By Mordechai Schmutter
Chanukah is, hands-down, the best time to have an extended family get-together. It’s definitely easier than doing it over a three-day yom tov.
One can question the point of having that many people together in the first place, because it’s not like you’re going to get to talk to any one of them for more than a minute and a half if you want to say hi to everyone before they start leaving. At least you can take those massive family pictures where you bring in neighbors to stand side-by-side and take several pictures in which everyone is looking at a different camera. Because you might be a close family, but not close enough to just take one picture and e-mail it.
Perhaps you’re stuck planning this party because everyone in the family calls you “the organized one” (because they’re afraid to say “bossy”). Here are some tips to make the party as stress-free as possible, except for the part where you have to figure out where to hold the party because everyone wants it as close to where they live as it can possibly be without them having to host it.
Choosing A Time
Deciding what time to make your party is not easy, because everyone has to light their menorahs at home and then wait around until the flames go out, and then drive in, or fly in, or whatever. Another option is to make it during the day, so that everyone has to get home in time for lighting.
But there are still other options:
1. Have the Chanukah party on a day that no one has to light, such as Asarah B’Teves.
2. Just sleep all 800 people in your house that night, so everyone can light there. You’ll have so many menorahs going, you’ll be afraid to have a party.
3. Make it a breakfast party. It’s all milchigs anyway.
Meal Or Buffet?
The Chanukah party has to have food, because there needs to be something to talk about when the conversation dies down. Yes, the main point of the get-together isn’t the food, but no one’s eating beforehand, no one’s coming unless there’s food, and everyone’s packing out right after bentching. But it’s not the food.
But how do you serve your food? Do you sit all those people around a humongous table so that everyone can make conversation with exactly three people who, chances are, are immediate relatives that they see all the time—most likely their kids? Maybe you should set up a kids’ table, and who knows what’s going on over there. Definitely not eating. As soon as you get into the car, they all announce that they’re hungry.
So these days, a lot of people go with a buffet. A buffet provides all the fun of a kiddush without the part where you have to wait for the rabbi to stop saying “Good Shabbos” to everybody and come make kiddush already.
You also want to figure out a theme for your party, if you’re the type of person who wants to figure out a theme for your party. One would think that your theme is actually “Chanukah,” but that’s too general. What, are you gonna have the same theme every Chanukah?
So for example, your theme can be “Greece,” and you can serve things like feta cheese and Greek yogurt and . . . I think that’s it, actually. Oh, and those enormous purple olives that look like grapes but most definitely are not. And have people wear tablecloths. Or else your theme could be “grease,” and you can serve latkes and doughnuts and leave huge vats of grease near the doorways so people can squeeze out afterwards.
Foods You Can Serve
Latkes. A nice traditional fried food. Some people who are watching their weight might request that you bake the latkes, but they forget that the minhag is oil. It’s not potatoes. Unless I missed that part of the Chanukah story.
Baked ziti. Or fried ziti. You can use a different kind of noodle, but people are still going to call it “ziti.”
Quiche. There also has to be quiche, and everyone has to remark on how good it is. As if the ziti just baked itself. Maybe they’re surprised.
“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it was good. Vegetable pie! Who knew?”
Chocolate coins. No one knows how these got started, but it probably has something to do with the minhag to give out Chanukah gelt. Originally, there were actual coins inside the chocolate, but the companies eventually found that it was a lot cheaper to just skip the coins. Especially as far as lawsuits.
Bagels. A good food for any family gathering, because you can make HaMotzi on them. Good luck figuring out how much ziti you have to eat in order to make HaMotzi. Also, you have a choice of various fun spreads, such as tuna.
But if you have a buffet, try to avoid serving foods that require a knife. Instead, have smaller things that are swimming in sauce. Also, don’t serve grapefruit halves. It’s very hard to feign interest in a conversation when the other person keeps squirting you in the eye.
Setting It Up
The classy approach is to set things up on platters, or at least open the packaging of the food so people don’t have to do so with their teeth. For example, if you serve cheese or lox, you should do that thing where you arrange the slices in a circle so that every piece is overlapped by another, so there’s no top piece, and no one knows which piece they can take first.
Some people are really good at making gorgeous platters, even though the truth is that the only person who is going to see how nice the platter is will be the first person to take things off the platter. And that person doesn’t care. Most likely he won’t even notice.
For hot foods, you have to have those raised foil-pan heater things with the flammable jelly underneath that you have to light with a 3-foot match. Because even though if you had a sit-down meal, the food would be cooling on the table, in a situation where people are balancing their plates while eating, you want the food to be scalding. Also, the minhag is to have a second pan underneath the first pan that you fill with water. No one knows why. But we’re afraid to leave it out.
Another thing that people often forget is serving utensils. You want each pan to have at least one serving utensil, and it should be an appropriate one, as opposed to salad tongs in the soup, a spatula in the bagel basket, or a potato masher in the latkes. Better yet, you need at least two serving utensils per pan, because the first one is going to get lost in the liquid, and you’re going to have to fish it out and leave it propped up against the side of the pan so the next person in line can grab it by mistake. So you also need napkins everywhere. Maybe your theme should be “napkins.”
Arranging Your Buffet
The best tip for making a buffet is to arrange the foods organically so that no one has to backtrack and say “Excuse me” and make conversation and back up the line even further. You don’t want people to have to stand around in line waiting for the food. You want them to get their food quickly, eat it, and then spend the rest of the time standing around. In that order.
For example, some people set it up so that the plates are at a random spot in the middle of the table, so that people have to hold the first few items until they get a plate. So, you don’t want to have it set up: cream cheese, bagel, knives, lox, plates, bagel guillotine.
Meanwhile, the cutlery should be at the very end. Putting cutlery early means the guests have something extra to hold while they serve themselves. You also might want to set the drinks up at another table for just this reason. And maybe put the cups near the drinks, if you don’t have a better idea.
The easiest way to do it is to have everyone bring some food, and, as a method of quality control (and quantity control), let them know that whatever’s not eaten is going back home with them. The nice thing about everyone bringing some of the food is that even if some people get there very late, there is still something left for them to eat.
“Oh, the bagels are here. Finally. We finished the cream cheese.”
“On the latkes. The sour cream people aren’t here yet.”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.