Food, drink and surprises: How to throw people-pleasing parties

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By: Gwen Ragno

Gwen Ragno/Flavor 574

Hosting a party can be fairly straightforward. Send out some invites, make some food, set up a playlist and maybe pull out a party game or two if things get slow. For Goshen resident Judith Williams, that would be a dull affair.

Judith and her late husband, Lyman, had a house on Fish Lake in the ’80s where they hosted parties that were legendary among their friends. A retired industrial engineer, Lyman Williams was an artist and an excellent cook, and he thoroughly enjoyed entertaining.

“Lyman and I worked together for the same goal,” Judith said. “With some couples, entertaining is all up to the wife and it can be overwhelming, but we were always in it together.”

“It was very quiet when Lyman carried in the boar’s head on a platter garnished with apple and parsley.”

After getting married in 1979, the pair started hosting an annual open house-style party on New Year’s Day, a laid-back affair with self-serve soups, chilis and finger foods. In 1983, they started throwing a luau-themed Fourth of July party inspired by a Hawaiian cookbook they had received as a gift. They went all-out, decorating the house and patio with seashells, bouys, nets, a birdbath Koi pond and even a handmade palm tree and parrot. Hawaiian music and candles added a little extra atmosphere, and the evening ended with a fireworks display over the lake—which neighbors enjoyed as well.

Perhaps one of the most elaborate parties was a Halloween bash in 1979, which included a treasure hunt. Clues were deposited in specific spots around town, each one with a riddle leading to the next clue. The last directed guests to the location of the party.

A “hobo party” one fall evening in 1985 had invitations made from brown paper bags, luminaries leading to a bonfire and cut logs for tables. Stew and biscuits were served in tin dishes, and a friend with a guitar serenaded guests with songs from “The Hobo Songbook.”

Judith always made sure there was some memento for guests to bring home from each party. For the hobo party, it was a copy of the songbook. For a wine tasting party, guests received wine-tasting tips and hints to bring home. When’s the last time aside from a wedding reception that you received a party favor?

It seems that Lyman liked to have a little fun with his guests whenever possible. Judith related the story of one Madrigal Dinner party in 1981, with a Middle Ages feast theme.

“It was very quiet when Lyman carried in the boar’s head on a platter garnished with apple and parsley,” Judith recalls. “Everyone was clearly relieved when they saw it was made of paper mache.”

When Lyman fell ill and passed away, the more elaborate parties became a thing of the past, but Judith still made an effort to bring their circle of friends together every now and then for a special celebration.

“Don’t be afraid to do things yourself,” she advises, “and if circumstances are different, so be it.”

One of these was a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party held at DeFries Gardens. Everyone wore a decorated hat and enjoyed iced tea, sandwiches, relishes and carrot cake.

Judith offers these tips for anyone looking to impress guests with a little extra “wow” factor at your next get-together. “There are things you can do to make [a party] fun, and it’s a lot of work, but the goal is to have a good time,” she said.

  1. Keep a journal with the details for the menu, guests, decorations, plans, etc. Diagrams can be helpful, too. Williams kept a journal spanning decades of themed parties, holidays a special occasions, and goes back to it for ideas to this day.
  2. You can’t do it all yourself—don’t be afraid to ask your guests to contribute some small thing, whether it’s a playlist, a recipe or help with the decorations.
  3. Use the resources available in your community: liquor stores, florists, the library, garage sales, neighbors…the list goes on. Business owners will often be happy to work with you to pull off your plans and ideas. Garage sales are a fantastic source for cheap, yet unique party favors and decorations.
  4. Be sure to have your camera on hand—you never know what will happen, and memories last a lifetime.
  5. Don’t expect guests to reciprocate. It would be nice, but not everyone has the time and interest in entertaining.

 

Tell us—what’s the wildest party you’ve ever thrown, or wanted to throw?

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