There is something “goosebump” worthy about planning an engagement party for anyone, let alone for one of your children. It’s the grandest celebration of all that love brings….
"Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same."
- Emily Bronte
The proposal took place in the botanical gardens in Los Angeles. From that moment on, and for the next ten months, life was abuzz with daily emails back and forth, sometimes hourly, and as the time grew closer, half-hourly! As luck would have it, the bride and groom from Los Angeles, and the bride’s friends and colleagues from around the world, were gathering in Connecticut for their 10th year Yale reunion, affording us the perfect opportunity to plan an engagement party we would be so fortunate to have so many attend. The site, a nostalgic one for sure, would be the magnificent 1903 Colonial Revival the bride had spent many of her childhood years in. “Raspberry Hill”, the home of our dear friends, and the bride’s childhood “bestie”, would lend itself to an elegant, yet casually chic, Sunday evening alfresco dinner for seventy guests, the kind we think of when conjuring up visions of Gatsby or Scarlett O’Hara on a lazy summer Sunday. And thus the planning began...
Design The Invite!
Designing the invitation can be a dizzying challenge today with so many incredible options. For me, it was easy, as I had already had a vision. I didn’t want it to be formal, since there would be so many invitations coming down the wedding pike; east coast bridal shower, west coast bridal shower, bachelorette party and the grand finale, the wedding invitation. But, I also didn’t want it to be an Evite because I feel that people love to open an envelope addressed to them. I also happen to be a big stationery buff, who loves the-art-of-penning on beautiful paper, a practice lost through the ages! So off I went to our family stationer, the same person who designed the bride’s birth announcement! She set about turning a beautiful black and white candid photo of the engaged couple, one that I just happened to have, into a 5x7 simple invitation, jazzing the envelope up with a celebratory emerald-green confetti liner. It was casual and fun with a simple elegance to it .
“Cocktails and Dinner at five o’clock” – “Summer Cocktail Casual”
Blue & White Theme
The design theme would be inspired by my collection of blue & white porcelains. And I knew, even before I began, that there would be a bounty of white flowers and beautiful greenery, silver and glass ice buckets and votive candles. And lots of cobalt glass! I began my design with the magnificent oversized wrap-around veranda with intricately fluted columns and a robin’s egg blue wainscot ceiling. I hung ten large fluffy Boston ferns all around. After meeting with the caterer and deciding upon the necessary rentals, I began by drawing a lay out of the tables, bars, cocktail tables and wicker furniture groupings. We set about creating an elegant farm table configuration, putting two 8 foot tables together to create 16 feet, seating 12 on each side and one at each end. We chose comfortable pure white wooden chairs with padded seats. We had a few café tables scattered around the property to encourage idle conversation and to provide a place for guests to set their drink down. The tables were clothed in blue & white jumbo check linens to the grass. I'm a stickler about not an inch of table leg showing! I was super-excited to find these table linens, which set the tone and contributed to the elegant country theme I wanted. I just loved these cloths! We covered each table with a white overlay to give it a little more depth. We placed blue and white porcelain urns, vases and ginger jars, along with cobalt vases and cobalt bottles of Saratoga spring water, down the center of each table. The tables were set with pure white china, silver flatware, antique silver ice buckets and several Tiffany glass ice buckets (some from our own wedding in 1979!), filled with chilled white wine, which flowed all evening.
You know no party goes off without at least one glitch…. With all of our years of entertaining, my husband gained a lot of flower arranging experience and wanted to do the flowers himself. Our dear friend had shared a reliable California wholesaler with us, one he used for his son’s wedding quite successfully. The flowers were ordered and paid for weeks in advance of the date. The party was set for Sunday. By Friday there were no flowers. No one was answering our phone calls. The same held true for Saturday. My husband had no choice but to go down to the local floral farm market and load the car up with the most gorgeous selection of roses, hydrangeas, peonies, ivy, lemon leaves, tulips and daisies. He worked all day Sunday getting to the finish line by 4pm and hour before the guests were to arrive!
