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A Military Family’s Guide to Throwing a Dinner Party

Growing up as an Army brat, change has been a constant in my life. Whether I was changing schools, houses, states, or even countries, my life was always in motion. This can be challenging, having to move into a new neighborhood, into a community full of new people. The thought of meeting and greeting is daunting. But in the Army world, everyone’s life is as transient as ours. We find ways to connect with others, and one of the best ways to do that is over a meal. 

I’ve watched my parents throw dinner parties ever since I can remember. It was a staple of my childhood. I would look forward to it, the smells wafting from the kitchen to my bedroom, the soft hum of music and finally, when the guests came over, the laughs and shouts from the first floor of my house, the sound of people happy and full, enjoying each other’s company. My mother is a master of the craft, a dinner party expert, so I decided to call her up and get some insights. This is a military family’s guide to throwing a dinner party. 

Ambience: 

In the words of my mother, the goal of dinner parties was always to curate a comfortable and cozy energy throughout the house. “I always tried to go for warm and welcoming, lots of candles, some scented ones away from the food so the house would smell good. Lots of seating is important, it gives people space to gather and get off their feet for a while. I want it to feel informal and casual, someplace people could relax and feel at home.” I remember walking around my parents’ parties, people’s faces glowing in the light. Ambience is crucial, and the warmth I felt in my house is a feeling that stuck with me, as I’m sure it stuck with everyone who entered as well. 

Music is also an important aspect of the ambience. My mother laughed as she said, “you don’t want people to walk into a silent house and feel awkward!” Whether it be something you curate yourself or a premade playlist you find on Spotify or Apple Music (two of my go-to’s: Dinner Party & Dinner w/ Friends) pick something smooth and easy, with a mix of things people know and new finds (because throwing a dinner party is really an excuse to show off your music taste). You want something you can just hit shuffle on and not think about, allowing you to enjoy the night. 

Guests:

In the military, dinner parties were a way to get to know people outside of the office. This line of work forces the personal and professional lives to be more intertwined than in most occupations. Soldiers, spouses, and families all play a role. That’s what makes the dinner party the perfect opportunity to make connections, feel comfortable with each other, and foster “esprit de corps” a French term used by the military to describe, “a spirit of solidarity; a sense of pride, and honor among the members of a group”. When you’re in the military, you’re a part of a team. And what’s better for team bonding than a dinner party? 

But this concept transcends military life. As a college student, I view my friends and I as a team, my roommates and I as a team, and my peers as a team, all working together towards a common goal: an amazing four years. The relationships you have with the people you care about are important, the people you have on your team are everything. A dinner party celebrates that and gives people opportunities to get closer and connect with those around them. 

As a host, you see the behind-the-scenes science that goes into throwing a party. “These are a chance to bring people together,” my mom says, “they provide opportunities to make new friends, build your team, and really get to know each other. Being the host means you’re helping curate that. Always greet everyone, make them feel welcome. Get them a drink and try to connect them with someone else.” Mixing and mingling is the best part about attending a dinner party, and it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of throwing them. Bringing people together is what this is all about. 

Food: 

Finally, the most important part of any dinner party is the food. My mom’s advice was simple: “good food and good drink.” I remember my mom making one of two dishes: stuffed shells or marinated steak. “Keep it easy! Try and make most of it things you can cook ahead of time so you can be present during the party and not stuck in the kitchen.”

Photo Courtesy of Fork Knife Swoon

She would float around the house, occasionally disappearing into the kitchen, but you’d blink and she was right back, getting someone another drink or introducing two people who had been making their way around the house. Scattered around were little bowls of snacks, picking items like almonds or dried fruit. A charcuterie board with crackers, cheeses and meats is always a good idea. My parents were used to hosting larger parties, so buffet style was always the way to go. Lining up a salad (Ina Garten’s Cape Cod salad was a staple in our house), the main dish, and a few loaves of a warmed baguette along an old maple table we had, guests could come up and help themselves. I found myself going up for that salad numerous times, and then making my way back to the table or the chair in the living room I had made mine for the night. 

“I always liked to have an open bar area too, something where people could go and refresh their drink, grab a water, or try something new.” My mom would line up decorative tubs filled with ice, home to seltzers, beers, sodas and waters. A little something for everyone. 

The dessert would come when everyone had seemed to slow down and the trips to the buffet were becoming few and far between. It was then my mom would bring out something like a platter of chocolate-covered profiteroles or an assortment of cookies she picked up from a bakery early that morning. She never felt a pressure to cook everything. Cook what you can, cook what you want, and cook it well. Then fill in the gaps with your favorite treat from the bakery or grocery store. 

