Throw a Party--and Look Like a Pro While Doing It


Entertaining ideas for the party-planning faint of heart

The first cocktail party we ever threw together—in the apartment we shared when we moved to New York City—was not a success. Oh, nothing particularly dreadful happened. The food tasted fine, the drinks flowed freely. But the party just never seemed to jell. Lauren's friends (journalists, mostly) talked shop on one side of the living room, while Anne's friends (financial types, mostly) congregated on the other side. We’d had visions of everyone mingling animatedly.

Maybe dancing would spontaneously break out! Perhaps someone would meet his true love at our party and we'd be toasted at their wedding! But no. Our guests just placidly munched their hors d’oeuvres and traded chit-chat with people they already knew. We were crushed.

But we were also determined. We grew up in the small-town South, land of lawn parties and mint juleps—it would be very nearly traitorous not to be good hosts. Plus we remembered the parties our parents threw when we were kids, and how magical they seemed. We would sneak out into the hallway long after we’d been sent to bed and peek at the grown-ups all dressed up, smiling and laughing, obviously having a wonderful time. When we became grown-ups ourselves, of course we wanted to recreate that.We were long on ideas, but after our disappointing debut, a little short on confidence.

So we went looking for instruction. At a bookstore near our apartment, we spent an entire Saturday searching through shelf after shelf of how-to-entertain books—yet we came away disappointed. The books we found either had dauntingly elaborate instructions that didn’t seem doable for two girls with day jobs, or advice so frustratingly vague that we wondered if crucial pages had been ripped out. On how many people to invite, for instance, one book advised that the "room should not feel empty, and at the same time not feel over-crowded." But what does that mean, exactly?! What we were after was something more concrete—a recommended number of guests. But it was nowhere to be found. Then there were the books that assumed that we had lots of money and time to waste: "Paint the room red for a dose of instant sultriness." You call that instant?! Worse still were the books that drew us in by promising to help make throwing a party quick and easy. Unfortunately, the advice they contained rarely reduced our stress, it just made us roll our eyes. No time to cook? No problem, one book assured us. Just spruce up takeout food by "sprinkling it with the petals of edible flowers." Oh sure, those are a cinch to find!

We craved a book—even just a chapter or two—whose advice would feel down-to-earth and doable for people like us. We're capable cooks, not trained chefs or caterers. We're enthusiastic cocktail drinkers, but by no means professional "mixologists." We have full-time jobs, not full-time staffs. And we host our parties not in a mansion but in a Manhattan apartment with room for two people in the kitchen if they suck in their stomachs.

Clearly, we were on our own. So we experimented: We tried out more than a hundred hors d'oeuvre recipes, discarding most of them and fine-tuning the rest. We tinkered with the recipes for classic cocktails and invented our own. We endlessly brainstormed creative ways to get guests mingling. And we road-tested everything, throwing parties of all sorts and sizes. We would spend the next morning snacking on leftover crab dip and making loads of notes about what had worked and what hadn't. And our own parties weren’t the only ones we dissected. Every invitation we received was an opportunity to pick up hostessing hints or hors d'oeuvre ideas. At our friend Diane’s annual Christmas party, we noted that she put the bar and the buffet table in separate rooms—a great way to get guests to spread over the entire house instead of crowding into one area. At friends James and Trish's wedding reception, Anne tasted—and fell in love with—gougères, a classic French cheese hors d’oeuvre, and we ended up developing a version of it ourselves.

The result of all our efforts?  Cocktail Parties Straight Up! Easy Hors D’oeuvres, Delicious Drinks, and Inspired Ideas for Entertaining with Style captures our experiences and provides straightforward answers to the questions we ourselves asked in our early party-throwing years. This is the no-nonsense advice you would give your sister or best friend if she asked you for hostessing how-tos. You'd share all your secrets and shortcuts, dig out your foolproof recipes. You'd give her detailed practical advice, not vague suggestions. You would help her head off mishaps that you had suffered through already. (Remember that party when you ran out of ice after only an hour? Or the time you underestimated how much glassware you needed and your guests had to drink cocktails out of coffee mugs?) Cocktail Parties Straight Up! is like having a trusted, tell-it-like-it-is sister by your side. Or, as it happens, two sisters.

Sample Menus

THE PARTY: Any Excuse to Celebrate!

The Menu:
Beef Tenderloin and Pearl Onion Skewers
Wild Mushroom Tartlets
Smoked Trout Spread
Chilled Asparagus Spears with Lemon Dipping Sauce
Lemon-Glazed Pecans

The Signature Cocktail:
Champagne Cocktails—Nelson’s Blood and French 75

THE PARTY: The Make-Your-Own-Martini Party

The Menu:
Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches Two Ways
Seared Tuna and Cucumber Brochettes
Sun-dried Tomato and Ricotta Torte Trio
Fennel-Spiced Cauliflower Florets
Spiced Bar Nuts

The Signature Cocktails:
Choose from among:

THE PARTY: He Said, She Said: A Soiree Where the Sexes Square Off

The Menu:
Bite-Size Crab Cakes with Lemon Caper Mayo
Chicken and Red Onion in Phyllo Cups
Top-Your-Own New Potatoes
Fresh Tomato Bruschetta
Wasabi-Crusted Peas

The Signature Cocktails:
The Archie and The Edith