Hip Mom Hits the Holidays
I have a horrible, Grinchy confession: For the past few years, I have stared down the barrel of the upcoming holiday season with a sense of cold, nauseating dread. Isn’t that mortifying? I have all these lovely children, and the thought of all the weeks leading up to Christmas — and therefore all the things I have to do — makes me queasy!
It’s all my doing; back when I had a darling, chubby 2-year-old and his little squishy infant brother, I wanted to recreate the over-the-top magic my very middle-class Santa provided me every year: So many blingy presents under the tree every Christmas! Well, I didn’t know I’d have a jillion kids. All that love — but all that stress, time and money! Top off all the gift gathering for the kids with all their holiday parties and concerts, and then layer in extended family, office parties, (do we tip the UPS guy?) — where is the sacred in all this holidaypalooza?
There seems to be no fun, no joy, no reprieve or relaxation in these coming weeks. So it’s with hope and relief I sign up for a “Holiday Entertaining Class” hosted by Lauren Allen of Lauren Kim Allen Events at Mother Road Market. Lauren is an event planner who specializes in gorgeous cheese plates and “grazing tables.” Her spreads are beautiful – she believes food should both look like an edible rainbow and taste sublime. And, indeed, when my friend Jacque and I enter the Demonstration Kitchen, we are greeted by a sumptuous spread: olives, salami, prosciutto-wrapped melon, pumpkin butter, Mercona almonds…it’s breathtaking. And the beverages: a “Whisky Smash” garnished with a cinnamon stick, and a “Champagne Sparkler” with Grenadine, Elderflower and sprinkled with berries and a sprig of rosemary. The thoughtful details are simply transformative.
But Lauren is about more than fancy food and drinks. She wants her events to be about the guests: meaningful and people centered, which – after a really rough fall for my family – sounds just about right to me! She offers three easy tips to center your event around what really matters.
1. FIND YOUR PURPOSE.
“We almost always turn to those who are focused on the mechanics of gathering: chefs, etiquette experts, event planners. In doing so, we inadvertently shrink a problem that is a human challenge into a logistical one. We are tempted to focus on the “stuff” of gatherings because we believe that is all we can control. So instead, place the people and what happens between them at the center of every gathering.”
Isn’t that an interesting shift in perspective? The food and the logistics should be secondary to the people you are inviting – and what you serve and do should naturally flow from that!
Lauren continues: “Decide why you’re really gathering – drill down until you’ve nailed it.” Maybe you’re gathering to pass down what it means to be a family. Maybe you’re gathering to celebrate a birthday, or the end of the semester. Lauren even suggests when in doubt, “reverse engineer your gathering – organize your gathering around the desired outcome.” And then, “if you still can’t think of why you’re gathering, or it’s simply just a ‘hangout’ – give people their time back and plan something that has a purpose!” How refreshing: People don’t need something meaningless with which to fill their time – especially in December! Another common misconception: “The more the merrier” might not necessarily fit. If another invitee or two thwarts the purpose of the party, exclude with intention. And the purpose of the party starts with the invitation, which sets the mood — either a casual text or a formal invitation in the mail.
2. CROSS THE THRESHOLD.
The threshold is any space you deem to take a guest from their current reality into yours. As Priya Parker notes in “The Art of Gathering,” your aim is to “Create a temporary alternative world.” Invite your guests to leave their brains at the door. I love this concept: It’s sort of like the feeling when I go to my mom’s house — whew! I’m not in charge anymore! I can just sit on the couch, laugh and maybe drool a bit. And then, Lauren notes, there must be a place to gather. This might be the bar for the guys, a grazing table, or for kids, a crafts’ table. Lauren notes that at a recent fundraiser there was a champagne fountain — it was just something beautiful to stand around, even if guests weren’t drinking champagne. People need direction!
3. BE THE BOSS.
Lauren implores us: Don’t be a chill host! (I’m guilty of this!) Assume your role. Don’t just have people over and let them navigate on their own. Take your role seriously. Go over guests’ names and details before they arrive so you don’t find yourself suddenly blanking on a name — which of course makes a guest doubt his or her role at your soiree! Introduce people to each other, and take your time with this. Isn’t that the point of an event — making new connections and friends? Also, be generous with everything: food, wine, compliments! Keep everyone’s spirits – and blood sugar – up!
And now a few notes about food and drink. It does not have to be difficult at all, but it does have to be attractive! Lauren notes she gets most of her delights from Trader Joe’s. “Masala Meatballs,” for instance, are ridiculously easy and beautiful. Warm up the meatballs in the crockpot, stick up a dollop of Masala sauce on the platter per each meatball, and voila – gorgeous balls of carnivorous delight! She notes that smoked salmon always elevates an event — sophisticated, delicious and, as a side benefit, good for you and your brain!
She also has some great rules of thumb for Cheese Boards and Grazing Tables:
*Follow the rule of odd numbers: three cheese for a small tray, five for a medium, and seven for a large. Include hard (Parmeesan), aged (cheddar), gooey (Brie), indulgent (Midnight Moon), soft (Boursin), and bleu. Mix these among texture.
*Accompaniments are key! Include meats, fruits, dried fruits and veggies, nuts, jams, jellies, olives and cornichons.
*Don’t forget the bread and crackers!
*To cut or not to cut? If it’s three friends at an informal gathering, it’s more fun to dig in, but if there are more than a few at a more formal gathering, cut the cheese! Guests are more likely to eat it cut. But some cheeses – Brie, for example – are hard to cut and best left whole.
Maybe you can host an event this holiday season; maybe you can attend one. But Lauren reminds us that the heart of all these gatherings is to spend time with people you care about in a meaningful, intentional way. Time at this time of year isn’t to be wasted, so spend it well! Happy, happy holidays!