Unless you're a far, far better person than I am—a definite possibility, I admit—you've probably also thought, in the frantic moments right before your guests arrive for a party, "Who are these dreadful people and why am I doing all this for them?" Fortunately, by the time everyone is sipping those first cocktails and chattering away, you've remembered how much you adore them and how exhilarating it is to create a magical evening where the only thing that glows more brightly than the candles are the happy faces of you and your friends.
Unless, of course, something goes wrong. I've had my share of parties over the years, and I've also had my share of disasters. On the theory that you can learn as much from failure as success, here are some hard-won lessons for hostesses.
Before you ask a fussy guest to do the cooking, check your equipment. My foodie brother, just back from a culinary tour of the South of France, carried the platter of meticulously seasoned and herb-coated steaks to the gas grill, then flipped open the cover to light it. He shrieked and dropped the plate as he beheld a big, black rat.
Don't use heirloom silver for a picnic. I inherited my grandmother's sterling silver flatware service for 12, complete with elegant little oyster forks. Of course I wanted to show it off when we hosted a seafood feast in our yard a few summers ago. But the night was raucous, and when we finally cleared the tables, helpful guests scraped the food off the plates into the trash can with reckless abandon. The next morning, I realized I was one oyster fork short. I can still recall the stench in that 95-degree heat as I ripped open every bag in the bin and raked through mountains of shrimp shells, crab legs and rotting salad until I finally spied that exquisite little fork.
Make sure every guest has adequate seating. We used to set up a long dinner table on our narrow dock; it was a tight fit, but we could squeeze in a dozen people or so. We haven't done that since the night my brother-in-law, who was facing away from the water, leaned back expansively to make a point, and to the eternal delight of his teen-aged children, fell back into the bay with a mighty splash.
If you buy fancy outdoor heaters, read the precautions. Our renovation was finally over. Everything was perfect, from the dream bathroom to the expensive new siding, gleaming with a flawless coat of paint. To celebrate, we hosted Thanksgiving dinner; and since we were eating outside and it was cold, we bought some big patio heaters for the occasion. As the guests took their seats on the deck, a helpful friend positioned the heaters right in front of the house and lit them with a flourish. I watched in horror as the heaters instantly singed the entire wall of siding. And worst of all, rather than go into hysterics and ruin the party, we had to act cheery and gracious for the rest of that awful night.
Make sure there's enough food. When I was in my 20s, my then-husband and I had a cookout for his boss and colleagues at the firm where he'd just been hired as a stockbroker. At the last minute, I invited some of my grad school classmates, too. Not a good mix: The well-heeled Republican brokers and their wives clustered on the back deck while the impoverished hippie students hung out near the grill in front. They kept filling their plates with chicken as we took it off the grill; when the business types, now several drinks in and ready for meat, came around from the back, not a single piece was left. Actual anger ensued. For my husband, our party was not a career-building event, but I learned a lesson I'll never forget.
And finally, relax, have a drink, and get over yourself. But don't have too many drinks. Back when my high-school-age kids were getting nonstop lectures from me about why they shouldn't drink, we hosted a family Christmas Eve and ordered a case of my favorite champagne. I will draw a graceful veil across the final scene—besides, I really don't remember it—but I can say that for the rest of my days on earth, my kids and their cousins will never let me live it down.
—Pam Daniel, editorial director
For more party planning tips and tricks, read our interview with Southern-fried party-planning queens Kathy Rainer and Tricky Wolfes in this issue.