Amy Choate-Nielsen: Parties aren't so pointless, after all

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

It's time for good, old-fashioned parties to make a come back. Let's celebrate!

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A few months ago, my sister-in-law hosted a small Valentine's Day-themed party that was fit to be featured in my grandmother's old cookbook.

There were red- and white-striped glass straws in goblets filled with strawberry- and basil-infused water, white lace doilies under every plate on the table and bowls filled with pink-chocolate-drizzled popcorn. There were tiny quiches in a tower of hors d'oeuvres, etched-glass bowls filled with sour cherry balls and garlands of hearts dangling from the ceiling.

The whole thing was delightful — the décor was enchanting and the food was delicious, but the thing that really made it magical was the thought she put into planning the party.

How could you, as a guest, go to a party with so much effort employed on your behalf and not feel special?

That's something I think the women of my grandmother's generation understood better than I ever have. I never met my grandmother, Fleeta Choate, before she died, but as I discover more about her, as disparate as our generations are, I find myself learning things that can elevate my own life even now.

Like how to throw a party.

My grandmother's trusty "Woman's Home Companion Cook Book" has a whole chapter on table settings and decoration.

Don't get me wrong — for a long time (and maybe a little bit, still) I thought it was ridiculous to care about proper placement of forks and knives. I saw the layers of customs that established the etiquette of my grandmother's generation as a form of oppression and sexism that kept a woman subservient; in her place in the kitchen. I bristle at the idea.

But, reading my grandmother's cookbook, I see with new eyes the possibilities and power of the pomp instructed in this chapter.

It starts with some basic dos and don’ts, like: "Keep your decorations low and your candles high," the book says.

And, let the menu show your personality because, "Mere correctness and routine are dull."

"Don't do more than your household is equipped to do with ease and distinction. The secret of good service is not to attempt too much."

And, "Don't try to be grand. Everyone sees through it, and nothing is so forlorn as a pretentious party."

Then the chapter outlines table settings for formal and informal dinners — including service with a maid and service without a maid — luncheons and suppers, breakfasts and lunch, and so on, down to the final demitasse.

The idea of some of it still grates on my nerves. But, in the spring of 1950, long before I was born, my grandparents had a celebration similar to the kind described in my grandmother's cookbook.

For my grandparent's 25th wedding anniversary, someone threw a party. It was such a party that someone wrote an article about it in the newspaper, which my grandmother clipped and saved for her posterity.

And even though the author describes the decorations (a lace cloth over a silver cloth with white carnations and silver candles) and the food (tea cakes with wedding bells on top) and names the person in charge of the guest book ("Mrs. Arthur Stowe"), it doesn't sound silly to me. It sounds exactly like the kind of event I'd want to honor my grandmother and grandfather.

Something tells me my grandmother might have taken some of the dos and don'ts of her day with a grain of salt.

And I'm still learning.

There weren't any color-coordinated napkins or plates at my daughter's birthday party last week, but there were a few last-minute streamers.

She loved them.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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