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Beyond the Barbecue 

Throwing a serious party without blowing your budget . . . or your marriage

Thursday, Nov 11 2004
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Photo by Mark Hunter

Let’s have a party!” she says.

“Sure,” I say back.

How could I not when my wife looks up at me with those big, baby-blue eyes? And what’s the big deal? We’ll dial up a few friends and I’ll do my usual Master and Commander of the Tandem Grills number. Besides, I like flipping burgers and dogs and sausages on our jet-black Weber grills — nicknamed Dr. Evil and Mini-Me because they are identical except in scale. The heavy work is done on the big boy while the smaller Weber serves to keep cooked food warm and to heat up the occasional stray dog. It’s the only way to grill. Not to mention, doing a barbecue in the back yard makes me feel all regular in the sea of weirdness that is Los Angeles.

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Then she says, “I’ll make up the invitations and we’ll e-mail them to everybody. We can get a DJ, or maybe that friend of yours with the band can play. Do you think we have enough room?”

Oh, shit. She means a P-A-R-T-Y. This is a big deal. One that often has a life cycle that goes something like: optimism that turns into concern that turns into stress that turns into anger and resentment that turn into recriminations and reprisals that turn into implosion that typically peaks 10 minutes before guests are due.

The question, then, is how to throw a serious party and survive with your marriage intact.

It helps to remember that women are made of different stuff than men, especially when it comes to this sort of thing. If this generalization gets you down, then let me put it this way: My wife is made of different stuff than I. She’s full of grand schemes and beautiful notions like spinning disco balls and falling confetti, dance floors and fireworks. She’s as tethered to the real world as a flying nun. I, on the other hand, am full of cleaning products and cold cuts. I see the problems before I grasp the splendor. It’s a recipe for disaster. But it doesn’t have to be one.

So, with the date of the party bearing down on us, we found ourselves trying to bridge the gap between her wild ideas and my sober assessments. It’s kind of like when the House and the Senate go to committee. The first thing we did was compromise on the budget. Knowing that whatever realistic spending caps I set would be blown by half, I suggested one that was just south of realistic. My wife isn’t good with money, but she does care about it, so she agreed to the terms (she probably knew we’d blow it by half, too).

Since I wasn’t going to barbecue, but we also couldn’t afford to have haute cuisine served by struggling actors, we asked the woman who served up tangy soul food at the Hollywood Farmers Market (Flava Catering) if she did parties. Soul food is the perfect choice for almost any kind of party. It’s like a good black blazer — it can dress up or down, depending on the occasion or the time of night. We thought our food should do both. Marnie, who runs Flava Catering, said she could tailor her menu — within reason — to work with our budget. Perfect.

Next was what to do about liquid refreshments. Since our friends are split evenly like red and blue states between hard partiers and 12-steppers, we had to find a way to offer everything to everybody without drowning our budget. We decided to keep the booze to tequila, margaritas, beer, and wine of both colors. That gives those who like to feel the worm turn plenty to get sick on, but also enables the more moderate guests some variety. For the teetotalers we had a multitude of sodas — Hansens Natural Soda for color and plenty of Diet Cokes (the Budweiser of the sober set) in the mix. Also, a sprinkling of high-end nonalcoholic beers is nice for those, like me, who have lost that loving feeling when it comes to partying, but still cherish the euphoric memories. Get all this stuff at Costco — it’ll save you hundreds.

This is an admittedly blue-collar offering, but the way to dress it up is with presentation. Put some nice linens on your foldout tables and arrange the drinks prettily (my wife did all that), and hardly anybody knows that none of the bottles of wine costs more than $20, and those who do will forgive you. Put the beers and sodas in large tin tubs full of ice. Whatever you estimate your ice needs to be, double that amount and you’ll be okay. Ice makes all the difference. Even Corona looks good buried in ice. Then, there’s the pièce de resistance: a vat of Starbucks coffee. It’s like putting out an eight ball for former addicts.

Now that you have your supplies, it’s time to address the aesthetics. Since disco balls, fireworks and confetti were out of the question given our budget and 1923 electrical system, we strung Chinese lanterns and Christmas lights throughout the back yard and carefully placed that old stalwart, tiki torches, around the yard. It turns a modest old place like our home into a magical setting. As for music, put your stereo system outside and carefully choose from your CD selection. Set it on shuffle and you’re ready to party.

I should give credit where credit is due. That part before about turning our modest home into a magical place — that’s mostly my wife’s doing. She’s the one with the pixie dust on her fingertips. What I bring to the party, so to speak, is a little less showy, but just as important. I made sure the bougainvilleas were trimmed back just right, that the lawn was cut, that the floors and patios were swept and that the spider webs were knocked down and all the heavy things lifted and placed where my wife told me to place them. These aren’t the glamour jobs of party preparation, nobody was oohing over my clean floors the way they were over my wife’s light show, but believe me, they would have noticed if the bathrooms weren’t clean and stocked.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t still go through the life cycle of planning a party. The moments leading up to blastoff will still arrive with tears, or at least in our case, flop sweat and grunts, but by the time the first guests arrive, they won’t know what you’ve been through. They’ll just see that you care about them, which is the most important ingredient of a good party.

Flava Catering, (310) 839-7106, flavaisgood@yahoo.com.

Reach the writer at joedonnelly64@yahoo.com

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