Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frugal meets elegant

This will probably be my last post for a while, since we're off to Indiana soon to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws. I have a whole list of profound, serious topics I could write about for this farewell post, such as why Europeans save more than Americans do, or whether the celebrated female love of shopping is nothing more than a response to social disempowerment, or whether working less and spending less could be the key to a longer, happier life. But the fact is, the topic I really feel most drawn to right now is holiday parties. Specifically, how to have one without spending a ridiculous amount of money.

This is actually inspired by an article that appeared three years ago in the New York Times, in which the writer challenged David Monn, party planner to the stars, to help him "design a transcendent holiday dinner party for eight at my West Village apartment on a recessionary budget — say, $30 a head." When this link turned up in the budget-oriented Tip Hero newsletter, the bulk of the responses were along the same lines as mine: "$30 a head is cheap?" Several respondents also found it ludicrous that the best the celebrated event planner could do with this austere budget was twice-baked potatoes for a main course, a store-bought cake for dessert, and paper snowflakes (like the ones you made in grade school) for decoration. How, the group wondered, did he ever manage to spend $240 on that?

So I decided to pose the same challenge to myself and see just how much more cheaply I could do it. My normal idea of a great holiday party is a potluck supper, caroling, and board games, but to make it a fair test, I challenged myself to plan the same type of party the author of the article wanted: an elegant dinner for eight, complete with holiday-themed decor. Since the closest thing our house has to a formal dining area is in our large downstairs room, guests would have to pass through a good bit of the house to get to it—so the decorations would have to cover not just the dining area itself, but also the living room, hall, and kitchen, to keep the mood going from the time guests walk in the door.

Fortunately, since tasteful holiday decorations tend to be natural and understated, they are easy to make quite cheaply. A Google search for "balsam centerpiece" reveals a variety of pieces ranging in price from $25 to $55 (plus shipping), but our local Christmas tree vendor will be glad to let you gather up an armload of trimmed-off evergreen branches for nothing, and pine cones are easily found under any convenient clump of pine trees. I can also gather clumps of red berries from the sidewalk near my neighbor's house, where a large holly tree obligingly drops them throughout December, and red pillar candles are just $2.50 each at IKEA. That means that for just $7.50, I could put a holiday centerpiece on the dining table and smaller ones in the living room and kitchen—and to keep the festive mood going along the the hallway, I'd deck out each of the doors with a single jingle-bell ornament (available in packs of six from the dollar store) hung from a length of colorful holiday ribbon (also from the dollar store). Total cost for decorations: $10.50 (or $12.50 if I give a tip to the tree sellers).

David Monn also spent some of the $240 budget on prettying up the table, using a $13 roll of what the article called "quilting batting" (though the audio slideshow calls it "bunting," which is probably more accurate) as a tablecloth. We happen to have a nice white tablecloth already that fits our dining table at full extension, but we don't have a matched set of eight napkins—and while we do have eight matched dinner plates, they're Corelleware, with a blue-and-green pattern that isn't particularly elegant or Christmasy. But no problem; I could just borrow my mom's china, a nice white with a simple gold rim that would fit into the holiday decorating scheme just fine. (She'd probably be happy to see it put to good use, since it just sits in a cabinet most of the year.) I might even decide to invest ten bucks in a set of marked-down napkins from Pier 1, since none of ours are Christmas-appropriate.

Which brings us to the all-important question of what to serve. This is the area where I won't skimp: I'll keep the meal as frugal as I can, but not if it means compromising on delicious. (No store-bought cake for me, thank you.) Consulting our recipe files, I found a main dish that's both elegant and frugal: butternut squash cassoulet, from Cooking Light magazine. To fill out the "transcendent" menu, I'd start with the citrus spinach salad from The Clueless Vegetarian, and conclude with one of my husband's famous homemade apple pies. Grocery list:

2 bunches spinach (organic): $5.00
4 large oranges (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $2.25
1 Vidalia onion: $.50
1 head garlic: $.26
4 ounces bacon ends (from the Amish market, $4.00/lb): $1.00
2 yellow onions: $.22
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds) (organic, sale price): $2.50
2 pounds dry white beans: $3.00
4 large Granny Smith apples (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $3.00
1/2 lb. sugar (organic): $.80
1/2 lb. butter (sale price): $1.00
1 lb. flour (store brand): $.36
1 container vanilla ice cream (store brand): $2.50
Total: $22.39. This doesn't count the little bits of other ingredients—olive oil, vinegar, veggie broth, Parmesan cheese, herbs, spices, corn starch, and lemon juice—so if we tack on a couple of extra dollars for that, we can estimate that $25 will cover all the food.

The party in the article also included six bottles of Three-Buck Chuck, which seems like an awful lot of wine for eight people, especially if six of them are driving home. We're not really wine drinkers ourselves, but assuming that our guests are, we'll add on just two bottles for the six of them, to ensure that they can enjoy themselves and still make it home in one piece. So that makes another $6 for wine—or about $7 with tax.

So, tallying up the cost of my frugal party:
Food: $25
Wine: $7
Tableware: $10
Decorations: $12.50
Total: $54.50—less than 25 percent of what the couple in the Times spent. And I think my frugal menu and decor are every bit as elegant as David Fancy-Pants Monn's.

And on that note, I bid you all farewell for the time being, and happy holidays!
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