more love than skill. And everything was perfect. Amateur bakers were exceedingly proud of their creations and our guests were thrilled they got to contribute to our big day. Nearly six years later, people still tell me that was the most fun they’ve ever had at a wedding (though that may have also had something to do with the two live bands, signature cocktails, and the fact that we opened the bar before the ceremony).
Now, every year on our anniversary, we keep the party going with a pig roast at our East Brookside home. My husband is in charge of the slow-roasted pork, a playlist, and a keg of Boulevard beer. I freak out about the house being a mess and clean for two days, then make a variety of syrups for seasonal cocktails. And that’s it for us! We ask everyone to bring a side, a dessert, or a bottle of whiskey to share. There’s never been a complaint, but every year we have a damn fine spread, people always have something to talk about (usually what they brought, but sometimes how much they danced at our wedding), and it’s an event people look forward to all year long.
But don’t worry; you don’t need a competitive angle or 75 pounds of pork to host a potluck. You don’t even need friends who know how to cook. If you’re having people over for drinks, ask them to bring their favorite appetizer from a local restaurant. Planning a cookout? Provide the meat and buns, and request creative burger and hot dog toppings (you might end up with some really weird pickles and hopefully some equally nice cheese). Did you accidentally come home with a case of cheap champagne from Costco? It happens to the best of us. Make space on your bar by throwing a mimosa brunch and ask your besties to bring pastries or fresh juice.
Of course, if you’re totally turned off by the idea of a potluck, you can still make any gathering infinitely more fun by asking everyone to bring something, even if that something isn’t edible.
Say you’re set on providing all the food and drink for a big dinner. Great. Except nobody wants to sit around your boring party with nothing to talk about. Ask every guest or couple to bring a topic of conversation—that’s not politics!—handwritten on an actual piece of paper in a sealed envelope. Open one at the beginning of each course. Hosting a catered cocktail party at your house? Tell everyone to wear a hat or a piece of jewelry with a story behind it. What your guests bring (or wear) not only serves as an ice breaker, it can keep the conversation going all night… or at least until you’re ready to cut the music so everyone will request an Uber and you can get your beauty rest.
After all, isn’t the most important part of entertaining ensuring that your guests are actually entertained? (And drinks, you don’t want to run out of drinks.)
Emily’s Fancy Macaroni Salad
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 red onion, finely chopped
¼ pound smoked gouda, cut into ¼-inch cubes
¼ pound sharp cheddar, cut into ¼-inch cubes
2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Freshly-ground black pepper
Cook the macaroni (in salted water) to al dente, then drain and set aside (or refrigerate) to cool. Mix everything together, use the balsamic vinegar and spices to taste (and use lots of spices, the cayenne really enhances the flavor of the cheddar!). Eat immediately or cover and refrigerate. The next day, if it’s dry, just add some more balsamic vinegar and stir.