During the Great Depression, Irma Rombauer wrote the book that would serve as America’s kitchen user manual for decades to come. Joy of Cooking contains thousands of recipes presented in a playful voice that evokes the feeling of a dear friend standing in the room with you. Though it’s known as the quintessential cookbook, Rombauer wasn’t exactly a master chef: Her true talent was hosting. She was known to throw a memorable party, and in Joy of Cooking she dedicated a whole section to the art of entertaining.
The chapter answered questions that readers in a pre-internet age would otherwise be left wondering, like what to serve a crowd and how to set a table. There have been several printings of Joy of Cooking (11 to be exact), but this indispensable section remains. For the best entertaining tips from the book we referred to the 75th anniversary edition, which includes the writing of Irma’s grandson Ethan Becker, her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, and of course Irma Rombauer herself.
1. SAVE INTIMATE GATHERINGS FOR INTIMATE FRIENDS.
The first challenge hosts face is deciding the guest list. Should you limit the party to close friends or invite everyone you know? Will guests feel awkward if they don’t know anyone else there? These are all important questions to consider, and Joy of Cooking has some guidelines to help you navigate them:
We are frequently asked what is the perfect number for a dinner party. While there is no ideal answer to the question, there is probably a workable minimum: If guests are close friends, any number under eight will do. However, first-time acquaintances must be able to establish small centers of mutual interest, and we suggest that this can only be engineered with any degree of success in groups of at least eight. Select friends you think will genuinely enjoy each other, whether or not they’ve ever met.
2. STICK WITH YOUR STANDBYS.
A dinner party is a tempting excuse to test out an ambitious new recipe, but there’s no reason to make the night any harder than it has to be. Try to create as little work for yourself as possible by sticking with what you know. According to Joy of Cooking, you should “never, ever make a dish for company that you haven’t made before and mastered.”
This will likely mean serving the food you most love to eat. As long as the menu honors any allergy restrictions and avoids overly-spicy foods and polarizing ingredients (like offal), the authors emphasize you shouldn’t feel bad about falling back on your favorites. "Don’t hesitate to serve guests what you like to eat yourself," the cookbook says. "Serving something you enjoy and are confident making is part of sharing yourself—even if that something is meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs."
3. CENTERPIECES SHOULDN’T DISTRACT FROM THE MEAL.
Sometimes it takes the right centerpiece to tie a table together. But if you aren’t careful, the decorations could end up getting in the way of the food and conversation. When choosing floral arrangements, always err on the side of subtlety. That goes for fragrance as well as the actual presentation. “Floral centerpieces or decorations should have no detectable scent—and neither should you: Heavy perfumes of any kind will compete with the aromas and flavors of the food,” Joy of Cooking instructs. “Select flowers in heights that will not obstruct conversation across the table.”
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have license to be creative. Refer back to your menu when selecting decor and pick a color palette that complements the meal.
4. THERE’S NO SHAME IN STORE-BOUGHT FOOD.
While supermarket rotisserie chicken may not be a winning main course to serve at a dinner party, there’s plenty of room for store-bought items on your table. Supplementing your menu with pre-made food frees up more time to focus on the dishes you decide to make from scratch. Of course, some commercially-made components are more successful than others—Joy of Cooking makes some helpful suggestions:
We often present appetizers from the local deli or market: pâté, bread, and cheeses, with an assortment of olives. And no guest has been known to turn down cake from a bakery, or store-bought ice cream and cookies. Maybe you didn’t make these foods, but you certainly made them possible.
5. SEATING MAKES OR BREAKS A PARTY.
Assigned seating is something modern dinner party hosts may not always consider, but according to Joy of Cooking, it can dictate the success of the whole night. Leaving place cards at each plate keeps guests from leaning on the people they know best and helps them connect with those who share their interests. The book reads: “Think about which friends may share similar hobbies or professions. Spouses should be seated apart unless it’s a family occasion.”
For parties where everyone's acquainted, cards should be cleared as the first course arrives. Leave them at the table at large parties where guests are less familiar with one another, as they can be helpful tools for learning names.
