While I am a tad skeptical of the wisdom of Dr. Bonnie Henry’s latest directive, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to gather outdoors in small groups and share food before the summer is out. So as I dream up dinner party menus and bring out the summer shoes (scored nearly new Birkenstocks for $3 at the thrift store this weekend thank you very much) it feel like an excellent time to write about planning and outdoor dinner party.
There are so many things you can do to make an event special that don’t have to cost a ton of money. Some require a little gumption (see Flowers below) and a willingness to ask your pals to get involved, but since the whole point is to bring people together, I’m sure you manage it.
My best tip is actually to have your creative and talented chef sister fly in from Montreal to bail you out in the hours before 50 people show up expecting dinner, but I realize this may not be an option for everyone. More’s the pity for you.
Flowers are worth it every single time. They add colour and joy and beauty, and make everything thing feel instantly like an occasion.
We have a good friend who has rose bushes in her yard and she offered to cut some flowers and bring them over. They were gorgeous. We also harvested tulips, calendula, sweet peas and nasturtiums from our own garden.
To round out our set up we did a little bit of floral scavenging in the neighbourhood. There were so many flowers in the alleys around our house that we took a pair of scissors and a few tote bags and collected a little bit of a lot of things. (In public places/empty lots/alleys only! No stealing from your neighbour’s yard! Bad karma.)
Another great option is see if your local farmers offer flowers by the bucket. It’s usually a flat rate per bucket. Some will let you request a colour palette, but personally I think the better option is to let the farmer pick the best of what’s in the field on the day. Flower farmers know what they’re doing, and who doesn’t like a little floral surprise!
With all these piles of flowers and already running behind schedule, we had what I believe to be a stroke of genius, which was to pile everything onto a table outside, provide jars and twine, and let people make centrepieces for their tables.
Let friends take photos
A professional photographer isn’t in the budget for every event, but you’re still going to want to capture it all. My favourite solution to this, and what we did for this event, was put out five point-and-shoot film cameras loaded with a good fast film (Portra 800, my one true love, see here and here for more of its glory) and told the guests to photograph whatever struck their fancy.
At first this sounds both expensive and risky, but it was actually very manageable. I got the cameras on Craigslist and spent between $5 and $10 on them. Then I proceeded to fully relinquish control of the images that would be created and just got excited to see what would happen. I didn’t even freak out when I watched a friend’s ten-year-old open up the back of one of the cameras. She snapped it shut immediately and the roll turned out fine.
Was every photo a winner? No. But a surprising amount were (lots that I’m sharing here) and I cherish every frame no matter how blurry or dark, or how many mid-chew expressions were captured in a single photo (from that perspective, some were quite impressive).
Since you can’t be everywhere at once, this approach allows you get photos of moments and people you would otherwise miss. Just like having a second (third, fourth, fifth) shooter. Win.
Condiments. As many as possible.
Nothing makes a meal feel fancy quicker or with less fuss than a variety of condiments in cute serving dishes.
For this party I made three different kinds of homemade mustard. One was the classic Flegg family sweet-hot mustard I’ve been eating on everything since I was old enough to each solid food, one was yellow mustard seeds with cranberry and the last was brown mustard seeds with beer.
There was also saurkraut, pickled red onion and pickled kohlrabi, and a garlicky aioli. Put them all in mason jars, spread them around the table interspersed with sliced tomatoes and plates of cheese and you will be the queen of the outdoor dinner party.
Cook where the action is
Plan your outdoor dinner outside! Every part of the meal was built around the paving stone charcoal grill Kaleb built in the backyard. While some things were prepped and assembled in the kitchen, having the grill outside meant neither Kaleb nor I nor my sister (did I mention she saved me? She saved me.) was cloistered away for long.
It’s also nice because grilling things in the midst of the party provides a focal point and a simple, shareable task for anyone who is feeling a bit awkward or floaty. Little groups of people would congregate around the grill and take turns flipping things. It was lovely to see.
I love to put out a bunch of delicious things on a long table and let people assemble them however they like (hence all the condiments). If there is a hands-on appetizer to distract people from how late dinner will be, more’s the better.
In this case the starter was build-your-own flatbreads. I put out baskets of little dough balls out along with a bunch of different toppings and spread. Everyone grabbed some dough, flattened it and threw it on the grill, then topped it.
The main event was homemade sausages courtesy of a friend who’s a butcher and homemade buns from my Mennonite Girls Can Cook book. It has so many excellent Menno recipes (most are in the starch family, obvs). Just don’t be alarmed by the quantities of everything. Mennos don’t make half recipes.
There were two kinds of meat sausages plus veg for the veggies/vegans, and the aforementioned array of condiments. A couple of seasonal salads on the side and there you have it. Just make sure there are seconds of everything.
My final tip for a successful outdoor dinner party is to leave the dishes until tomorrow. I know lots of people, including the (in)famous Alison Roman, tell you to “make it fun” by getting all your friends to help and getting it done quick, but I’m just not into it. Guests helped stack dishes and carry them inside and then we all paraded down the street, floral centrepieces held aloft, to dance the night away at the Anza Club. Perfection.
(And don’t forget to take your sister for a hike + doughnut to say thanks!)