a cue from the nora ephron playbook

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Nora Ephron was  more than a brilliant screenwriter and author. She was a legendary hostess. She was witty, and a ninja in the kitchen.

In fact, countless websites have posts dedicated to her quotes about food and entertaining. But she’s too funny for me to be satisfied with the Internet’s CliffsNotes. I’ve read every book cover to cover, and came away with some serious wisdom. One memorable dinner party tip: people love to play with their food.

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guests under our pergola, loaded with concord grapes

Whether it’s a mashed potato bar with all the fixings or a Bloody Mary bar with an endless array of hot sauces and pickled veggies, people like to play, build, switch things up.

Since Vietnamese is my one of my favorite cuisines, I decided to host a dinner party where guests could build their own bun cha bowl. Like Chipotle but tastier, and you have total control. We were celebrating the return of The Langes, who got hitched in our own backyard but moved to San Francisco soon after. It was a mini reunion with many of their attorney friends, and members of The Order of the Cincinnati Society, whom meet at our home every Wednesday night.

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When serving food others may find exotic, help them out with a little sign

Scented candles were lit, Chet Baker played on the stereo and after dinner, guests were treated to an array of Asian desserts. Everything from Pocky to coconut rolls. And here’s a tip: guests will feel luxuriously catered to if you pass around a tray with multiple options. The smile on their face when it’s their time to be served is worth a little heavy lifting.

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Hamilton going for the orange creme cookie

It’s my hope that this hospitality will bring The Langes back again as houseguests, and soon!

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on the outside looking in

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Postcard from Hawaii

Peaceful? Not with those rogue waves!

I was told we’d see a rainbow every day while in Hawaii. But since I wasn’t greeted on the tarmac by a hula dancer with a fresh lei, I figured that daily rainbows were a romantic exaggeration of fabled Hawaii. But the skies did not disappoint.

While I tend to think that life is too short and the world too vast for  vacations that call for relaxation over exploration, Hawaii allows both at once. The rich Polynesian culture and the exotic flora and fauna can be enjoyed while half-dozing on a beach.

A few things you must do in Oahu:

Travel to the North Shore, where the waves, especially in winter, are the towering kind seen in surf videos. You won’t believe your eyes.

While in the North Shore, you’re bound to see bumper stickers and tee shirts urging Hawaii to secede from the United States. Far from downtown Honolulu and crowded Waikiki Beach, the remote North Shore is home to proud Hawaiians that would love to return to their Polynesian roots. While in the area, stop by a local food truck that nourishes surfers with poke – a delectable raw tuna dish.

Though the rough currents can push you against razor-sharp coral, a little blood is worth the snorkeling experience in Haunama Bay. The range of sea life below the surface is nearly psychedelic. Newbies to snorkeling should start out at Shark’s Cove, where rocks create a cozy inlet free of sea turbulence.

I’m not above a classic tourist trap, so get thee to a good old-fashioned luau with hula dancers, fire spinners and a roast pig. Save plenty of room for the best item on the menu: kalua pork.

Take in some history at Pearl Harbor, where you can see the sunken USS Arizona just below the surface. It’s still a watery grave for the trapped military service members inside, and the sunken vessel still dribbles oil from its tanks to the surface.

Hike Diamond Head, a dormant volcano. It has sweeping views of the sea, as well as the crater hole. You can reward yourself with a cup of shave ice at the end of your descent.

Asian culture is rife in Hawaii. Korean BBQ and outstanding Thai places fill the landscape. While there, take in quality Asian cuisine. Or the classic Hawaiian dish that meshes East and West? Spam Musubi – my Kryptonite.

Hawaii was a little bit relaxation, a little exploration. Perfect for an overtaxed Type A like me.  Aloha.

Taste of Richmond

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A true bon vivant relishes good food, and the inaugural Taste of Richmond did not disappoint. While the event took place weeks ago, I figured it was better to post late than never. The historic John Marshall Ballrooms were packed with the top restaurants in Richmond. Many were still riding the wave of romanticism surrounding New Southern cuisine, which has swept the nation. There were gourmet samples of shrimp and grits and pork belly macaroni and cheese.

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But to further prove that Richmond is a foodie town beyond Southern fare, there was 14 carat gold-flecked sushi. And the best amuse bouche was being dished out by the stellar Indian restaurant Lehja. I can’t remember what they called it. But it was heaven.

