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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but a good holiday party is hard to beat. I like every single phase of a party, from initial idea to invitation design to menu planning to decorating to getting gussied up to the actual fête to the clean-up afterwards to the hazy, next-day pleasure of reliving laughs and moments.

Most basically, I love parties because they bring people together to celebrate something: each other, an occasion and/or a life event. It’s possible my party love comes from having grown up in southern Louisiana, a place that really, really knows how to embrace revelry. I mean, we even have parties for funerals down there. Somewhat interchangeably known as wakes or jazz funerals, these traditions draw heavily from European, African and Haitian cultural practices and include music, marching and very vocal celebrations of the deceased person’s life. This doesn’t invalidate mourning but, rather, allows people to do so while also finding solace in music, shared memories, laughter and community. I have always hoped that when I pass away, my family will celebrate my life and their memories of me with such a party.

I think I try to infuse this Louisianan joie de vivre into festivities whenever possible. Tom doesn’t really get why I make such a big fuss over his and the boys’ birthdays, and though he’s a great co-host, he’d never host anything if left to his own devices. My mom, who loves to party as much as anyone I’ve ever met, nonetheless hates the planning and anticipation. She used to pay me, literally, to worry for her before any gathering she and Dad hosted. This worked out well for me because I got paid to be excited.

Tips for ensuring party success and having fun the whole time

Because I like to do all the work of planning, decorating and cooking, I have found it imperative to prepare strategically. Do what can be done early, real early. Like, if your party is on Saturday, you should count and wash all your glassware, linens, silverware and serving platters on, say, Monday. Once you’ve set your menu, put a sticky-note on each platter and bowl, noting what dish will go in it.
Set your table the day before the event, make sure you have candles if you plan to use them, put your ice chest out so that you don’t neglect to buy or make extra ice. Get out your coasters, make sure you have cocktail napkins. Is your bathroom stocked with soap, extra toilet paper and fresh linens? Do you want music, and if so, what? Playlists can made well in advance! Is your dress clean? You’ll likely need to run to the store every day- allow time for that.

It is equally important to draw up the menu in advance, making sure that it includes a healthy mix of dishes that can be made ahead. Once you’ve got a sense of what you want to serve, write up a daily schedule starting with the earliest day you can make anything. For example, Julia Child’s Reine de Saba cakes freeze beautifully. I made mine a full week in advance to get them out of the way. The schedule started there and moved forward, day by day, with a manageable to-cook list on each. Remember that anything you make and freeze will later need to be thawed; write that on your schedule if there’s any chance you’ll forget. Make more than you think you’ll need. You will never be happy to run out of food. You will always be happy to have delicious leftovers the next day.

As so many people these days have a variety of dietary limitations and preferences, consider a menu that has something for everyone. I always have ample, top-notch vegetarian fare, for example, and also a decent proportion of items that are pork-free. If you know of a guest with a rare allergy, be sure to quietly mention to him/her what on your table doesn’t include that ingredient. I like to set my table like a buffet, make small placards with the name and primary ingredients of each dish, and stand those in place-card holders in front of each platter or serving bowl. This prevents confusion and potential unease and also allows folks to casually choose just what they want to eat with zero to-do or public notice.

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tags help people know what they can and want to eat

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clarifying which is vegetarian, pork-free and straight up carnivore

I’m not big on themes or overwrought matchy-matchy stuff, but infusing something subtle can be fun and cool. Last night, for example, I had Louisiana specialties interspersed throughout the meal: Bourbon milk punch is a traditional celebratory cocktail so I prepped three quarts to serve as the third option in the wine-champagne-other trifecta. Cheese straws were present at pretty much every party I went to growing up; really, a holiday fête just doesn’t feel complete to me without them. (Also, they get better over a few days so meet the what-can-be-made-in-advance need very nicely.) I also had a cheese board of Port Salut and Tabasco pepper jelly out, and one of my three desserts was a duo of pecan pies with fleur-de-lis pie crackers nestled in the center of each.

