Nobody loved a holiday more than Guitar Gabriel. He loved to put on his suit and go out on the town or party hopping for 4th of July, Memorial Day, or MLK Day. Gabe thought that even minor holidays should be celebrated, Columbus Day, President’s Day – he didn’t skimp on any of them, but when late November hit, the party ramped up and didn’t quit ’til the year was done and gone.
Music and spirits were central to the good times, but the only way to keep your strength up through this marathon season of celebration is with a righteous buffet.
I do like gourmet cooking, but when a big crowd is descending, it is NOT time to try that 37 ingredient, 7-page-long Julia Child recipe you have always dreamed of serving. Save that for a small dinner party of 6 in February when there is nothing else to do but cook. For larger holiday gatherings I tend toward “comfort and joy,” and nothing makes a Bluesman’s belly happier than old-fashioned American home cooking with a heavy Southern accent.
The menu below is my go-to buffet for any large party happening between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Were I to give the party on Thanksgiving Day, I would feel it necessary to stuff the bird, make copious amounts of gravy and add mashed potatoes to the menu. But once you are in December, you can get away without the dressing, which is both very delicious and time consuming to make, if you are doing it right. Of course, if you do the stuffing and mashed white potatoes, you can drop the mac & cheese. If you want to keep the menu strictly Southern, you should opt for the collard greens and sweet potato pie. Any self-respecting Southern Granny would make fresh bread for the table; either yeast rolls, cornbread or biscuits. However, if you are under 60, you will still respect yourself in the morning with store-bought. Yankees (like myself) do not feel festive without pumpkin pie but will be content with the easy-to-steam broccoli, or asparagus for their greens.
This particular menu is fairly economical and it is possible to cook for 25-30 people for less than $200 (beer and wine are extra). When I am having a large party and am preparing a full meal, I scale way back on appetizers. Appetizers can be time consuming to prepare (canapes, gougeres, etc) and often require expensive ingredients (ie. crabmeat, fancy cheese). So, if time and budget concern you, grab a few hunks of cheese and a bag or two of chips and let the buffet be the main event.
Music Maker usually attracts an eclectic group of folks at our parties with a variety of dietary preferences. Turkey is good for nearly any carnivore and the mac and cheese pleases all but vegans, who will have to make the most of baked potatoes and other veggies. While pork is the most likely meat for folks to “not eat,” ham is plenty popular with those who do partake of the pig. You can’t beat it for feeding lots of people economically. I also love having the bone to make a pot of bean soup a day of two after the party. Both the turkey and ham are great for sandwiches around midnight when the first round feed is wearing off and your musicians start to feel peckish again.
I do love a pretty table, but after 20 years of party making, I am no longer willing to take on china and crystal for a crowd (again, save that for the intimate dinner party in February). I am a big fan of Chinette plates, they can hold the gravy and are environmentally superior to styrofoam. I am also not opposed to disposable aluminum catering trays for large parties. They are very satisfying to chuck out vs. scrubbing burnt-on mac & cheese remains at midnight.
If you are an experienced cook that has thrown lots of parties, you have probably already made this meal, or a more sophisticated version. But, if you are new to throwing parties that are not catered by Domino’s, I have included an Order of Operations guide below that will make your party fun for you and wonderful for your guests. The One Day vs. Two Day monikers refer to the number of days it takes to prepare for the party, not the time required to eat it. One should never have to cook the day after throwing a party of this scale and there should be leftovers enough to cover you (although the mac & cheese may be history). If you’re planning for 25 or more folks, I suggest you buy the produce, ham, cheese, paper goods and baked goods at Costco if you have access. The “super-sized” quantities they sell in are perfect for parties and the quality is pretty good for the price.
Usually, we set up a buffet table for food and a separate table for beverages and ice with a nearby cooler for beer. Dessert and coffee can either go at the end of the buffet or on its own table, depending on your layout.
Candles and flowers can go a long way to distract the eye from less attractive disposable serving pieces. Not much on arranging flowers? Just get all the same color of the same flower and place in two matching vases (mason jars work fine). Trim stems all the same length with flowers extending about half again the height of the vase. Not sure about colors between tablecloth, candles and flowers? You can keep them close in tone to each other or you can never go wrong by keeping everything white. I highly recommend tall taper or pillar candles, or votives set inside deeper glass candleholders vs. low to the table candles. I have had more than one napkin alight over the years and I prefer off-duty firemen at my parties.
Pay attention to lighting, not too bright, but not so low that nobody can see there is food – this is why God created dimmer switches. If you don’t have dimmers, unscrew a bulb or two.
Music sets the tone. So, keep our Music Maker Party Pack CDs locked and loaded, make your party playlist ahead of time, or find a good one on Spotify. Be sensitive to your crowd’s volume preferences and definitely pump it if you think folks would rather dance than chat. Also, good music will keep your mood up during cooking and prep – so have your iPod handy.
Most of all, arm yourself with a sense of humor, go with the flow and have fun! If the turkey gets a little dry or the yeast rolls burn, who cares? Lighten up, it’s a party!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Blog post – including a step-by-step how-to guide for cooking the buffet and family recipes!