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It was a way for Richmonders to sample all the places we’re been meaning to try but hadn’t had a chance to. There was a cooking show by Comfort’s Jason Alley, winestopper party favors and that overall glow from being well-fed.

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Ecuadorian Feast

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“Friends with benefits” should include friends that cook. When my friend Jackie entertains, guests are spoiled rotten. Picking up your finished plate will earn you daggers.

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First, you’re served a hand-muddled cocktail, made with small-batch tequila, lime and sugar.

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While you sip, you can linger in Jackie’s spotless kitchen and steal plantain chips fresh out of the fryer.

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Buen provecho! Shrimp ceviche, home-fried plantains, tortillas and homemade salsa are served fresh.

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After the meal, guests are offered shots of  MamaJuana, an earthy libation from the Dominican Republic that’s said to cure any ills, from digestion to libido.

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Dessert is a tres leches-style cake with fresh fruit. The creaminess tempers the heat from our spicy meal. Not too sweet and 100% delectable.

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Every time we leave Jackie’s home, we’re left wondering what we could have done to deserve such star treatment. But we keep that to ourselves. We wouldn’t want Jackie to start wondering that too.

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Cheers!

Virginia Wine Country

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Veritas Winery

Virginia had been quietly making wine for centuries, but lately, it’s been hard to contain the enthusiasm. In the past 20 years, Virginia has become the 5th largest wine-producing state in the US, and many claim (including Forbes) that it’s becoming the Napa Valley of the East Coast.

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Central Virginia, particularly the Charlottesville area, is considered Virginia Wine Country. The rolling hills are lined with rows of grapevines, and set against the backdrop of mountains, it easily mimics Napa in the summer.

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Tasting at Blue Mountain Brewery

Gourmet grocery stores spot the landscape. They’re quaint, with chalkboard menus and outdoor tables shaded by umbrellas. And like the wineries, they have their resident dog. Benign but watchful, sweet but aloof. These small markets are packed with truffle pate, French bread and an array of cheeses for impromptu picnics.

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Many dirt roads lead to intimate, family-owned wineries.

Both wineries and breweries feature local farm-to-table menus. The nearby farms that supply them sell peaches and strawberries at dusty, roadside stands. The mountains offer getaways for wine enthusiasts, and range from rustic cabins to elite ski chalets. In the winter, the area is bustling due to the ski resorts. But in the summer, the area accommodates wine lovers and the endless stream of wedding guests who attend nuptials at the wineries.

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Running free through vineyards, careful not to crash any weddings

The difference between Virginia Wine Country and other wine regions would have to be history. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is at the heart of wine country, and Monticello grows grapes too. Tours are available, from his gardens, to a specialized Slave Tour that sheds life on the Hemings family, his direct descendants. Dave Matthews owns a winery next door. There are old plantations, Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields and many museums.

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Gathered with friends for a relaxing wine country weekend

Visitors have long been coming from Richmond and DC. Lately however, it’s opening up as a national destination, and for good reason!


It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

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If you’re throwing a holiday party, rest assured yours will be one of many during the season. What can you do to make your party stand out? Everyone will have cocktails and a nice spread, but I’m all for an activity that keeps people engaged, whether they’re laughing or crafting. A cookie decorating area with to-go bags add more to do and an instant party favor.

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The Spiked Peppermint Cocoa was adorned with a candy cane in each cup.

This year, I put together a photo booth at my Christmas party. Holiday-themed props are easy to come by; Santa hats, reindeer andlers, red nose etc. I threw in a couple of converation pieces, such as a plastic butcher knife from Halloween. It guarantees funnier photos.

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And along with my friend Jules, we hosted a Yankee Swap (or, a White Elephant Exchange). All guests were encouraged to bring a wrapped present, unmarked. All presents were piled under the tree, and people drew numbers. Guests took turns picking out a gift, and the following players had the opportunity to steal a gift they coveted.

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Grinch santa hats

From stacks of lottery tickets to a box full of DVDs, guests laughed, lamented and stole items from one another – multiple times. From the next room, it almost sounded as if I had a movie theater in-house, as all the reactions were loud and silumtaneous. As the exchange got more heated, I passed out slices of pumpkin pie and refilled drinks, such as Jules’ spiced mulled wine and my spiked peppermint hot cocoa.

