Q + A with Food Critic Laura Reiley

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Did you enjoy your last dinner party? Did you linger over dessert and laugh at inappropriate jokes with friends? I hope so. The New York Times thinks it may be your last one for a while, according to a recent article declaring dinner parties are endangered. They’re on the way out and replaced by more casual get-togethers at restaurants. Pretty much dead.

This was not good news to us. We’re just warming up our hosting skills and can’t wait for more. We’ll do our part by hosting more dinner parties around here. But in another effort to save this endangered ritual, I called an expert. I spoke with Laura Reiley, food critic at the Tampa Bay Times and lifelong dinner party advocate. She recently followed the dead dinner party article with her own take.

She’s noticed through her line of work that people are more sophisticated diners than they are cooks, and time for home cooking continues to decrease. People go out to eat and share a meal, but she says it’s not the same thing as eating together in a home. She hopes that this fate for the dinner party is not true.

A dinner party goes from 7 to 1 in the morning. It’s all the time on the couch after dinner. Often I think that’s where stuff really gets said.

We talked about her hosting experiences (including her first!) and some tips and advice for hosting your own dinner party. Plus, we’ve got one of Laura’s go-to dinner party recipes at the end of the interview. Enjoy!

Q: Do you have themes for your dinner parties? How do you decide on a menu?

Absolutely. It just helps me get organized. And for me and everyone these days, you’ve got at least one whose a vegetarian or currently not eating whatever, so you have to consider all those things. So I choose a cuisine. I have a lot of people avoiding gluten, so Indian is good. Lentil dal and chana masala. You can freeze them and make them ahead. At the last minute you can make tikka masala or naan. I did one that was Singaporean cuisine because it’s one people don’t know as well.

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For every kind of party I do a cocktail of the night, and it’ll tie into whatever the theme is. If it’s a South Asian theme, some kind of ginger cocktail or lychee. Usually I do one big pitcher. You can do it ahead of time so as soon as people start arriving they can pour some. Once the first pitcher’s gone, people are usually on their own. They can make their own or move on to regular mixed drinks. If it’s a summer party, I make a big agua fresca whether it’s watermelon or blood orange. People can add booze if they want.

I pretty much always have a theme. A few years back I was on a kick. I’d read that book, that Bill Buford book on Italian cooking, and I was just completely obsessed with Mario Batali’s recipes. So I did a really rustic Italian dinner. I did beef cheeks, though halfway through people asked what it was and they were like ‘eww.’ So you kind of have to ease in the more timid eaters.

Q: Whose recipes do you turn to and what kind of recipes work for a dinner party?

If it’s a theme, I will usually just pick someone who’s great at that. If it’s Mexican, Diana Kennedy. Let’s see. I’ve done Italian ones where I’ve done Mario Batali. But often I use Epicurious. And the great thing about it is you can read the reviews. If you look at something with 100 reviews and 91 people would make it again, then you can probably trust it. I do trust those… Bon Appetit is pretty good about recipe testing and Martha Stewart, her recipe testers are tremendous. And there are people like Ina Garten. I just got her new cookbook. It’s awesome. I’ve made six or seven recipes so far, and it all turns out as she promises.

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Q: What’s the ideal number of guests for a dinner party?

I like twelve. Because it really feels like a party. Eight’s nice, but as soon as you get over eight there’s a good part of the party that’s spent standing around. People get up and stand in the kitchen with their drink. Often I’ll serve a first course standing, like a little soup. Because people like to chit chat for a while before they’re ready to sit down.

Q: Do you make everything yourself or do you ask friends to pitch in by bringing the salad or another side?

Usually I make everything else because I’ve had really bad experiences of asking people to bring things. I have a very elderly uncle who is a cook, and I remember having a party a few years back. He said ,’Oh, I’ll bring something.’ It was like a shrimp mold out of the 1950s. It was such a horror show. And you had to put it out!

The risk of having people bring something is you have to know the skill set of your friends. What If you have Vietnamese, and someone brings wings? I think you have more control if you just say bring a bottle of something.

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Q: What are your tips for ambience? What kind of music do you play?

Well, for some parties we’ve done a party playlist… And we’ve done some parties where we’ll say with your rsvp give us a song pick. So you put together a playlist with everybody’s song picks, and that’s kind of fun because everyone’s listening for their song. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I picked this song!’ The music’s eclectic. Some songs are cheesy. It’s good to play something that someone says, ‘Oh! I haven’t heard this in so long.”

Three years ago for New Year’s we decided we wanted live music so we hired a bunch of musicians from USF. It was great. It made  it feel a little more fancy. And it wasn’t that expensive. They charged us $100 each or something like that. They came, set up, and cleared it all away. No mess and it added a different kind of element.

Q: How far in advance do you invite friends for a dinner?

I feel like people are so busy that you have to start a month in advance. Just to get a night where everyone can do it. The problem is you have to remind people a couple of times, especially if it’s a big party. Often I’ll do evites, and a printed invitation [twice a year or so] because some things stick in peoples’ memories better.

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Q: Do you remember the first dinner party you hosted? 

I do, actually. It was my junior year of college. I lived in an apartment by myself. I always romanticized living by myself, but I was kind of cheating. I lived across a parking lot from my two best friends. It was probably October of my junior year of college, and I rem having a dinner party. I had vegan friends, and I was like, ‘Oh God, what do I do?’