At the end of the day, dinner parties are fun. In the words of my mom, “they’re a great way to show the people you love that you care.” They provide us with an opportunity to break bread with others, build bridges and form connections that you wouldn’t be able to make in other settings or circumstances. With a few pro tips and tricks up your sleeve, you can make throwing an amazing dinner party easy and stress-free. Whether you’re in a house, apartment, or dorm room (I promise it can be done), the energy is the same. It’s a night to connect with others, celebrate the people around you and tell your team thank you for sticking by your side.

Cover Photo courtesy of Vox

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Kansas City Barbeque: The Sweet Life

My grandparents are from two neighboring farm towns deep in the heart of Missouri. I once visited Hardin with a population of around 500, walking the same streets my dad’s family once did, surrounded by fields and wide-open spaces. After moving from their small towns, Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs became home to my extended family. KC always felt like home to me, and every time I would come for a visit, it was as if I never left. There were rituals that took place every vacation back to the heartland. My dad and his cousins would go to a baseball game, hit the casinos, and stop to get some of the best barbecue in the country. I would give my dad a hug as he headed out the door in his jersey, waiting for the days where I was finally old enough to take part in this rite of passage, and have a real and authentic Kansas City night. Now at 20, I’ve sat through the steaming hot baseball games at Kauffman stadium, I’ve seen the casinos from the car window as we speed past on the highway, but the best part about our family tradition has got to be the barbecue.

To me, BBQ is the month of July, fresh cut grass, the first sip of a cherry coke on a scorching summer day. Whether it’s North Carolina or Texas, California or Tennessee, each region of the United States adds their own flare and style to their BBQ. While I may be a little biased, Kansas City barbecue reigns supreme over all. Differentiated by its tomato or molasses-based sweeter and thicker sauce, and its variety of meats (In Kansas City, ANYTHING is fair game to be grilled and smoked) KC BBQ is one of the most famous styles of barbecue. If you were to ask a local where the best spots in the city are, you are most likely to get one of four answers: Arthur Bryant’s, Gates Bar-B-Q, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q, and Jack Stack. Each person seems to have loyalties to one, and my family’s ties will always be with Arthur Bryant’s. So, when I went to Kansas City for Easter break this semester, it was only right that one of our afternoons was spent there. 

Bryant’s opened in 1908, and not much has changed since then. When I walked in with my cousins and my mom just a few weeks ago, it looked exactly how I had left it years before. But this is just the thing that makes Byrant’s so special. My cousin Jason said, “the atmosphere makes it different. It’s one of the oldest in the city. It’s not as fancy as some. It’s kind of gritty. It hasn’t changed since I’ve been going there.” In the prime 18th and Brooklyn location, it was once just blocks away from the home of the Kansas City Chiefs. The old brick building with the red and white awning stands alone as the main attraction on the street. 

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Walking in, you’re instantly greeted by the smell of meat cooking in the back, coated in sauce and spices that will make anyone drool the second they step inside. The walls are lined with photos of all the famous faces who have made an appearance at the restaurant. You’ll see presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, as well as Hollywood stars like Steven Spielberg. The old, almost diner-style interior makes it feel cozy and comfortable, turning it into a place you could spend hours sitting down and catching up over a meal of burnt ends (a KC specialty), coleslaw and fries. When in line to order, it’s crucial to be prepared. Lines that go out the door can move in just minutes, and before you know it, someone from the kitchen will be asking what you want. 

This time around, I went for my usual rack of baby back ribs, knowing they were going to be covered in the classic Kansas City sweet sauce. However, when it came down to the sides, I just wasn’t sure. The smiling man in the kitchen saw my hesitation. He laughed, “don’t worry young lady, I got you” and disappeared to the back to fix up my special meal. When he returned, he had a heaping pile of their potato casserole sitting next to my ribs. Needless to say, it was the perfect side. 

I topped my meal off with a large Diet Coke and made my way back to sit at the table with my mom and cousins. I joined the ranks of the clean plate club that afternoon, and left feeling full and satisfied. Bryant’s, and KC BBQ in general, is more than food. When talking to Jason, he’ll tell you Bryant’s is about family. In his words, it’s “baseball, Bryant’s and family”. For me, it’s about love. Love, culture, flavor and looking at the people you come across in life and saying, “I got you.”

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Cover photo and article photos courtesy of Maddie Simms and Arthur Bryant