Lighting the Outdoor Evening
We had over 100 votive candles spread out all over the tables, bars, café tables and lounge areas. We wrapped a large tree, perched over a dinner table and near the bar on the veranda, with little white twinkle lights, the bride’s favorite. The candlelight from the votives was enhanced by larger, globed candles of varying heights and shapes. I scattered bags of crystal drops on all the tables to reflect the glimmer from the candles and to add a sparkling touch of “Midsummer Night's” whimsy.
The Mixologist and the Caterer!
The Mixologist is always one of the most key components to the success of any party. Whether it’s a full bar, a wine and beer bar or a "signature drink" bar, the “must haves” are a sense of pizzazz and a bartender with a great personality!
The bar is the very first thing a guest will see when they arrive; a place where perhaps the momentary awkwardness melts into oblivion as introductions take place and guests begin to mingle. It sets the tone of the party and says, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” We opted for three bars; a full bar, a champagne bar and a Bellini bar. Our bars were dressed in all white cloths to the ground and outfitted with bright yellow cutting boards, yellow bar towels, monogrammed cocktail napkins, and navy & white striped straws displayed in silver mint julep cups. The napkins were navy, custom printed with the names of the bride and groom and with two birds carrying a stem of lily of the valley printed in white. The “burd” had a special meaning for the bride.
The Full Bar
We located the full bar on the veranda at the entrance, as guests made their way up the driveway, through the porte’ cochere and up the steps….BOOM! BAR! This is rule #1. You never want your guests looking around for a drink. This bar had a full range of liquor, wine, beer and soft drinks with lots of yummy garnishes.
The Bellini Bar
We placed the “Bellini” bar out on the property under a magnificent 150 year old oak tree, with the hope of encouraging guests to explore the beautiful sprawling lawn and to meet other guests along the way. Here we had a bartender who served strawberry, peach and watermelon Bellinis. The fresh fruit mix was made ahead of time by our dear friend and homeowner who was “Vitamixing” the afternoon away! We kept the bright and colorful fruit mixes in lovely glass carafes set in a large silver ice bucket. Plenty of fresh strawberry, watermelon and peach slices for garnish were beautifully set on a platter on the bar. Our Non-alcoholic beverage choice was a selection of Izze Sparkling Italian sodas in raspberry, strawberry & watermelon and clementine flavors, served in their bottles with navy and white striped straws. We also had silver buckets filled with VOSS water.
The Champagne Bar
We chose the beautiful antique round Foyer table as the location for the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar. Bottles were set on ice in a large silver champagne bucket surrounded by champagne flutes, flowers and a large heart made from twigs hanging from the chandelier. The honor of the Champagne toast was given to the father of the bride-to-be, and took place on the Veranda. The location of the champagne right inside the front door made for easy passing by the staff. Later in the evening, this location doubled as a dessert buffet and the champagne was moved onto the full bar. I like to move guests around to different locations. It keeps it fresh and allows the staff an opportunity to keep flat surfaces clean.
The father of the bride-to-be making a congratulatory toast celebrating the newly engaged couple!
After interviewing caterers, I decided upon a caterer I had worked with many times. Sometimes, you just have to stay within your comfort zone and go with what works. I knew the food would be delicious, plentiful and nourishing to the souls who pay homage to SUNDAY PASTA!
My preference is always to have hors d’oeuvres passed. The best way to wait on your guests is to wait on them! Our hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver, glass and white Portugese pottery serving trays adorned with tiny nosegays of white roses and peonies tied with navy ribbon, and small ivy bouquets tied with raffia. I like a large selection of hors d’oeuvres and usually choose more than the recommended. My preference is to order more of a variety and less of a quantity of each when estimating the piece per person rule.
I’ve found the “rule of thumb” to be 4-5 choices for up to 35 guests and 6-8 choices for 35-60 guests. And then order more than that! You never, ever, want to run out of food. Every caterer has a different formula for this. Only you will know your guests and how much you think they will eat.