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Happy holidays to all!

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Hamilton helping with the set-up

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Part of the fun is destroying him

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Canapes: Mexican polenta bars and artichoke parmesan spread over toasted baguette slices

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Yes, someone brought a case of beer to the Yankee Swap

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The Yankee Swap gets heated!

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Backyard Pop-Up Wedding!

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A sweet chalkboard message and carport strung with white curains serves as a warm welcome.

Attorneys Marcus Lange and Zawadi Brown were already engaged, but when a San Francisco law firm offered Marcus a dream job, he and his fiancée decided to start this new venture as man and wife.

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the happy couple

We had two weeks to pull off one of the happiest days of their lives, and it was a success!

Sans Fancy Venue!

Everyone knows that a wedding date is at the mercy of the wedding venue. Since official venues were out, we chose our backyard! Since it’s the East Coast, we got a spacious white tent in case of rain.

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Sans Caterers!

Instead of locking down official caterers, the couple cherry-picked their favorite foods, and dishes that highlighted their heritage. The groom is German, which meant schnitzel and sauerkraut potato balls. The bride is from Trinidad with a Rastafarian and vegetarian family, which meant a mix of vegetable patties, jerk chicken and plantains. They also offered one of their favorite dishes: mutton biryani from India.  Guests are still raving about the All-Around-the-World menu!

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Sans Bakery Cake!

Instead of trying to score a last-minute wedding cake from a bakery, they called on food artist Carol Brown, known for her impeccable baking at Dixie Donuts and beyond. She outdid herself, with a homemade red velvet cake, chocolate brownies and a classic pound cake. For good measure, Marcus and Zawadi provided chocolate-covered strawberries as well.

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Sans Decorators!

Rather than hiring a decorator, Zawadi and friends, (including myself) created hand-made decorations in various shades of purple, the wedding color. Silver was the accent color. Billowy tissue paper balls were strung about, wisteria hung from the railings and the ceremony took place under a tree that was positively dripping with colored ribbons and strands of crystals. When the wind blew, it was ethereal.

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Sans Florist!

The couple skipped major florist fees by marrying outdoors, as our yard has a peach tree, fig free, Concord grape vines, a weeping cherry, daisies, hydrangea bushes and more. In fact, every flower from the purple hydrangea was snipped and placed on every table. Adding to the rustic theme were mason jars filled with sand and lit candles, lanterns hung from the trees and burlap runners featured ladylike polka dots.

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The ceremony was short, sweet and personalized with the couple’s own vows.

Sans Bartender!

Rather than hiring a bartender, the couple offered a conveniently pre-mixed signature drink, the Trinimeister. Combining both their heritages, it was a mix of Jaegermeister, coconut rum, pineapple juice and Sprite, which fit right in with the summer day. Beer and wine were also available, though as the party went on, more and more bottles of liquor filled the bar.
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Who needs a wedding planner when you have friends?

It was a day with zero humidity, sunshine and a cool breeze. It may well have been the prettiest day of summer. Mr. and Mrs. Lange were surrounded by love, with friends and family who all rallied together to make this day unforgettable.

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Bree Hall (pictured right) was a force during the wedding planning.

We wish Mr. and Mrs. Lange the best of luck with their new adventure in San Francisco!

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Hydrangeas popped on every table, and wedding toasts made guests laugh and cry.

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Silver accents complimented the purple and white decor.

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Gift bags were filled with homemade air freshener spray (created by the bride’s brother) and German beer.

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The couple’s friend Mark is also a taleted musician, who performed a warm, personal tribute.

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happy to open our home

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Build Your Own Taco Bar!

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Dixie Donuts food artist Carol Brown and her son Acie

The late, great Nora Ephron once said that people love to play with their food. That might explain my obsession with Korean BBQ.

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I had friends coming to dinner with their three boys in tow. As a kid, it can be a bore being dragged to adult dinner parties. So I took a cue from the Nora Ephron playbook and decided we would play with our food. I created a Build Your Own Taco Bar!

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It was a weeknight, so the dinner needn’t be fussy. The mother and children are vegetarian, so I served alternative proteins and and kicked the veggies up a notch with chipotle-spiced eggplant and Southwestern-style summer squash. I laid all the toppings out, and we had a great time building unique tacos – no two were the same!

