Party Down

Planning the perfect Christmas gathering with the help of the Memphis Junior League

Party Potpourri.

Maybe it was the bright yellow binding or the psychedelic swirls of hot pink and lime green on the cover that caught my eye. Yet I suspect the name was what first compelled me to pull that distinguished 1970 publication of the Memphis Junior League off the shelf. It was 1981, and bowls of potpourri were in every other room of the house; I couldn't fathom what scented leaves and pine shavings had to do with parties.

It was years before I realized that "potpourri" had more than one meaning. But I became obsessed with the cookbook nonetheless. I spent my childhood poring over the pages of theme party menus and activities. I pressed my mother for "A Fairy Walk" birthday party, with Dewdrop Lemonade served in a "Fairy's Well" (a washtub buried in the ground). I dreamed of the day when I'd be old enough to host a "Hobo Haven" party, which the book declared was "informal fun with ... a carefree air" for teenagers. And, oh! The "Winter Wonderland"! With Snowman Sandwiches! And Jell-O made to look like a Christmas wreath! It seemed like the most magical party imaginable.

By the time I threw my first Christmas party, however, I was far too sophisticated for Jell-O.

This would be a holiday dinner party, a grown-up affair. We were high school seniors, after all. I thumbed through one of the Silver Palate cookbooks—another of my mother's favorites—and settled on roasted yellow pepper soup and green gazpacho. I can remember to this day what a pain it was to peel the skin from the 12 roasted peppers.

That's my sole memory of the party.

It's odd to me, looking back, that I remember so little. So many other parties are so very imprinted on my brain, but my first Christmas party is a blur. Why did I want to make two soups? Why did I want to make a cold soup in December? Had I not learned anything from the Junior League of Memphis?

I do remember that the party was not a disaster. This made it unlike a good portion of the ones since, like the martini housewarming party I had the fall of my second year in college, when only four people showed up—and none of them liked gin. Or olives. It might have been the shortest-lived party in the history of Yale.

(Of course, that was probably the worst year of my life outside of middle school. I swear, that apartment was cursed. The girl who lived in it two years later? Murdered.)

Ah, but the Christmas parties? It's the one time of the year I can throw parties that don't suck.

The Christmas Party, for me, is the culmination of all parties, like Christmas itself is the culmination of all holidays. No other thing is made quite a fuss about. It's the only time of the year when it's acceptable—nay, encouraged—to wear sequins and taffeta and stilettos adorned with ribbons and feathers, ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

Like in college, a year after the martini fiasco: My roommates and I threw one of the best Christmas parties ever. Despite the fact they were both Jewish. I wore a black sequined tube top and a feather boa, and they wore ties, and everyone came. Everyone. You couldn't walk in the hallway. There was dancing. We ran out of booze at midnight, and people still stayed until 4 a.m., and at some point there were naked strangers on my couch. (I could have lived without that.)

It was one of those parties that people talked about months later. Months later. In the years that have followed, there were Christmas parties like it in Athens (Georgia) and, last year, in Oxford (Mississippi). Without any photographic evidence, I know exactly what I wore to every one of them, down to the shoes and the sparkly barrettes pinning back my bangs.

All of this is to say that I remember a lot from parties at which I drank more Champagne than any one person should rationally drink, but not much from a party where no one had a drop of alcohol (though a couple of us very possibly might have sneaked outside for a cigarette).

I suppose I don't remember my first Christmas party for the same reason I don't remember anything else from that era. After my father died, just before Thanksgiving my junior year, a haze descended on everything. My first clear memories start up again with college.

It's possible that Christmas dinner party wasn't even my senior year, but my junior one. It's possible it wasn't even a Christmas party.

It's possible I just want it to be a Christmas party in my mind, because Christmas parties are the happiest part of a holiday that can be really damn hard to get through, even after 17 years.

But I do know there were no sequins.

And I do know I made yellow pepper soup, and green gazpacho.

And I can guarantee you that when I throw my next Christmas party (this year my punch bowl glasses and sterling serving trays will probably stay in their boxes, still packed, until February), there won't be any soup.

No, next year, it'll be a "Winter Wonderland"—or maybe a "Joyeux Noël."

You see, I have my own copy of Party Potpourri these days.