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cheese straws, Port Salut with Tabasco pepper jelly, other cheeses

If you enjoy hosting and wish to do so somewhat regularly, consider investing in a “party box” each of wine and water glasses. The first such box I ever bought was a set of 18 wine glasses at Costco. They were glass but inexpensive and dishwasher-safe, which is the best of all worlds. Wine in plastic cups makes me sad unless they’re nice, acrylic ones and I’m on a picnic or at an outdoor concert. Dishwasher safe anything is liberating, and if the price point is right, you won’t fret over the inevitable broken one per event. After many years, we’re down to 4 of that original box, so I’ve just replenished. While I was at it, I bought 14 water/highball glasses which are indispensable. I think they were $1.95 each at Crate & Barrel. Nice!

Do you know what my new favorite party assistant is? Wine glass markers! Put several out wherever you’ve set your bar and encourage people to write their names on their glasses. You don’t own 85 goblets, right? This prevents constant setting down and immediate loss of one’s own glass, wastes less booze and is fun. The writing washes off so easily, too!

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wine glass markers

Consider using real silveware, plates and platters rather than disposable items. Doing so is the equivalent of getting dressed or staying in your PJs: the latter is more comfortable, but you will feel different, a little gussied?, if you don real clothes!

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real china serveware pretties things up

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another china platter

In your home, how many guests are too few? How many are too many? Are there folks you’ve been wanting to get to know better? Are there people who mix like oil and water? Are there people you love who just don’t love parties? Keep all these questions in mind as you plan your guest list. And remember to count the number of seats you have -chairs, couches, ottomans, whatever- to make sure that everyone can sit at any given time if they so choose.

If you plan to host a party during a busy time of year, consider sending a save the date six or eight weeks in advance. Not only are save the dates exciting teasers, but they can also help you get a sense of who is free and who’s not. Remember to follow up with a formal invitation! Increasingly, people are utilizing online invitations, but if you can swing it, I think paper invites win every single time. They’re tangible, can be hung as an easy reminder of fun to come, and hey, who doesn’t love to get real, non-bill mail?

If you are comfortable and relaxed, your guests will be too. Organize, rest in advance, leave plenty of time to get dressed and do your make-up, put on a pair of heels and have a ball!

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I feel terribly festive this time of year. Tonight we’re having some folks over and check out this menu:

Southern Cheese Straws
Port Salut with Pepper Jelly
Gorgonzola with Wildflower Honey
Thyme Gougeres

Rapini with Vin Cotto
Brussels Sprouts with Candied Pecans and Mustard Vinaigrette
Lemon Carrots

Root Vegetable Tagine with Couscous
Smoked Turkey, Rolls and the Fixings
Leek Confit and Aged Goat Cheese Tart
Caramelized Shallot, Cabbage and Tasso Tart (and a smoked turkey version too)

Reine de Saba
Pecan Pie
Grapefruit Tart

Milk Punch
Wine
Champagne

Oh.my.god. Yes, I am tired and have been cooking for days, but I love entertaining, love bringing people together, love celebrating the season. I better get back to it! Eat your heart out! ;)

It’s mornings like these after weeks like these that I consider people who forego caffeinated coffee and think, “Y’all some crazy folks.”

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“brain” eggs

You guys! Doesn’t my omelet look like a cross-section of brain? Three eggs, thyme and parsley, salt and pepper and some Bûcheron (aged goat cheese) made for an outstanding meal. Despite its appearance. I ate it with one of those slices of bread (the seriously buttered one) and then slathered the other slice with some plum-basil jam and called it dessert. Mah-velous!

After school today, I suggested to the boys that we walk to Starbucks and get a little treat. On the way, Jack described his class discussion on James and the Giant Peach and then asked: “Mom, do you know that the centipede is VERY rude AND says bad words?”

Oliver, mischievously gimlet-eyed, queried, “Ooh, what words?”