I remember basically doing none of my school work for like a week while planning this party. And at that age you don’t have all the place settings for people and glasses. It was still super, super fun. I was big into making bread and big into making pasta then. It was also cheap. You can feed a lot of people cheaply with pasta and bread. But I remember being thrilled because I pulled it off and it stayed into the wee hours.

Q: How’d it compare to the dinner parties your parents hosted?

Well, my parents were total idiot undergrads when they had me. They ended up 18 years old and pregnant. They went to Brown, and then Stanford for grad school. It was very heavy duty hippie era, and my mom wore the classic muumuu. Both my parents had long hair. Very hippie-ish. All the parties had a slightly hippie vibe to it. A lot of brown bread made in a coffee can. And they were really poor. They had my brothers a few years later.

All their parties were kind of raucous and well attended and on the cheap. Growing up, my household was always the household my friends wanted to hang around in. And I think a lot of that was because my mom was a cook. She’d say, ‘Oh, two extra girls for dinner? I’ll put out two extra plates.’

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Q: What’s been one of your most memorable dinner parties?

A bunch of years ago I had a party, the theme of which was “So you thought you’d never wear it again” and we just left it at that. One guy came and squeezed himself into his cub scout uniform. People wore their wedding dresses or suits from the 70s. People interpreted it differently.

At one point I’m in the kitchen with this guy I didn’t know very well. He said, ‘I’m carrying a weapon that I don’t usually carry.’ Whether it was a gun or knife, it was a concealed weapon. Actually, that wasn’t my most memorable. I had a huge 35th birthday party when I was still living in California. It was one of those parties where worlds collide. I invited everyone.

There was a friend who snuck out to the parking lot with someone who was not her husband. There was a fight between a journalist and a guy who was a kind of stock trader. One woman was a mom at school with my daughter. I’d never seen her outside of sweatpants, and now she was all dressed up. She was drop dead gorgeous. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my goodness! Who is that?’ I’d never seen her with makeup or without spit on her shirt. There was a silver chafing dish of my grandma’s, and in the middle of the party, it caught on fire. It looked like the whole dinner table caught on fire. To me, it was emblematic of just that whole party. The next day, there was a lot of picking up the pieces.

Q: What have you learned from attending dinner parties hosted by friends?

I think it actually helps the art of conversation to have eight, ten, or twelve people sitting around having the same conversation. It’s different from being at a restaurant where you can only hear the people next to you.

The art of making a toast is such a lost thing. It’s not just something where you ding-ding-ding on your glass and thank the host. A real toast – it’s something you don’t have unless you’re at a dinner party.

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Q: After years of hosting and attending dinner parties, what key advice do you offer to any potential host or hostess?

Play to your skill level. Don’t be overambitious if you’re not a tremendous cook. Keep it simple if that’s what works for you.

Try to do a fair amount of stuff ahead of time. You don’t want to spend the party cooking and frazzled and not talking to anyone. That’s why things like coq au vin and beef bourguignon are classics. They ‘re great, and impressive, but it’s all done beforehand.

Or do something where guests get involved. I’ll often make pizzas on my green egg (grill/smoker) outside and have friends help out. You can pre-grill eggplant, zucchini or pre-zest the lemon and put out bowls. Have people concoct the pizza that makes sense to them, and it’s more interactive.

Q: What’s the role of the dinner party? If dinner parties are indeed dying, how does that affect friendships and the rest of our lives?

Well, it seems like a sad thing, doesn’t it? I guess we all have this kind of cult of busyness. We couldn’t possibly spend 12 hours thinking up this dinner party, and having it, and cleaning it up for people you love.

For me, it is a labor of love. Certainly, the longer you know friends the better you know what they like and what they don’t like. So you’re taking that into consideration. That definitely to me is a labor of love.

You can invite a bunch of people out to eat, and pick up the tab and it’s very nice. But it’s different. Home is different. It’s a warmer place. They’re looking at your books, the things you’re collecting in your house. They meet your kids. It’s personal. It’s different. And usually it’s longer. A dinner party goes from 7 to 1 in the morning. It’s all the time on the couch after dinner. Often I think that’s where stuff really gets said.

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singapore slings

Complete with little plastic mermaids, this is the ultimate girly drink — but it packs a major punch, so watch out. The drink was invented in 1915 at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. Straits Café, with multiple locations in the San Francisco bay area, makes a delicious one. One night I cajoled a bartender into coughing up the recipe. It’s a bartender’s recipe, meaning those guys are seldom equipped with measuring cups and spoons. Thus, use a regular-sized coffee mug to get the proportions right.

2 mugs orange juice
1 mug sweet and sour
1 mug triple sec
1 bottle gin
2 mugs pineapple juice
1/2 mug lime juice
1/2 mug grenadine
10 dashes bitters
1 mug cranberry juice

Mix all ingredients together in a beautiful glass pitcher and let it relax in the fridge for at least an hour. Mix it over ice in a martini shaker or, even better, buy a spigot-fronted drink dispenser so guests can help themselves.

Garnish with cut fruit, cherries, paper umbrellas, whatever. If you serve them in martini glasses, the rim looks extra festive dipped in one of the colored sugars available online or at Williams-Sonoma.

Serves 12 to 16. Here’s a picture of the drink.

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