I've always found that women don’t eat much. Also take into consideration how much you will be serving for dinner. You don’t want them to fill up before the big presentation! That said, when it was announced that dinner was served, many of our guests were startled, because they thought the passed hors d’oeuvres was dinner! So much for that…
Passed Hors d’oeuvres on the Veranda and the Lawn (Nine selections)
- Mini Crab Cakes with a Remoulade Sauce
- Grilled Jumbo Shrimp with Cilantro dipping Sauce
- Sesame Seared Sashimi Grade Tuna with a Wasabi dipping sauce
- Tomato & Mozzarella Skewers with Fresh Basil & Pesto dipping sauce
- Crostini of Seared Beef Sirloin, Arugula Pesto & Manchego cheese
- Arancini with Fontina and Basil with Marinara sauce (the Groom’s favorite)
- Grilled Asparagus Spears wrapped in Parma Ham
- Devils on Horseback, Dates, with Fresh Goat Cheese and Bacon
- Pulled Pork Sliders, Au Naturel with Pickled Jalapeno Cabbage Slaw & Spicy Mayo
THE FORMAL BUFFET
Our main course was served buffet style. I like this more relaxed and casual format where guests can make their own food choices. And, at this point, after a very long cocktail hour, people are warmed up and happily mingling. We set the buffet up in the formal dining room under the vintage cut crystal chandelier. It was wonderful to see guests coming back for seconds! The food was beautifully and plentifully displayed on my own platters and was attended by two servers. I printed menus out on navy card stock with silver metallic ink and placed them in silver frames on the buffet table so people would know exactly what they were eating; important to do in today’s world of overwhelming dietary restrictions and allergies. Its always best to include a meat, a fish and a vegetable selection to cover all bases and to have something for everyone!
Entrée (seven selections + bread baskets)
- Beef Tenderloin with Horseradish and Sour Cream Sauce
- Pan Seared Scallops with Pistachio and Mint Pesto over Wilted Greens
- Grilled Butterflied Chicken Paillards with Lemon, Rosemary and XVOO
- Baby Arugula Salad with Roasted Pears, Goat Cheese, Olive Oil and Balsamic Glaze
- Grilled Vegetables of Zucchini, Orange & Yellow Peppers and Summer Squash
- Rigatoni Pasta with Hot Italian Sausage, Tomatoes & Cream (Sunday Pasta!)
- Pesto Stuffed Raviolis with Marinara Sauce and Grana Padano Cheese (More Sunday Pasta!)
- Baskets of Freshly Baked Homemade Breads with salted butter
We set a lovely dessert buffet of finger foods in the Foyer, on the same table we used for our champagne bar, and moved the champagne on to the open bar. Single bite finger foods are more apt to be eaten as guests can just pop them in. I, for one, don’t want to mess up my lipstick, nor do I want to hold something that will have crumbs tumbling down as I munch on it! Dessert quantity can be tricky because most people either won’t eat dessert or they will take a small piece of something sweet to have with their coffee, after-dinner-drink or champagne. We ordered lots of finger desserts and displayed them on double on triple-tiered plates of varying heights to add interest and a bit of drama. NOTE: In the blink of an eye, what did my wandering eyes see? The dessert table empty! My husband and I simply could not believe it. I was mortified, needless to say, even though everyone assured me that they were more than satiated. Just when you think you have it down...! Thank goodness we had take home gifts of more sweets for everyone!
DESSERT (eight selections)
- Lemon Squares cut into thirds (bite size is always the best)
- Coconut Macaroons
- Large tray of the Bride’s Favorite Cookies, chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal and fig
- Chocolate covered strawberries (Bride’s favorite)
- Mini Chocolate Eclairs
- Mini Cannoli
- Mini Fruit tarts
- Mini Mousse Poppers Assortment
- Fresh Fruit platter
- Coffee serving
- Chilled Limoncello in shot glasses
The Take Home Gift
Who doesn’t love chocolate, right? So, I thought boxes filled with locally made, custom truffles would be the best take home gift. We called upon our friend and master chocolatier, Michelle, owner and creator of Cocoa Michelle of Westport, for her exquisite taste and guidance. She created the most incredible custom flavored truffles:
- Earl Grey
- Chai Latte
- Green Tea
- Dark Chocolate raspberry
Following through with our blue and white theme, I purchased 4”x4” white boxes and lined them with navy tissue. We filled each box with four of these hand-made truffles and tied them with navy grosgrain ribbon, custom printed with the names of the bride and groom. They were set in a large shallow basket for guests to grab as they left. NOTE: We almost forgot to put the basket out! Many of the guests had left by the time we remembered that we were hiding them in the living room until the party was wrapping up. Good idea to put a person in charge of things like this…Otherwise, the champagne takes over!
