The term "hostess" may strike you as too retro for our modern FG (fabulous girl), but nothing could be more hip now than taking on this age-old role and making it cook. The key to hostessing is frame of mind. Forget the image of you greeting your guests in a ruffiy apron. Instead think of yourself as the very place where people come together. Of course you also have to look after people too --get them drinks, make your place comfortable and stylish, play the right music and so on. But above all, be happy about your task. People love to be looked after, but only by someone who wants to do it. There's bad karma in grudge entertaining (only having people over when you owe them for three dinners).
The Work of Hostessing
Having parties, big or small, is work. As the hostess you must expect that you won't have as much fun as your guests. It's your job to make sure everyone's got a drink, to pass around food (and keep it going as the night proceeds), to listen for when the CD stops and most important, to get people talking. You must introduce people to each other and if they need it, get them started in conversation. Avoid introductions by career, especially if people are from very different economic brackets. A party is not the time to have a long, serious conversation with an old friend. Nor may you be out of conversation because you're in a corner with your new flame.
Lighting and music go a long way to creating an inviting atmosphere in which guests can converse and relax. Candlelight works the best and should be your first choice. Groupings of pillar candles of various heights, widths and textures are ideal when set about the rooms like small stilllifes. Wall sconces with candles also set the right mood. Avoid artificial light unless it has a dimmer; any bulb set on more than the lowest level will be too bright. Torches are essential for garden parties. And illuminating the walkway to your home will create an aura of sensual anticipation.
For music, one can never go wrong with jazz. Not fusion. I choose music from the 1930’s and 194os, even if it was recorded by contemporary jazz players. A mixture of vocal and instrumental pieces will work best. Classical music, such as Eric Satie or Chopin, can also fill in pockets of silence and soften the mood. And unless you are partying in your parents' basement or are hosting a Sony Music party, avoid at all costs rap, heavy metal, country and industrial techno music. Opera, despite its highbrow appeal, is difficult to talk over and gives the appearance of a host who is trying too hard to impress.
It is wise to be dressed and ready to greet guests at least fifteen minutes before you're expecting first arrivals. Remove any apron, put down your cooking tools and open the first bottle of red wine. Light the candles and turn on the music and let the fun begin.
When guests arrive, take their coats and get them drinks immediately. Introduce them to guests who are already there. If you're hosting solo, don't be afraid to make use of guests. Keeping people busy puts everyone at ease, so don't be shy about asking Bingo to mix up another batch of Manhattans while you check on the first course.
And make the cocktail hour an hour: always ensure that dinner is served at a reasonable time. Feeding people when they're drunk and tired is the most frequent mistake among novice entertainers.
Setting the Table: What Goes Where
For an informal dinner party:
Although the arrangement of cutlery and glasses on the table is not critical to d.p. success, there are some rules that are logical (except if you are a lefty, in which case convention kind of leaves you out of the loop) and easy to follow. Consider what you are serving and only put out what your guests will need. There's nothing worse than the feeling that you're going to knock something over because a hostess has jammed the table so full. Also, think about how the food is going to end up on the table. If you intend to plate the dinners in the kitchen, don't set dinner plates out in advance. What should be on the table in advance is this: the tablecloth (always nicer and more finished in feeling than placemats), napkins, candles, cutlery, wine and water glasses, salt and pepper and perhaps flowers (but only if they are low enough to see over from a seated position).
Positioning: When setting cutlery, think from the outside in. So if you intend to serve a meal of soup, followed by steak and salad, finished by apple tart, your table would have a steak knife on the inside right with a soup spoon to the right of the knife. On the left would be a single fork or the main course. If the salad had been a separate course, a second, smaller fork would have been laid on the far left. If the salad is not a separate course, then it does not need its own fork but the same one you would use for the steak. This is an informal arrangement. You could put a small dessert fork and spoon (and it's nice to offer people both) above the plate's spot but perpendicular to the other cutlery. Or you might simply bring dessert cutlery to the table when you serve this course.
The napkin is typically placed under the knife-side setting. Glasses sit above the knife. Bread and butter plates sit to the left of the dinner plate. As each course is finished, clear everything away that is no longer necessary.
For a formal dinner party:
Fish, appetizer and dinner forks are ranked in order of courses from the outside in on the left of the plate. On the right side of the plate, from the outside in, are the soup spoon, fish knife and dinner knife. A knife rest is used to elevate the tip of the main course knife. The dessert spoon and fork are above the plate. Bread is served on a smaller plate to the left of the main setting with its own butter knife. Salad can be served either before or after the main course and its plate is to the right beside the soup spoon. If soup is served at the table, the soup bowl is set above the dinner plate with its own charger for spillage. Glasses progress by size from left to right, starting with the water goblet, red wine, white wine and finally, dessert wine. In formal settings, the napkin is placed to the left of the forks.
Never Apologize for a Hosting on a Shoestring
As we have mentioned before, it is the effort that is rewarded not its price. There is no reason that an FG on a budget cannot entertain her friends. Be it a girls' night renting videos or a small cocktail party, there is no need to feel it cannot be done. In fact a cocktail party is one occasion to which guests may bring their drinks, wine or what have you, and all you need to serve is inger food. Of course there are also dinners with friends to which everyone brings a course or dish and then the onus or cost isn't entirely on the hostess. Chances are that your friends know your situation and are likely in similar straits; no one will criticize an FG for low-cost dining. They will only remember the fab time they had in her company. appreciation for your guests.
Goodnight! Letting Them Know It's Over
It's perfectly fine-at a c.p.-to announce last call for drinks in order to let people know it's nearly time to go, but only if you stated the end time in your invitation. At a later party or at a successful d.p. where people are lingering, it's fine to kick people out if it's a week night and it's midnight, or if it's past 1:30 a.m. any night at all. "Okay gang, it's a school night and I've got to get to bed" is not rude. People would rather be told this than realize the next day that you were dying to get them out of your place for the last hour of the evening.
Bonus: How to be a Gracious Guest
The FG is always the perfect guest at any type of function. She always remembers to bring the hostess a gift. The best choice is a bottle of wine, especially if she has sought out the menu and has chosen a wine that is complementary.
Flowers, while a lovely thought, are actually quite inconvenient, because the host or hostess has to find a vase, cut the flowers and arrange them all while greeting other guests. If flowers are her choice of gift, the FG will have them delivered ahead of time.
Offer to help the host in any way that seems suitable, be it in preparation or in clean-up. We're not suggesting that you snap on the rubber gloves and wash the dishes, but carrying in a few plates is never unappreciated.
Perhaps most importantly, be in tune to your inner party clock. Know when it's time to leave. If you're the last person there, it's time to go home. Likewise, if you know the host wants guests to leave and you see that certain people are going to linger and outstay their welcome, then subtly hint that "we're going to all turn into pumpkins soon" and encourage others to leave with you.