So you’re 12, and your plan was just to play in the cul-de-sac with your kid friends (like every other night of the week), but for some reason when you get there, there’s a moon bounce and popsicles, and with your pint-sized pals are their parents. You suspect they’re responsible for all the yums and entertainment. The music is loud; the laughter is contagious; everybody walks home happy.
Then there was that period of time, when you were like, oh, 20, 25, and the “mom” of your group decided to institute weekly dinners involving pancakes, movies, intimate talks, spirited debates, and nursing everybody sober until 3 a.m. The smokers (and second-handers) took over the apartment balcony; the drunks philosophized; the musicians jammed.
Later, you’re 30(ish), and your daughter or son’s made best friends with another kindergartener, and wouldn’tcha know it, little lady/dude’s parents are totally cool. They invite you and yours over for barbecue on their deck, and by the end of the evening you’ve got more than mosquito bites: You’ve got two other best friends in the works, and New Year’s plans.
Earlier this year I was reading a short story in the New Yorker, by Hari Kunzru, called “Raj, Bohemian,” which put me onto this house-party story in the first place. In it — not that it’s the point of it, but in it — one of the financially challenged characters throws dinner parties for her friends. She fashions thoughtful invitations with a dress code, and not much more, and however the parties come together, it’s always an experience; it’s always something that throws the invitees off their center a little.
The idea reminded me of kind of an embarrassing ongoing series of stories I wrote in high school (my novel, I called it), because the protagonist created these adventure invitations for his co-protagonist and best friend, and each was just a list of things co-protag needed to have on her person (bus fare, snorkel, Gorilla Glue, etc.) on a particular date. It was cheap, mysterious, misaligning, loving, and local.
Not a party, but the spirit was the same.
The feeling of being taken by surprise in a familiar space is why I’m generally enamored of house and yard and block parties, and why I’m sad there don’t seem to be enough. Obviously, it’s not just about the wacky theme (detention!), activities (moon bounce!), enigmatic invitations, grilled snacks, or, ahem, alcohol, it’s about exploring the attendees (not like that) (unless …), and seeing old friends in a new light, reacting to a new set of stimuli, be it an uncomfortable costume or an unfamiliar guest. Secrets come out. Hair comes down. Talents are revealed. Kindred spirits meet for the first time. (In this plane, anyway.)
“A party, to me, is only as good as the people you invite,” says John Bloodsworth, an independent corporate and social event planner. A little high-art/low-art juxtaposition never hurt either, he adds: Grandma’s crystal with bright plastic-ware can help create just the right amount of tension. (Throw in a box of Church’s and you’re getting downright House of Guadalupe.)
To keep things economical, or just to tout your unusual style, Bloodsworth recommends repurposing household objects, and even using something old or beloved as a kind of thematic centerpiece. “Most of the time you can really look around the house and find things that you already have.”
Inspiration truly is everywhere. On a recent trip to Café Paladar, I was inspired by chef Brian West’s (delicious) watermelon gazpacho bowls — they were made of ice. On a larger scale, this frozen serving piece could make a whimsical, super-chilling punch bowl. I would create mine by filling a large plastic bowl with water in the sink, then submerging a second large bowl in the first, using marbles or pebbles to weigh the second bowl down, leaving about a two inches of water between the two. Freeze overnight, and voila!
If you’re a wine-and-cheese crowd (or like to pretend), try labeling your cheeses with those tropical-drink umbrellas to diminish the pomp. If you’re partying on a deck (or concrete slab), gift your guests with multi-colored chalks and invite them to scribe their favorite quotations underfoot, thereby sparking conversation. (Plus, you can match embarrassing quotes — cough, Phil Jackson, cough — to the chalk dust on attendees’ mitts.)
Cut costs by going potluck-style, Whole Foods marketing specialist Suzy Holleron suggested while giving me a condensed “value tour” of the Quarry location, then stressed that the benefits of home gatherings — as opposed to nights alone or on the town — aren’t just about the value of sharing the cost of a meal, but sharing and showing (you got it) love. Which is just what I was trying to get to in the first place … •
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Paulaner Hefe-Weizen Paulaner’s variety of Hefeweizen is always a favorite during hot summer months. The pour is a hazy, golden straw with a dense, slowly fading foamy head. This Hefe smells of banana, lemon, and a hint of clove, and goes down smooth with a crisp, refreshing aftertaste.
New Belgium Mothership Wit This Fort Collins brewery proffers some great beers — they’re widely known for their flagship Fat Tire — but the Mothership Wit is their first venture into organically produced beer and the brewery touts sustainable practices. The Wit is a bright style with low bitterness, a lighter body, and a thirst-quenching acidity that’s a great match for fresh greens or light, grilled seafood. More refreshing than a mimosa at brunch.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a staple on any beer enthusiast’s list, and the brewers at this popular Chico, CA, outpost have infused their summer-style lager with SN’s trademark hoppy finish. The taste is light and crisp while the bite is moderate. – NC
Grayson’s Greentiki There is nothing more refreshing than a sip of ice-cold green tea, made even better with a splash of a Texas favorite: tequila. Sounds odd, we know, but when mixed, your favorite bottled green tea and Mexican liquor create a surprisingly balanced zing. For minors in the house, just hold the tequila and you’ve still got a healthy, delicious drink.
Tutti-Frutti Lemonade Try a new twist on the classic outdoor beverage by adding some pop with club soda and a dash of your favorite red fruit juice, such as cranberry, strawberry, or pomegranate. Blend with ice to make it a smoothie sip or leave it on the rocks. Drop a jigger of vodka into the mix to get the party started.
Frozen Chocolate-Covered Anything For a simple snack that can handle the heat, try taking a pot of boiling water and placing a glass bowl on the top, dipping into the water. In the bowl, place baker’s dark chocolate chips, add some milk to let the chocolate melt into a smooth consistency and remove from the heat. Take some of your favorite fruits — a frozen banana, perhaps — and dip in the chocolate. Place the chocolately goodness on a plate and cool it in the fridge until the chocolate has set. – PD
FOR THE KIDS
Slip ’N Slide The Slip ’N Slide has come a long way. This 47-year-old summertime favorite has upgraded with the Bounce ’N Splash, Splash Tunnel, and the Wave Rider. Sure, you might not spend hours playing on this water-wipeout toy, but it’s an adrenaline rush that a kiddie pool just can’t provide.
Make tie-dye shirts This’ll keep kids busy for a while and it’s fun to see the finished product. Set up a workstation consisting of: T-shirts, dye, and rubber bands. Also, wear clothes you’ll be willing to get dirty. Let your kids experiment a few times; be sure to stock up on shirts. Try working on this project in the back yard, it’ll be a perfect place to hang the T-shirts to dry.
Catching fireflies Grab an old mason jar (have an adult puncture holes so the flies can breathe), a net, a flashlight, and head out to the backyard. Dim any outdoor lights — or, if you dare, shut them all off completely — then go search for fireflies. Once you capture the flies, marvel at them for a few minutes and release them into the wild … and repeat. – JH