Dear Blushing Hostess,
My Husband and I are newlyweds. We just finished unpacking in our new home and next week I am hosting my first dinner party. The guests include my Mother-in-Law and her best friend, two of the most notable hostesses in Birmingham! Help.
I am learning to cook, what if I burn dinner or cannot find the dishes? I am so nervous.
Entertaining does require a bit of fearlessness. You can plan your heart out and the thing that happens will be the one you never dreamed possible: The plumbing breaks down. The air conditioning goes on the fritz. The caterer never appears. And, as you note, you could burn dinner.
First, to set your mind at ease, gather your thoughts, not only on the dinner party, but on the entire running of the household. The Dossier, as we call it, is a small sleek binder we keep in a drawer. It contains every relevant phone number to the smooth running of our home: Plumbers, the pool people, the air conditioning gentleman, the grocery store and butchers, the beverage dealer, the car service, and alternate caterers and great restaurants who will do a huge take out order in a flash, among critical others. Should anything go wrong, help is only a page flip and a phone call away. Service people will come out at a moment's notice (and charge accordingly) and if you do burn the crown roast then just call Highlands and order dinner for six.
Second, your mindset is critical. The best advice the most respected hostess I have ever known gave me was this: Never, ever let them see you sweat.
This is not a hostess-against-the-guests mindset. The reason you must remain calm at all costs is that a party can survive any disaster as long as the Hostess appears, and remains, calm and comfortable. I have witnessed hostesses have guests too inebriated to walk, food that turned inedible colors, and had powder rooms overflow with no negative effects on their events. This, in fact, is the very reason I have never espoused open kitchens in houses which entertain: What happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen.
Finally, always set yourself up to win. Practice, practice, practice. Make the dinner food several times before doing so for guests or choose a dish you make often enough to be comfortable with. Limit your menu to the entree and two sides, do not tax yourself with a full court press on potatoes. A great hostess I knew religiously served cold cucumber soup, cold poached salmon, a refined German potato salad, and very good bread all summer long. When winter arrived, she served fabulous meals from the Dutch oven. She wanted to minimize potential for errors and maxi maize her time with the guests. She was a master.
Set out everything you need the day before. Set the table the morning of the party. Take a small pad of paper and a pen to the table with you and note anything you are missing and follow up, do the same for the bar set up. Count the glassware for cocktails. Check the stemware in the light to be sure there are no cracks, then go over them with a glass cloth for sparkle. Repeat with the silver and a polishing cloth. Keep a copy of the menu in the kitchen for you and your help, as well as copies of the menu cards if you feel you need them.
Always have help you can trust: Your sister or Mother when you first start out, someone whose service style is very much your own and who needs little direction. As your confidence builds, hire a local college kid training them all the while on your style, service tempo, and expectations. It helps if they come from a line of good hostesses, one day they may grow up to write about you in a web blog called Blushing Hostess or the like. I have no doubt they will.