Toni Myers’s fifteenth annual party. That’s Toni in the blue dress, looking lively.
It’s my fifteenth annual midsummer soirée.
Some of the 160 chicken enchiladas are bubbling in the oven; my spouse, Skip, is taking on-the-fly photo portraits of every person who doesn’t escape the lens in time. I am welcoming the guests, who are everywhere—an assortment of friends, library colleagues, neighbors from our last several houses, family. They stroll the garden, front porch, back patio and house, schmoozing, eating, and drinking. Members of Bar Tabac, an amazing jazz trio with a “Django Reinhardt-Eurotrash” (according to one of them)-original music–swing feel, are also strolling, sometimes playfully stalking. I still miss the (klezmer) clarinet guy, but the bass player manages to keep up with the others as they walk. At the end of the evening, leader Terry comes inside and switches from accordion to piano to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for me. He already did some classical piano early in the soirée, since the others were late. How lucky I am!
This is my idea of party heaven, a late afternoon–evening of the world as I’d like it to be: surrounded by people special to me, musicians strolling playfully, and an endless supply of chicken enchiladas (family recipe below) as well as lots of other goodies. This year we had 85 attendees over the course of five hours. We hold the soirée the last Sunday in July, a date when it is guaranteed never to rain in Seattle.
You, too, can hold a soirée—maybe a Harvest or a Spring Equinox Soirée?—although you may have to curtail the guest list unless you live in San Diego or have an extra-large space.
Why call a party a soirée? It has live music; I love the silly pomposity of the word soirée; and I want to emphasize that it’s a very special event.
At the soirée, a place set aside for Aiden.
It’s important that I set aside a child space, in the cement area in front of the garage, covered with rugs, a couple of giant animals, chalk paintings, tables covered in paper with markers . . . My daughter points out that I get few kids. I say that adults enjoy the space, and that one child is incentive enough for me to create this area. I base my attitude on what the great storyteller and linguist Vi Hilbert, of the Lushootseed tribe, once told me as I fussed over the expected small size of the audience for her program, which I was coordinating: “If one person hears my stories, that is enough.”
I’ve honed my preparation since Soirée Numero Uno in 1998, always searching for more creative touches:
• A “save the date” email is sent in May. It helps me determine crowd size, since people are apt to RSVP to this when they know in advance they can’t come. (I need to enlarge the RSVP type on the actual invite, since many never reply, probably figuring I won’t notice.)
• A photo invite is mailed 6 weeks pre-soirée, intended to be humorous and worthy of posting on the fridge—even saving, as many tell me they do. I mail to people from afar I know aren’t coming, just so they have the year’s photo. And sometimes they come!
With Skip as Art Director, we devise a different photo invite yearly, expressly designed to make people laugh. A takeoff on American Gothic has been just one of our themes.
Every year, Skip and Toni create a different—but always wacky— invitation.
You can use an online invitation site but how soirée (or original) is that? Our invitation is printed on a card, with the text sometimes in doggerel . . . “Winter’s long and so damn boring/bye bye rain, old man’s stopped snoring/come and help me celebrate/we’ll eat and drink and joke till late.”
There are a slew of online services that will help you produce your card in no time. I look for Groupons a few months early, happy to try out new sites. We use anything from Shutterfly to Costco, Vistaprint to our home printer. Online they do all the work for you once you have a photo and text ready to download.
I have a list of addresses filed in Word and use the mailing tab and labels, printing them well in advance. Envelopes come with the finished work when you use a website. I ask for help sealing the envelopes, ever mindful of the Seinfeld episode that resulted in the demise of George’s fiancée due to toxic glue.
• The most time-consuming preparation is making the enchiladas, beginning two days early (see recipe).
• I get help from a friend and a disgruntled spouse who thinks chopping could possibly substitute for stripping the chicken. Horrors!
• You may need to hire someone to work the kitchen, or make a deal with a friend, to put trays in the oven and refresh the supply every half hour, and clean stuff that will be needed later, like the pans. My daughter helped me create a better self-service area for beverages (margaritas, wine, iced tea, and fruit-flavored San Pellegrinos).
• I use melamine plates with hand-painted designs from www.Makit.com, a Texas company in business for over 40 years, thanks to preschool demand. We have more than 100 plates, many created by my late husband, an artist. I also use cloth napkins and glassware. It’s the soirée thing to do. (Cut up squares of material and use pinking shears to bolster your collection.). Borrow plates or use heavyweight fancy party plates if you must.
• I like various other silly additions: party favors (printed M & Ms this year), a scavenger hunt last year (the winners cheated, though they were the only players), even a “Toni’s Free Store” table (items I’d like to get rid of) in a corner of the driveway, which will be discontinued by popular demand.
• My musicians do not cost overmuch, and enjoy the whole event. You may be lucky enough to have accomplished friends who will play for free or for trade. But it is a good thing to pay artists for their work.
• I make it my mission to talk to everyone, to make them all feel welcome, and to introduce them to others if they are all alone. A friend helped me this year as a welcomer/connector of people.
• Decoration is limited to the front porch (you could do the front door), though I put out all my tiny vases/little glass containers the day before and cut small bouquets of flowers the morning of. In winter, maybe buy a bunch of holly or little white flowers.
• I respond to all “What can I bring?” questions with “No need to bring anything but yourselves, unless you are in the mood.” Lots of amazing salads and desserts ensue, as well as too much wine.
If you are organized and make lists for all the stages of preparation, a soirée like this is easy and a great pleasure. And it does not have to be huge. A small, intimate event with some fanfare is definitely a soirée. Make up a songsheet and have a singalong to accompany your martinis? Soirée away!
The Myers-Gilster Family Chicken Enchilada Recipe
There are five ingredients: salsa, stripped chicken, shredded Mexican cheese blend, sour cream, and flour tortillas
The original recipe, for 12, calls for 1 pound chicken breasts, salsa made in house, ½ pound shredded cheddar, 1 pint sour cream. and 12 tortillas.
I don’t follow this. I cut corners, usually buying a lot of medium salsa, several large packages of chicken breasts from Costco, at least three 48-ounce containers of sour cream, many packages of shredded cheese “Mexican blend.” I make 160 enchiladas using 80 large size burrito tortillas.
Two nights before the party, three of us shred the chicken. I make the others wash their hands at any break (haven’t lost a guest yet). Within an hour, we are done and I put it all in a large bowl, tightly covered, in the fridge. Twelve breasts means that I end up with leftover shredded chicken, which is I freeze and too often forget.
The morning before, I set up the kitchen with a 12-inch cast iron frying pan full of bubbling salsa on low heat, and 3 large plates: for the tortillas, the assembly, and the finished product.
Lay each side of a tortilla into the salsa. On a plate, fill with the mixed sour cream, chicken, and cheese (I mix so the filling is quite moist but not mushy)—one strip of the mixture down the middle of the tortilla. Fold twice and cut down the middle to create two at a time. When I have a nice pile, I put them into a lined pan (roasting pan or cookie sheet that has sides) and put them into the fridge.
All this takes me 90 minutes or so.
Soirée day, at party start time, pans are ready and the enchiladas are placed in a single layer, using olive oil spray on the pans so they are not hard to clean during the later rush. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, covering the enchiladas before cooking with lots of salsa and a layer of shredded cheese on top. Have a bunch of cilantro on the side to garnish each platter, as well as a bowl of chopped lettuce. Alter the recipe at will to suit your needs and taste.
At the end of the evening, the Bar Tabac trio switches to Bach.
All photos by Skip Kerr.