Me: “Yeah, what words? Like actual bad words?” as I thought to myself, “Did Roald Dahl actually write cuss words in his text? That’s a bit awesome.”

Jack: “Well, the centipede calls everyone idiots and dimwits and ninecompoops [sic] and….” His voice dropped to a whisper and I said “It’s NINcompoop, not ninecompoop” just before he said, “the A-word.”

Me: “What’s the A-word?”

Jack, in a whisper: “Ass and asses.”

Oliver, not in a whisper: “I know! Asshole!”

Jack: “Oh my god, Oliver, NO!”

Me: “Good lord, Oliver. I appreciate that you know that it starts with an A though. Wow!”

At that point I decided to be honest with the children and share my opinion that cuss words are extant for a reason: They don’t do the job of their vanilla compatriots. Darn is most definitely not damn in many a sitch.

I mean, “That darn thief. He robbed me blind. What a butt!” does NOT, in any way, express what does, “That damn thief! What an asshole!”

You feel me?

So I said I rather admired Dahl and his centipede’s authenticity and that if cussing and coffee and wine were my worst vices as I raised the boys, really, they’ll be fine.

They tittered and seemed to concur. We were a jovial trio until Oliver went ape because I refused to buy him his own copy of the “Cook’s One Line a Day” five-year culinary memory book that I bought for myself on clearance. Does he cook or much read? No. So really, what is he going to do with said journal, even if it was only $3.97.

Anyway, once home he cried for a good 20 while Jack and I ignored him. And then suddenly, we noticed the most magnificent sunset which ended all too quickly but brought a terrific quiet over the house. Then we realized Nutmeg had escaped, but bygones.

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tonight’s sunset

He finally came home and in typically self-aggrandizing fashion went and sat by the gifts I put under the tree today. He really is a hot mess of a present, and I love him.

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which one is not an actual present? don’t tell him that!

A month ago, Tom gave me a styptic pencil. He’d ordered it because my weird body had managed to grow a pyogenic granuloma (PG), aka a flesh-colored mole-type thing that spurts blood at random intervals like a pissy volcano. Long story short, it’s annoying, unbecoming and gross, and never in my life have I ever actually appreciated the little round Band-aids that come in every assorted Band-aid box. Until the past two months. When I needed them. And now have used all I’d acquired in a decade.

styptic pencil

styptic pencil

Anyway, because my PG sucker would bleed with even a sideways glance, T bought me a styptic, and I have used and traveled with it since. The styptic is an antihemorrhagic compound shaped into a pen-like object, encased in a handy travel container, that heals injured blood vessels in their weeping tracks.

Finally, having waited for weeks to get in to my dermatologist, I today had my PG removed. Dr. said, “You sure do get the rarest and most random of ailments.” Cue memory of rogue bone growing subdermally in my hairline. And random mole on bottom of foot that I discovered when toying with Tom’s loupe (only my darling nerd husband owns a loupe for no good reason) and thought, “Hell, that is ugly!” And weird spot on lower back. And stupid lipoma in upper back. And so forth. And so today, my PG. Not to be confused with the other dermatological PG whose G refers to gangrenosis. THANK GOD because who wants anything that has “gangren” as a starter-word.

I packed my styptic away once home and then cast my eyes upon my newest gift: a Marcato Biscuits Machine.

Now why, pray tell, would hubs have gifted me with an Italian-made cookie press? Em-i-lis tends not to make or enjoy cookies, so why? Why? Why?

Well, for love. Because this girl -moi!- wants to make cheese straws a la Louisiana and that dough is hard as balls to press through anything.

Cheese straws simply must be pressed through a star-shaped plate. Otherwise they look like turds -not authentic- and don’t crisp as nicely. In recent years, I’ve been using the truly vintage Mirro Cookey Press I inherited when Tom’s paternal grandmother passed away. It is/was an aluminum crank press that lacked seriously in the leverage department but has many swell plates and is not plastic. Ah, the good old days. With much sweat, exertion and determination, I’ve used that press to grind out dozens of cheese straws.

an old Mirro cookey press

an old Mirro cookey press

This year, it gave out. And I have been on a tear to replace it. This past Sunday, I forced T to Sur la Table to investigate the Kuhn Rikon press. It has a caulk-gun-like lever but is plastic, so I was skeptical. It did not work and was returned.