Music sets the mood and enhances the theme of any party! The father-of-the-bride and his best friend, the homeowner, created a playlist brimming with romantic songs from the 1920’s and 30’s, by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Natalie Cole and Ray Charles, as well as other favorites such as Etta James and Dinah Washington. Here is a sneak peek…
- “I’ve Got The World On A String” 1932
- “Unforgettable” 1951
- “What A Difference A Day Makes” 1934
- “Let’s Do It” (Let’s Fall in Love) 1928
- “I Get A Kick Out of You” 1934
- “The Way You Look Tonight” 1936
- “At Last” 1941
- “Someone To Watch Over Me” 1926
- “You Made Me Love You” 1913
- “The Man I Love” 1924
- “It Had To Be You” 1924
Conversational Seating Areas
Our friends had a lovely collection of antique white wicker that worked beautifully with the theme of the party and made for comfortable and relaxing, lazy conversational areas.
A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words
As a remembrance of this beautiful magical evening, the bride’s childhood “bestie” created an 11X14 hard-covered book online using MyPublisher. It was a stunning chronicle of 142 photos from their formal engagement shoot and from the engagement party. We surprised the bride with it at her east coast shower! We had another copy made for the groom’s parents, and gave it to them as a welcome gift when they arrived in California for the wedding! They were so thrilled! Its such a beautiful and treasured idea.
Other Important Details to Consider
We preferred that no one park in the driveway, so we parked our 1994 British Racing Green Jaguar XJS at the entrance to avoid having anyone parking and causing a possible traffic gridlock. We did a fun thing and designed a picnic on the hood, complete with tablecloth, picnic basket and wine, to give it a welcoming feel and of course, also to add to our Gatsby-esque theme! Spirit is always the name of the game! Have fun with all of it!
Which door do I use?
We roped off the service entrance and the back porch doors with pink ribbon, so no one would mistake them for entryways into the house. You definitely don’t want your guests entering the kitchen only to be greeted by the caterers racing around with food and dishes flying all over the place!
Monogrammed hand towels, printed the same as the cocktail napkins, were placed in the bathrooms, along with Molton Brown hand wash, a candle for ambient lighting and scent and a small vase of white roses with trailing ivy and raffia ribbon .
Be Sure Guests Can Find the Party!
This was fun! While most of the guests were driving either from near or far, many were coming with drivers and taxis from the airports and the train. The last thing we wanted was for them to waste even one minute trying to find the house! So, the bride's siblings made a humorous over-statement and enlarged the invitation to 2 X 3 feet, mounted it on foam core, double-sided, and placed it at the entrance to the estate! And yes, it became a conversation piece and no one arrived late or got lost!
- Photography Credit: Kenn Hopkins
- Ivory Truffle Boxes: Paper Source
- Navy tissue lining: Paper Source
- Navy card stock for menus: Paper Source
- Silver Frames: Personal collection
- Metallic pens: Paper Source
- Truffles: Cocoa Michelle Westport, Ct
- Invitations: The Write Approach Woodbridge, CT
- Navy and white striped straws: Etsy online
- Bellini Carafes: Crate and Barrel
- White platters: Home Goods
- Silver Platters: Personal collection
- Stem Candles: Home Goods
- Custom Ribbon: Century Marketing
- Blue Porcelain: Private Collection
- Cobalt: Private Collection
- Custom printed cocktail napkins and hand towels: ForYourParty.com
- Crystal drops: Pottery Barn (post Christmas sale)
- Custom Photo Book: My Publisher online / Jennifer Witkin McCollum
- Flowers: Compo Farms Westport Ct
- Party Rentals: MitchCo. Tent and Party, Stratford, CT
- Catering: The Pantry