Hosting a large crowd can be daunting, but it does not have to be. It is easy to fall into the mindset of worrying about what we don't have—or what we don't have enough of—in order to invite people over for dinner. With Thanksgiving and other major holidays just around the corner, some of us will probably end up with a few extra people at out table. Here are five things I learned while hosting a dinner party for twenty-five last month, as part of my cookbook club dinner series, Cookbook-ish. When dinner is at your house next time, I hope these tips will come in handy.
MAKE IT A POTLUCK
Unless it is a catered event, the obvious choice for organizing a large dinner party is a potluck. One thing I remember from hosting potlucks in the past, is that while people often want to bring a dish to share, they don’t always know what dish to bring. So, before it gets easy, it can get hard with everyone asking you the same question, "What can I bring?" One way to navigate this part of the process, and the exact mechanism I use for my cookbook club gatherings, is to ask everyone to cook something from the same cookbook. Chances are most people already have a trusted classic cookbook, or they can borrow your copy. For this Cookbook-ish gathering I chose The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.
We ended up with quite a feast of four appetizers, two salads, and four main dishes. There were cookies with fruit compote for dessert, too. I knew that having individual menus printed for each guest was out of the question (did I mention twenty-five people and over ten menu items?). Enter Susan Silverberg, hand-lettering and calligraphy extraordinaire, who wrote the names of dishes on various objects and surfaces that were displayed next to the food.
MAKE IT NEUTRAL
Choosing a neutral color palette for the table can provide the perfect backdrop when you have a variety of food and serving dishes to display. Think of it as a blank canvas for the communal art piece that everyone will have tried their hand in. First off, a neutral tablecloth. Nobody (including me!) has a big enough tablecloth to cover a table that seats twenty-five, and most people don't have a long enough table that's pretty enough to go uncovered. I don't use the term "life hack" lightly, so when I say "use a painter's drop cloth if you don't have a proper tablecloth", I really mean it. They are inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. Just be sure to get one without the protective plastic lining, or you won't be able to machine wash and dry it. Layer smaller tablecloths over the drop cloths for a more dimensional look.
MISMATCH, BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Choosing one color for all the dishware helps keep the mismatched look from edging into the hodgepodge territory. Especially if all the chairs are different, too. Chances are you already have some plates in a solid, neutral color and can easily buy, borrow or rent a few extra ones in a similar color and style. I used vintage ironstone plates I collected over time and supplemented them with similar ones from a friend and long-time collaborator, Gretchen of Otis & Pearl.
White plates aren't the most exciting choice and can certainly make the long table look like a scene from a cafeteria. To avoid the other extreme of having the table look too uniform, I mixed in salad plates in earth tones and vintage pewter.
When it comes to flatware, I suggest using the same type of a metal while mismatching the patterns and styles.
SPLURGE ON ONE THING
I might be slightly biased here, but I firmly believe that having high-quality napkins can make a lasting impression. Not everyone will have a chance to try all the dishes on the table, but everyone will touch the napkins and use them often throughout the meal. Natural fibers like linen are always my first choice. They have beautiful texture, won't leave any lint on your lap, and add an extra degree of style to the table. There is really no such thing as too many napkins and, unlike extra plates and cups, they take up very little drawer "real estate". I used FOLD linen napkins in mulberry for this event.
ASK FOR HELP
After hosting a few larger gatherings for Cookbook-ish, I learned two things. One: I can't do it all by myself. Two: people like to help. By now I am not too shy to ask my guests to bring a few extra chairs unless it's a picnic, in which case I ask them to bring extra blankets.
In the Shop:
Cookbook-ish is a book club and a community of like-minded foodies and creative people in my hometown. I curate the book selection and ask everyone to choose 2-3 recipes they'd like to make. I then come up with a cohesive menu based on everyone's selections. We cook at home and bring our respective dishes to share in a potluck style dinner. Next month's book is How to Eat a Peach by Diana Henry. Not in Santa Barbara? You can still participate by cooking and tagging your posts with #cookbookish_sb.