At that point, desperation took hold and I hand-rolled cheese straws. T concurred that they looked like turds and lacked appropriate crisp and sooner than I knew it, a metal Marcato press was at my doorstep.

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Marcato Biscuits Machine

It is smart-looking, yes? I let my dough come to room temp, loaded it in and started caulking my parchment-lined sheet. No dice, people. I think I was scared. This is such a press! Overkill, really. So I left everything at the ready for T who jumped in with abandon, and damn if all my star-shaped straws aren’t cool and happy and made now.

We may not have many date nights anymore, and if we do, they tend to be of the on-the-couch-in-pjs variety, but in the past couple months, I’ve been given a styptic pencil and a cheese straw press in sweet attempts to better my life. And after 10+ years of marriage, and great kids who nonetheless exhaust us and pets who are spoiled animal-humans, I love my blood-stopper and my insanely well-engineered, riveted press.

And that’s love I think.

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Ol was up all night last night puking. It was chock full of salmon, covered two beds and was so vile that Tom nearly booted too. Ol and I ended up in the basement where we slept fitfully -periodic yakking will do that to you- but sweetly until it became clear that he was not going to school today.

Nutmeg seemed enthused by this outward tossing and subsequently puked huge ribbons of just-eaten cat food all over our dining room. Later, I found small pools of Nut pee in the kids costume bins. Cuz it seems he has another UTI.

Needless to say, I won a medal today for sheer amount of laundry done.

Currently, Percy, who, in unanimity? support? jealousy? stupidity?, sprayed the basement couch with a wreath of urine today too, is sleeping in my left armpit, having just wiped his soggy eye boogers on my previously-clean shirt. #newitemforlaundrybin

And Jack, who I’ve officially tucked in eight times now, tried to convince me during his last trip downstairs that yes indeed he had washed his face even though his cheeks maintained a thin film of peanut butter from which hung celery strings and an ort of raisin. This “mask” betrayed him and he finally agreed to really wash up.

Despite this utter nutbagness, I am in good spirits because I:

  • made two Reine de Saba cakes today;
  • heard that all the food I catered to last night’s party was “amazing” and a complete success;
  • smiled enormously when I pondered two recent compliments [1. I have been given the nickname Gams Grossi as tribute to legs and last name. and 2. I was told that my Daily Em-i-lis is a much-admired acquaintance’s ‘morning coffee.’];
  • thrilled when two women whom I love and admire told me 1. “You, on a regular basis, inspire/empower me to use my voice.” and 2. “You give others permission to feel/voice things honestly.”
  • have completely and unabashedly come to terms with my adoration of olive oil;
    and
  • laughed out loud and with utter appreciation when, during our had-to-happen trip to the mall today (Jack needs specific attire for his holiday concert which is on Friday), Oliver said as we bought more than we’d intended, “Well, you did say bringing me shopping with you could be dangerous.”

HAH!

I don’t often feel comfortable tooting my own horn, but shit, people, after all the puke and pee and endless rain and general assorted crap, I’m tooting away over here tonight. Just tooting to beat sixty, and I’m cool with that.

I roasted a celery root for dinner -random; obviously husband is not here- and ate the whole thing in front of a lovely fire whilst doing a crossword and sipping some wine. And now I wish to leave you with two articles.

One, the 2014 Haters Guide to the Williams-Sonoma catalog, is funny as balls. Literally, it almost shouldn’t be legal to laugh that hard as tiny droplets of snot fly from each nostril over and over and over again. The second, about racial bias, is as serious and important as the Wms-Sonoma biz is crazy-funny.

You’re welcome.

Goodnight!

 

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