My great-grandma's birthday party was an annual family reunion. She had eight children living nearby, and some had equally large families. At an early age, I learned how to make a mountain of potato salad and the best way to grill dozens of franks at a time, a skill that proved crucial in my career as a caterer and food writer. Sadly, my great-grandma is gone, but my relatives are now planning a reunion that will bring us together from all corners of the country to relive those wonderful memories.
There are many aspects to planning a reunion, and the best ones take the tastes of everyone into account, from the eldest to the youngest, and from vegetarian to carnivore. If you've agreed to organize your next family reunion, this entertaining guide will walk you through all the steps, including finding a location, creating a menu, selecting party favors, and documenting it all on video. And, remember, this is a family event, so don't be afraid to get your relatives involved -- it will save you time, effort, and stress.
Feeding a crowd can be a challenge, so careful planning is mandatory. Choose the menu style that works best for your group: potluck, communal cooking, or bring-your-own.
A potluck works best with an established menu, where contributors are assigned specific dishes and a number of servings. Don't leave anything to chance! Request "baked or fried chicken drumsticks to serve 24," and not "chicken." This will prevent duplicate dishes and ensure that you don't run out of food. Ask folks with dietary restrictions to bring dishes that they will enjoy and that can be shared with others. If reheating facilities aren't available, ask for dishes that can be served at room temperature.
Communal cooking is perfect for a family of great cooks, especially if the party takes place in a spacious kitchen with lots of refrigeration and stove space -- if available, large, commercial-sized pots and pans make the job much easier. Cooking together is an excellent way for relatives to reconnect and offers an opportunity to re-create heirloom family recipes. It will help if one person serves as "head chef" -- he or she can make a detailed prep list for the recipes and assign chores.
If you go with communal cooking, establish a firm budget, and get contributions from attendees before the event. Be aware that shopping, prepping, and cooking for a big group could take two to three full days. With careful planning, you can buy canned goods and nonperishables well ahead of the reunion, leaving just the meat and produce for a final shopping trip a day or so before you start cooking. You may also find it easier to divide the shopping between volunteers.
For either the potluck or communal cooking methods, you'll need to establish a menu. If you want to get the family involved in the planning, set up a recipe box on Epicurious so you can upload and share recipes.
Keep in mind that many tastes need to be satisfied -- overly spicy or esoteric dishes may be savored by only a few. Stick to familiar, time-honored dishes, perhaps with a twist. For example, instead of the expected barbecued chicken with sweet tomato sauce, try Grilled Chicken with White Rosemary Barbecue Sauce, or make an out-of-the-ordinary potato salad, such as Potato and Pea Salad with Chive Aioli. When planning your menu, look for recipes that can be easily doubled or tripled. Cake recipes for instance, don't always multiply well, but a dessert like Berry Tiramisu is simple to make in quantity and couldn't be more delicious.
Bring-your-own is the most hassle-free approach. Each family unit supplies its own meal, which lets them establish a menu to meet individual tastes and set their own budget. It also keeps a rein on cleanup, as each group does its own. If each family makes extra, there can be enough food for a fair amount of sharing. For family members who are coming from out of town and can't cook, have a list of good take-out places available, or ask them to provide beverages.
Of course, there are different combinations of the above that could work for your family. For our upcoming family reunion, we're providing hamburgers and hot dogs (with volunteers working the grills), but assigning side dishes and desserts, and asking folks to bring their own beverages. Another option is to ask everyone to bring their own picnic meal (if grills are available, folks can be responsible for their own charcoal), and to make extra (about ten servings) of their favorite picnic item for a communal buffet. This allows for the fun of sharing and a more familial atmosphere, and if there's too much potato salad, who cares! Whatever approach you choose, be realistic about the time and energy required of you and your family.
Knowing How Much to Make
When considering how much food to prepare, it's always better to have a little too much than to run out. Only you know the average appetite of your group -- in my family, I've seen teenage boys eat four hamburgers while their sisters ate half a hot dog without the bun. With a group that includes hungry teenagers and folks who like to load their plates, you should allow more than one serving per person. Ten to fifteen percent extra is a good rule of thumb: If you have 50 people coming, make enough food for 60. And have plenty of plastic bags and containers to store leftovers.
A Family Reunion Feast
When it comes to beverages, try to avoid a full bar, as it requires stocking numerous liquors, mixers, juices, and garnishes. Instead, limit choices to beer, wine, and plenty of soft drinks, especially if the party is during summer and if there are lots of kids. You can create a budget and fund for communal beverages, or again, ask everyone to bring their own in an ice chest.
Again, personal choices come into play: Does your family prefer wine or beer? Expect adults to drink two to three alcoholic beverages each, and remember that a standard wine bottle contains about five glasses.
As a summertime cocktail that everyone can enjoy, I like to serve homemade lemonade, as it can be sipped on its own or spiked with a splash of gin, vodka, bourbon, or rum. An electric juicer makes quick work of squeezing the fruit, and is a fun make-ahead job for kids.
You'll need ice for the coolers (about 20 pounds for each large cooler) and to fill cups (allow a pound per person). Bring a clean hammer or ice pick to help break up the ice. And, if you plan to serve coffee or tea with dessert, you'll need a large-quantity coffee urn and a way to boil water. For an outdoor party without electricity, hot beverages can be transported in vacuum containers.
Decor and Favors
Rick Rodgers is a cooking teacher and author of more than 30 cookbooks, including the recently published Summer Gatherings. This year, he is hosting two family reunions.
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