It's 9 a.m., and Craig Kruger has been up since 4:30 frying chicken. It's finally done -- all 25 pounds, rendered into perfectly brown, crisp pieces.

This early-morning frying is an annual rite. Every Fourth of July for the past seven years, Kruger and Eric Michael have invited 50 to 60 family members, friends and neighbors to their Palisades home for a summer luncheon -- a fete that takes them up to a month to prepare.

Throwing a party for that many is no big stretch for these two. Michael, 42, is co-founder and creative director of Occasions Caterers on Capitol Hill (www.occasionscaterers.com). And Kruger, 44, was a professional chef for two decades, with many of those years spent at the Tabard Inn.

Still, cooking for friends and family is different from serving strangers. "This is not a catered party," Michael says. "It's one time a year I get to do my own cooking and really do things in my own personal style."

That means light, fresh and -- above all -- seasonal. Think pies bursting with blueberries, rhubarb and apricots. Heirloom tomatoes. Herbs so fresh they perfume the entire kitchen. And something that never fails to impress: whole soft-shell crabs, piled into hearty sandwiches.

Michael's crab recipe calls for coating the crustaceans in a cornmeal-paprika-cayenne rub, then sauteeing them to a pleasing crisp. Add a dollop of tangy tomato remoulade, and you've got a simple yet sophisticated lunch -- and one that certainly beats the usual dogs-and-burgers Fourth of July fare.

After guests load their plates at the dining room buffet, they saunter outside to the English cottage garden. People mingle among the roses, hydrangeas and lilies, or congregate around the apple tree, heavy with fruit, that Kruger and Michael planted nine years ago. Glasses clink, coffee is poured over ice, and revelers bask in the sun. "You feel celebrated as a guest," says Patty Rose, a longtime friend. "They're expert at celebrating you. And the season."

Susan Bowles and Jennifer Balderama

Got an excuse to bring people together? E-mail ideas to gatherings@washpost.com.

Forget tuna fish: Eric Michael and Craig Kruger devise a more sophisticated (but still fun) summertime feast.