so now that i’m an expert in throwing sit-down dinners for 38 people (ha ha ha), i thought i’d share a couple tricks i learned along the way. it’s true, passover is a special animal that involves seder plates, chicken soup and a book of songs, readings and traditions. but at the end of the day, at least in my house, it’s just one massive dinner party – with gefilte fish.
1. start your planning early: i started making plans for passover 2013 moments after my guests went home at the end of passover 2012. i know that’s crazy and what i really needed as a good matzah detox, but there was so much that happened and i didn’t want to forget any of my take aways. i wanted to remember what worked (plague bags, scallions), what didn’t (the maggid – or passover story – was too long and way complicated) and what needed improvement (we were in desperate need of a new starch to serve with dinner). i also looked ahead at the calendar. passover was “earlier” this year than last year and so i needed to think about how that would fit in with our year in general. also since the seders were going to be on a week night, rather than on a weekend, we needed to “claim” either the 1st or 2nd night right away.
2. plan your menu: know your limits: with passover the staples are pretty obvious: chicken soup, some sort of matzah-kugel/farfel deal, chicken and brisket, apple sauce and a veggie. other than polling friends and family to come up with a different starch idea i knew exactly what i was serving. up until a month before the big day i was planning to do both chicken and brisket but then i realized that, even if i cooked everything in advance, with one oven i’d have no way to heat it all up to serve. so brisket got nixed. and that was a sad day. don’t worry – i’m already trying to convince ABN what we really need is a double-oven for next year.
3. storage: speaking of “extra”, we could not have done this seder without the freezer we have in our basement. it’s a non-negotiable. i was able to make all the chicken soup, 87 matzah balls, applesauce and chicken (47 thighs and 22 breasts) all before any of my family arrived to help. believe me, there was plenty of other stuff to do once they showed up. and in thinking ahead, as we begin to plan for our basement redo, having space for an extra refridgerator is pretty high on my list. in the days leading up to our seder, it was hard to find space for everything (that’s a lot of hard boiled eggs, party people!).
4. decide on your non-negotiables – early: the things that were at the top of my list were things that my mom rolled her eyes at. i wanted to use my mixed-matched wine glasses because i love the color they add to the table. i wanted to put together a new haggadah. i wanted each person at the table to have their own seder plate. ABN’s non-negotiable was to not hire someone to wash dishes. i know – totally crazy – but if i can have some he gets his own too. on basically every other item (brisket) we were willing to bend to what would work best. and i have to say – it all worked out great. i was flexible (brisket) and at the same time, my table was gorgeous and the seder itself had a lot of meaning.
5. ask the experts: i relied heavily on my mom, dad and aunt linda when it came to planning. luckily, they each had strong opinions . from the experts: my mom taught me to save my shank bone for next year (it’s currently living in my freezer) and to heat up my matzah balls in the soup broth, my dad insists that nuts going into any recipe must be toasted first (he’s totally right) and aunt linda showed me there’s a big difference between white trash bags and black trash bags and you need black (who knew!?).
6. know your audience – and seat them accordingly: i’m lucky – i had a really fun group. and while they were diverse they all shared one quality – the love of an adult beverage. still, i wanted to mix things up and so i did a seating chart. i have to say, thinking about that seating chart (for 38 people) caused quite a bit of anxiety but when it got down to actually putting it together, it took almost no time at all and i was really pleased with the final results. last year i tailored the seder to the one 6 year-old in attendance. my goal was for him to not hate it – and my goal was achieved (i think). this year i wanted to relate the story of passover to our current world. i asked participants to do a bit of homework before hand and made sure to tell everyone to come prepared to be part of the action. props helped too. along with hidden chocolate treats, good singing and wine. don’t forget wine.
7. hire the right entertainment:
8. take charge: everyone wants to help but let me tell you, 38 people in the kitchen, really isn’t helpful. and when there are that many people at your house, it’s honestly most important that the majority of people stay seated at all times in order to keep chaos to a minimum. but at the same time, some help is needed, you just gotta tell people what you need and when you need it. my mom came up with the idea that with each course i could name a group of people and assign a task. for example, mahj girls served soup. witkow daughter’s in law served dinner and the cousins cleared. if you weren’t put to work, your butt had to stay in your chair.
9. lists: i’m a girl who loves a good list and for this gathering i was juggling many of them. grocery lists, seating assignments, ideas for the seder. you name it, it had a list (or two). but it felt so good to cross things off (even if i was adding to my lists more quickly than i was getting things done…whatever). when my nani died we found folders upon folders of lists upon lists from dinner parties she had hosted and were like, what the hell was she saving all this for. i get it now. i totally get it.
10. always make your guests wear ridiculous attire: don’t you find people let lose when props are involved? this year we did run dmc chains of oppression and masks for the plagues. next year? well, you’ll just have to check back here to find out.
that’s me, taking charge
and one more, just to throw it in at the end – treat yourself well. i got a blow-out bright and early on the big day. not only did my hair look *awesome* but it also meant i didn’t have to worry about taking a lot of time to get myself ready in those very busy late afternoon hours.
have fun and drink well!