How to Have a Party In Trying Times

Photo by Jenny Wheat.

As we hope for a return to party-giving, our diva of dining shares tips for hosting during a difficult season.

My friend Kirk Isenhour texted me this morning that he woke up craving the Cheddar Carousel recipe from Beyond Parsley (legendary cookbook from the Junior League of Kansas City, Missouri). It’s an appetizer made to be spread on crackers. “Could it be because you’re craving cocktail parties and sociability?” I texted back. “Yassss,” he replied. “I crave dressing up, cocktail parties, hugs and kisses on the cheek.”

Don’t we all. I am writing this in April. I hope by the time you read this, we will be restored to some semblance of normalcy, which includes the fun to be had from a normal social life, and from real—not virtual—parties. 

Let’s not lose the habit of socializing
In addition to fretting about COVID-19, everyone is concerned about the economy, and many about their personal job security and finances. The virus has reminded us of the shortness of life, of the unimportance of stuff, of how much we need the fellowship and solace of our friends. This seems hardly the time to have a six-foot restriction from our peeps. 

Even if, as you read this, we are still required to keep our distance, let’s remember the importance of socializing, of sinking back on a sofa with a drink and a friend, of leaving a party giddy over delicious conversation. This is the time when having people over will be most appreciated, once we’re allowed to have people over again. Many of us will likely be on an austerity program when that happy day arrives. Here are some tips for hosting a hard-times gathering, without resorting to Manwich canapés and ramen noodle casseroles.  

Serve what you can afford
For the cost of a swell evening out for two, you easily can have six or eight friends over for dinner if everyone brings a bottle of wine. (That is not to discourage anyone from visiting any of Kansas City’s marvelous, independently owned fine-dining establishments, which will be hurting and in need of our business.)

Regular readers of this column know my point of view, even in pleasant financial times, is that a good party is not about the food. If you have interesting (and interested), affable souls around your table, you don’t need steak and lobster to have a fabulous time. 

In fact, the food you serve guests never has to be expensive, but it should be delicious, and presented attractively, in pretty serving dishes. Like wearing a Target dress with Jimmy Choo shoes, you can mix inexpensive basics (pasta, rice, or beans) with small portions of costlier foodstuffs, to create an extravagant feel. Think shrimp risotto, or creamy angel-hair pasta with crabmeat. One really superlative dish is better than two or three mediocre ones. And always, with whatever you serve, hot foods should be very, very hot, and cold foods and drinks should be very, very cold. Email me for some of my favorite low-budget recipes. 

Hello, potluck!
Potluck dinners are back in vogue, no doubt because they are a brilliant solution for the money-conscious host. If you’re concerned that a potluck dinner screams “low budget” a little too loudly, whomp it up with a theme. You could even make it a “downturn dine-in” and cap how much people can spend on their dish, providing a nice conversation starter.

Most popular ethnic cuisines rely on inexpensive ingredients, providing lots of budget-friendly menu solutions. Consider hosting a Spanish (tapas or paella), Cuban, Tuscan, Mexican or Indian-themed potluck dinner. (The latter two cuisines pair up wonderfully with beer, which will help the alcohol budget.) The key to a successful potluck dinner is to take the “luck” factor out of it. Assume control of the menu and assign specific dishes to your guests. You will avoid any redundancies in the menu, and they will appreciate the clear instructions.

The world is full of wonderful dinner guests who can’t cook. Two solutions for them: Have them bring an aperitif or bread; or assign them a dish, but make it clear that it’s okay for them to bring something restaurant-prepared or store-bought. 

A word from the Ambience Committee
So you can’t afford that new sofa you’ve had your eye on, and you’ve decided to postpone the kitchen redo you had planned. That doesn’t mean your friends can’t have a great time in your home. Turn the lights down low (I like 15-watt bulbs), crank up the music, burn a few scented candles, and laissez les bon temps rouler.

Fresh flowers add tone to the humblest of joints. Your flower allowance can go a very long way at Trader Joe’s, the wholesale clubs, and even many grocery stores, which offer nice blooms at great prices. Many local florists, in addition to creating gorgeous bouquets, sell flowers directly from their cooler. Even better, they often reduce prices on individual stems late in the day. Don’t forget to put a few blooms in the bathroom.

If you need a centerpiece and don’t want to spring for flowers, look around your home and use what you have. Decorative vases from other rooms, small houseplants or flower pots, little sculptures or other accessories can combine to serve as distinctive centerpieces.

Spoon Theater and other cheap thrills
You can create your own fun, and remind your friends that the best things in life truly are free. Invite your guests to bring their favorite poem to read after dinner, or an excerpt from a historic speech. One of the most moving experiences I’ve had was at just such a party, listening to an anesthesiologist friend read The New Colossus, the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty (“give me your tired, your poor…) Have you ever read the whole poem? It’s so beautiful! There was not a dry eye in the house. 

And then there’s Spoon Theater. Give me a couple of glasses of wine and I will reenact my favorite scene from Sense & Sensibility, using two spoons, one depicting Emma Thompson, the other Kate Winslet. Everybody’s got a Spoon Theater performance inside them somewhere—what’s yours? 

Recommended Reading for Entertaining on the Cheap

Both of these books give great advice and inspiration for frugal, festive entertaining. You can find them on or (support local!) call Rainy Day Books and they will order for you. 

Park Avenue Potluck Recipes from New York’s Savviest Hostesses, edited by Florence Fabricant, published by Rizzoli. Fabulous recipes and party-giving tips from NYC’s boldface names. The Casseroles chapter alone is worth the price of the book, with delicious, inexpensive, glammy-sounding recipes like Palm Springs Chili con Queso and Martha’s Vineyard Kidney Bean Casserole. 

Back Pocket Pasta Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Fly by Colu Henry, published by Clarkson Potter. Follow Colu’s advice for stocking your pantry and you’ll have everything you need to make a knock-out pasta dinner for company. The recipes are brilliantly written, so true to how we really cook. My favorites are her Pasta Puttanesca and Fra Crab Diavolo.

Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at



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