Free suburban-modern party tips from Ruth Handel and Stan Williams:
Pick a theme
“Ours was ‘Always Frugal, Always Fabulous,’ ” said Williams, author of the new Clarkson Potter release “The Find” and blogger at www.theelegantthrifter.com. “We took retro party foods and zinged them up with vintage accessories found around the house.” Williams used a tin bucket that usually holds kids’ toys as a cooler for iced-bottled drinks. An old brownie pan lined with a vintage tea towel became a basket for Bakelite-handled forks.
Bring it to the table
Use an unexpected object as a fun, attention-getting centerpiece. “Who says you can’t put a gigantic blown-glass fish, a vintage hair dryer or a gigantic metal scale in the middle of your table and build around it?” Williams asked. For the more conservative, he suggested “grocery-store flowers, rearranged in a funny canister or a colorful thrift-store vase.” Try landscaping the table with items that vary in height, he added. “Display a cake on a stack of books, a flower pot or a thrift-shop pedestal to accentuate it.”
Dish it out
To avoid using paper and plastic or renting or buying buffet supplies, Williams endorses mixing and matching dishes from your own cupboard by color or pattern. “It’s much more attractive to the eye than a matchy-matchy set,” he said. Putting out all kinds of glasses, as varied as wine goblets and juice tumblers, makes it easier for guests to identify their drink after they set down the glass.
Set the bar
Without a dedicated cocktail maker, Handel offered bottles of Prosecco and ingredients --ginger ale, rum and lemon twists -- for an easy signature cocktail, the Good Time Lloyd, named for her husband. “We usually put out a shaker, mismatched vintage bar tools and a cocktail guide,” Handel said. “Just having that $6 bottle of Angostura bitters makes people feel like they could get creative if they wanted to.”
There’s an app for that
Appetizers don’t have to be fancy. Handel supplemented radishes from her garden with baby carrots and celery sticks from the grocery store. “Low cost and low calorie,” she said. Added Williams: “Don’t be afraid to mix prepared and homemade food. A ready-made dip or hummus is even more delightful paired with carefully cut crudites or potato chips.”
Play with your food
Williams made “salami clams” by curling lunch meats around cubes of cheese and olives pierced with cellophane-tipped toothpicks. He also sprinkled curry powder into a canned tuna salad for sandwiches with cut-off crusts. “Make up clever, descriptive names for items on your buffet and label them with place cards,” he added. “Guests with dietary restrictions will be pleased, and adding adjectives like ‘zesty’ and ‘garden-fresh,’ will make your spread irresistible. Coleslaw sounds even better with the word ‘creamy’ in front of it.”
Preheat the oven
Whether you’re slicing cookies off a store-bought roll of dough or whipping up a layer cake from a package, Williams said, baking is a great party trick -- all the more amusing with food coloring and exotic extracts in the icing.
Get by with a little help from your friends
“I love preparing, but having company is a huge time-saver and stress-reliever,” Handel said. While she and Williams made appetizers and frosted cakes, their pals Senor and Jonona Amor arranged flowers and set the table. “It was one less thing for us to think about,” Handel said, “and we all enjoyed hanging out before the party.”
-- David A. Keeps