6. DON’T SPEND ALL YOUR TIME IN THE KITCHEN.
It’s easy to get bogged down with tasks when throwing a dinner party, but first and foremost, hosting is an opportunity to spend the evening in good company. Do yourself a service by choosing dishes that can be prepared before your first guest arrives. “Plan foods that can be prepared ahead of time, so that you can spend more time at the table than over the stove,” the authors of Joy of Cooking write. This might mean serving a slow-cooked stew or casserole rather than a temperamental dish that requires constant attention.
As the book reminds readers, food isn’t the only component that should be taken care of before the party gets underway:
Five minutes before your guests are expected, everything should be organized and in readiness: appetizers, wine, and cocktails—which may be simple—on a convenient side table; plates warming in the oven, a warming drawer, or the dry cycle of a dishwasher; and the dining table completely set, needing only that last-minute ceremonial touch, the lighting of the candles.
7. WELCOME CHAOS.
Even meticulous party planners are vulnerable to setbacks. A dropped serving platter, a faulty oven, or a traffic jam delaying half the guests are all minor disasters that are impossible to prepare for. The most you can do is take care of what circumstances are under your control and accept that they might change. Hosts who still feel anxious about potential problems can turn to Joy of Cooking for comfort:
If last minute, something does happen to upset your well-laid plans, rise to the occasion. The mishap may be the making of your party. Remember that way back in Roman times, Horace observed, "A host is like a general: it takes a mishap to reveal his genius."
8. RESIST THE URGE TO CLEAN.
After the plates have been cleared and the coffee has been served, hosts have one last hurdle to overcome: ignoring the pile of dirty dishes waiting for them in the kitchen. The temptation to jump into cleaning mode may be strong, but it should be resisted in favor of spending quality time with your guests. After clearing the table two plates at a time and putting them out of sight, sit down and enjoy what’s left of the night. Be prepared to turn down dishwashing offers from your party guests: As Joy of Cooking points out, the compulsion to tidy isn’t limited to the host. “Resist, as well, the kind of good-intentioned rush to help that often turns a dinner’s aftermath into a volunteer free-for-all,” the authors write, “The more people who remain at the table at meal’s end the better—and that includes you.”
9. PRACTICE YOUR SKILLS AT BRUNCH.
If the thought of throwing a full-on dinner party makes you nervous, consider hosting a Sunday brunch. Your friends will be grateful to skip the long lines that come with going out and instead enjoy a home-cooked meal. At the same time, you’ll gain valuable hosting experience in a low-stress setting. According to Joy of Cooking, “The meal we call brunch is an easy one to prepare and a good way for beginners to practice their entertaining skills.”
The authors suggest serving make-ahead baked goods like muffins, bagels, and scones and egg dishes that can be served family-style like quiches and frittatas. Dishes like eggs benedict, no matter how delicious, need to be prepared individually and should be avoided. Don’t forget to serve mimosas or a pitcher of Bloody Marys to make it a true brunch.
10. OR SKIP COOKING ALTOGETHER.
A lack of interest, or skills, in the kitchen shouldn’t stop you from entertaining. Organizing a party can be as simple as setting out a tray of booze.
“The cocktail party is an estimable but endangered social institution,” Joy of Cooking reads. It continues:
Its demise may be blamed on factors as various as the regrettable decline of the art of conversation and flirtation and the growing acceptance that dinner by itself is sufficient diversion for an evening. We steadfastly defend the cocktail party, however, as an American invention and an uncomplicated and extremely pleasant means of entertaining.
Unless you’re a master mixologist, the book recommends choosing one cocktail and preparing it in large batches. Another option is to set out liquor, mixers, ice, and tools and allow guests to prepare the drinks themselves. Nonalcoholic options, like mineral water or freshly squeezed juice, should always be provided, as should hors d'oeuvres so the drinks don’t “quickly overwhelm the party.” This doesn’t mean you’ll have to turn on the stove: Picking up crackers and pâté from the local store is perfectly fine.
11. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE RULES.
There’s something satisfying about laying out a proper place setting or getting the timing right on a three-course meal, but at the end of the day, the memories you made with the people you care about are what really matter. Joy of Cooking sends off aspiring hosts with this final thought:
Remember, even after all this instruction, never let the rules get between you, your guests, and the food. Long after the meal passes, your guests will remember only a wonderful day or evening spent in the pleasure of your company rather than a misplaced saucer, missing salad fork, or an empty water glass.
Additional SourcesJoy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary EditionAll images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.