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This greeting lets the kids know it’s not all about the grown-ups!

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The drinks let grown-ups know it’s not all about the kids!

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I get to rock my fabulous Mexican folk art runners!

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For extra long tables, be sure to place fixings to both ends of the table. Less passing, more eating!

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A sweet end to the meal: Carol’s homemade pound cake

 

 

How to Throw a 50s-Themed Sock Hop!

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Over the hill? Over that theme!

Birthdays are meant to be celebratory, but tacky party ideas for these poor people are mocking, suggesting that death is just around the corner.

When my mother turned 60, we opted instead for an upbeat 50’s-themed party, which would be reminiscent of her childhood and a much simpler time. People are still talking about it, and it even inspired other family members to do the same!

How to do it…

1) Make it a costume party! It will set a great atmosphere, and lots of laughs when friends see one another!

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2) Vinyl records make great decorations for the walls, dangling from the ceiling on strings and as a centerpiece. Speaking of centerpieces, it’s easy to make a mock milkshake with glasses, shredded paper and striped straws! Glass soda bottles look great too – extra credit if you score vintage ones!

IMG_76763) I say this for every event, but have a themed cocktail. We named ours the “Beauty School Dropout.” And since it’s a sock hop, wholesome root beer floats and milkshakes really hit the spot!

IMG_76994) The birthday cake is a perfect opportunity to reinforce the theme. We used a lot of vinyl records, so one went right onto the cake!

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5) To keep things lively during our meal, we had karaoke. But that’s only because we hired a special DJ who had a trick up this sleeve….IMG_77166) HE WAS ALSO AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR!!! I now truly believe that one should not throw a sock hop without an Elvis impersonator. It just takes things to a whole other level.

IMG_77197) We used vintage candy as party favors, and it brought back old memories to everyone, from baby boomers to millennials! Using the language of the time, we told guests we hoped they had a “swell time,” added a poodle graphic and tied it up with a bow!

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The party hosts enjoying the fruits of their labor

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The birthday girl being serenaded

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How to Host an International Dinner Party!

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Embassies from around the world dot the landscape in Washington, D.C. and the streets are filled with reckless foreign diplomats. You can spot their special license plates, which allow them to drive like maniacs since they’re granted immunity. D.C. was a true mixing bowl, where the Italians weren’t the Jersey Shore type, but the type who spoke Italian and made their own limoncello.

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My childhood in the Washington suburbs was multi-cultural, but not in that forced, PC way that makes everyone nervous. My school featured students from France to India, Vietnam to Ireland. To celebrate this mash-up, Beech Tree Elementary hosted International Dinners, where families cooked food from their native country to share. Stations would be set up with homemade flags, dollops of food were shared and adventurous eaters would mill about.

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The event brought families together in an organic way. It inspired me to host an International Dinner Party of my own!

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Chocolate from around the world

How to do it:

1) The hardest part? Cooking food from around the world. The most fun part? Cooking food from around the world!

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The spread featured homemade duck pate and Korean kimchi and rice with seaweed!

2) Make signs for all the foods – it will encourage guests to try somehing unfamiliar. A charming accent? Label everything on airmail envelopes!

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3) Feature beer and wine from around the world!

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4) Ask guests to arrive dressed in native garb – clothing from their country. Many of my friends didn’t have such clothes, but they improvised. My friend Tess wore a custom dress she had made in Vietnam. A man of French descent wore a fake moustache and an English friend wore tartan and wellies! But hands down, the best costume went to Kim Burke-Connors, who celebrated her Russian roots with a babushka scarf, a basket of potatoes, a bottle of vodka and austerity!

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5) Buy a basket and fill it with international foods such as Italian pasta, German mustard and soy sauce. One guest will get to go home with this prize. How do you determine the winner? World trivia, based on geograhy, customs and food! At our party, competition was tight, with a lot of tension between the last two finalists.

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6) Give guests a small parting gift, such as Swiss chocolate or a small bottle of Irish whiskey. Guests will love being treated to a night around the world without leaving town. Enjoy!International Dinner Party 047

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International dessert bar, with sugared mangoes from the Phillippines, Scottish shortbread, American s’mores and much more!

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A deviled egg bar is a fun represention of the USA – Nora Ephron used to say that people love to play with their food!