hosting a party costs too much money. • That's the first excuse you need to get over. • "My place isn't big enough to have a party." • And that's the second. • Haven't you ever been to a party where everyone jams into the wee kitchen? Guests juggle plates and drinks; some sit on the counters. The host stores serving platters on top of the fridge and sidles around people just to get to the oven. And later, people just remember the good time. • Big spaces don't necessarily equate to fabulous parties. Convivial guests and tasty food and drink are the elements of a successful get-together. A magnanimous host, even one who doesn't have a lot of dough, is also crucial. • To defray party costs, consider the potluck. The potluck spreads expenses out among the guests and allows people to contribute according to their abilities. And as long as we are checking our preconceived notions at the door, we can also get over the idea that potlucks are cheap and tacky. • In these economic times, they make sense.
The best potlucks are themed and include direction from the host, which helps avoid pasta salad overload. The worst potlucks are when the host takes advantage of the guests. You've gotten those invitations: "Please bring something to barbecue, a side dish to share and a chair. Oh, and if anyone has portable grills, can you bring those too?" Now is the time to pull out the excuses: "I can't come because I am allergic to parties where I have to do all the work."
Potlucks come in all shapes and sizes: holiday dinners for dozens, weeknight meals with friends, big-game parties, Sunday brunches, late-night fun fests and before-theater soirees. A dessert potluck is another interesting and inexpensive way to get the gang together. Ask everyone to bring a favorite sweet, homemade or store-bought, and serve coffee with flavored creams and, of course, ice-cold milk. A gallon for $3.50 may seem steep for the family, but as an offering for a potluck, it's a bargain.
To narrow the dessert potluck further, consider a Brownie Points Party, where you ask a handful of people to make brownies and the rest to fill in with paper products, milk, coffee and the fixings for DIY Mocha Frappucinos.
food and drink
• Make the party a bit more interesting with a Brownie Throwdown bake-off, asking noncooking guests to be the judges. This encourages the bakers among your friends to show off, which can only be good for everyone else. Have prizes for every contestant, including premium baking chocolate, measuring spoons/cups, even an IOU for a pan of brownies from the first-place finisher to the last. Ask guests to contribute prizes.
• For a party of 20 or so, five kinds of brownies is plenty. Ask bakers what kind of brownies they are making about a week before the party so you don't end up with a table of blondies.
• Because people will likely want to sample most of the desserts, suggest to bakers that they cut them in small pieces.
• A dessert potluck, brownie or otherwise, should be held during nontraditional meal times so guests do not expect a full lunch or dinner.
• To counter the sweet treats, offer fresh fruit, including apple slices with store-bought caramel dip. (Okay, more sweetness, but it is optional.) Fall is apple season, so slice a couple varieties, among them tart Granny Smiths and sweet Honey Crisps. Make sure to sprinkle slices with lemon juice so that they don't discolor.
• For any type of potluck, guests are likely to bristle if you hand out specific recipes, but it's best to ask someone to bring a salad rather than to say "whatever."
• Have a list of what you need so when guests ask what they can bring, you have some suggestions. A party menu left to chance is a recipe for disaster.
• Ask guests who don't cook to bring beverages or paper products. A bottle of Kahlúa will be a welcome contribution for your DIY Mocha Frappuccinos and requires little heavy lifting.
• Alcoholic beverages can really up the price of a party so spreading that cost out helps. Limit the offerings to keep costs down. Beer and wine are perfectly acceptable for most adult parties. Iced tea is inexpensive.
• Only ask guests to bring one thing. If someone offers to bring more, you can accept.
• For larger gatherings, separate food and drink. This spreads out the crowd but also makes it easier for guests to load up plates and fill cups.
• The beauty of a dessert potluck is that you don't need much in the way of special equipment since food, drink and most serving pieces will be brought by guests. Make your checklist: plates, napkins, cups for hot and cold beverages, ice, eating utensils and serving utensils.
• Make sure the trash receptacles are visible so people know where to put their empty cups and dirty plates.
• Even hosts on a budget have a responsibility to make the house look presentable before guests arrive. Clean (especially bathrooms), stash the clutter and make the table nice. Flowers are pricey, but hibiscus or other blooming Florida plants from your yard can make lovely table arrangements. Remember, they only need to look good for a few hours.