5 Lessons the Pandemic Taught Me About Entertaining
In the years before the pandemic, I was the host, my house was the clubhouse, my porch the neighborhood hangout. My husband and I entertained anywhere from two to five nights a week, from last minute "come for cocktails and snacks in 15 minutes!" to dinner parties planned for months. We were the holiday house, Thanksgiving and Passover and New Year's Eve all permanently ensconced in our dining room. We hosted an annual open house party during the James Beard Award weekend that would draw more than 100 revelers.
And for each of these events, there was care, thoughtfulness, a deep commitment to hospitality, but also, if I am to be honest, a little bit of performative kitchen gymnastics.
As someone who dearly loves to entertain, and has been doing so for decades, I had learned early on to stop fussing over plated coursed dinners and revert to family style self-service. I had learned to embrace dishes that can be made ahead and reheated or served room temp to take the pressure off of last-minute finishes. I thought I had gone as far as I could in taking pressure off of myself.
All the extra work I used to put into entertaining
There was no charcuterie platter with fewer than three cheeses and two meats and four accompaniments. There was no dinner without home-baked bread and from-scratch dessert. I kept my pantry and fridge stocked with the kinds of things that could be pulled out quickly for spontaneous gatherings: canned stuffed grape leaves, olives, spreads, fun and funky bags of snacks from around the world sourced at local markets. Sure, I might invite you to come over in 15 minutes, but by the time you got here, there would be a spread worthy of any fancy wine bar.
These gatherings were great fun but also, in some ways, wasteful. Wasteful of time, interrupting work and life to focus on doing all the right things and making sure the house sparkled and setting everything up just so. Wasteful of food, with so many offerings at every event that nothing ever got finished-endless small bits of cheese and dried-out charcuterie, crunchy snacks gone stale while sitting out over the course of an evening dumped in the bin at the end of the night. Wasteful of money, a pantry full of "just for guests" items that often expired before the right event came along to serve them.
But then the pandemic arrived and forced me to rethink
I thought I would go crazy during lockdown not being able to entertain. But as much as I love to host and missed being able to be with my friends in person? I was shocked to discover that what I was missing wasn't "entertaining," it was connecting. The Zoom cocktail hours and catch-ups, the socially distanced porch-sits when weather permitted, reminded me that what I really love isn't the praise received when presenting an Insta-worthy appetizer spread. It's the foundational reason I have always loved to host at home instead of going out.
People laugh louder and longer in a home than in public. Conversations go deeper and more real when there isn't a table of strangers three feet away. The memories you make stick longer, mean more.
Now that things are slowly beginning to return to some ability to normalize how we gather, there are some lessons I want to be sure not to lose.
Here are my top 5 lessons I learned during the pandemic that I plan to keep as things return to normal.
Lesson 1. Keep it small.
I've always been of the "build a longer table" school. In the past, gatherings that began as an idea to just be with one other couple could swell to double or triple that size if I happened to speak to someone else who didn't have plans that evening. But just like a Zoom of more than two other couples is nearly impossible to keep controlled, the bigger the party, the more the guests are having multiple conversations, segregating into smaller groups, or things are kept on the surface. I'm going back to that one-on-one feel. Dinner for four is intimate and essential, and especially after so long apart, it is better to reconnect slowly.
Lesson 2. Store bought and individual isn't a cop out!
When we were doing distanced in-person during the pandemic, a shared cheese platter was a no-fly-zone! So, I loaded up on snacks that were all individually wrapped. Little wax covered cheeses or snack packs of sausage cubes, mini packets of olives, one-person bags of nuts or trail mixes. Lunchbox sizes of bags of chips, little packets of cookies or fun-sized candy bars. Canned cocktails. Friends would come over, and there would be a little array of snacks, each safely packaged for individual use. And at the end of the evening? Any unused/unopened snacks went right back into the larder, no waste, no risk, and shockingly, none of my pals threated to disown me for not making everything myself. I'm keeping this plan in place for my casual and last-minute entertaining opportunities, it makes it easy on me, and super-fast for cleanup, and frankly, my pals seem as excited about their own little bag of Cheetos or two-pack of dark chocolate Milano cookies as they used to be about the little marinated wild artichokes or spicy herbed Marcona almonds. Just one note, here: This does add packaging waste, so plan carefully, don't buy single-use plastics, and don't go all in on individual servings for everything!
Lesson 3. Keep it casual!
Dinner can be a bunch of spreads. Some store-bought antipasti. A loaf of bread and one great wedge of cheese and one fabulous sausage and a bag of baby carrots. Dessert can be a bowl of grapes or berries and a shareable bar of dark chocolate. One-pot wonders like soups or stews, a giant frittata. A huge pile of peel and eat shrimp. Not every meal needs to involve Michelin-worthy machinations, and if you keep things easy on yourself, you'll be a more relaxed host. And the times when you do want to go all out will suddenly be that much more special.
Lesson 4. Let your guests contribute.
I used to take particular pride in being the host that only asked guests to show up hungry, every part of the meal carefully plotted and executed by myself and my husband. During the pandemic, we asked pals to brown-bag their own suppers and just meet us to eat together from six feet apart. And the earth did not spin off its axis! So, now? When guests offer to bring something, I'm saying yes. It doesn't matter what they want to bring. The first rule of improv is "Yes, and...", and I am adopting it for my entertaining. People like to feel useful and helpful, and I plan to let them: no strings, no instructions.
Lesson 5. Not everything needs a tablescape.
Dips in their plastic tubs, chips in their bags, nuts in their jars. Sure, plating everything beautifully can be fun, but it isn't a failing to just let things be what they are. No one thought you fried those Ruffles up yourself; putting them in a bowl doesn't make them fancy. Adding a dishwasher load of serving pieces to your cleanup when serving store-bought is a layer of work and effort that just isn't needed all the time. If your get together isn't a special occasion? Let everything be what it is.