When the only color in your life comes from the winter white sales and foreign travel is a trip to a mall for a President's Day shopping spree, it is time to dream exotic dreams of palm trees and planter's punch, of warm breezes blowing in off the ocean and people dressed in bright and garish prints.
It is time to hit the islands, and if you can't afford to make the trip, you can give a party and pretend you have. Nicest would be to hold the party around your indoor pool, but then if you had an indoor pool you could afford a trip to the Caribbean.
*The proper punch, tons of large plants around the edge of the living room -- blotting out the icy outdoors -- a cassette of bird songs behind one of the trees in your tropical forest, the heat turned up, a ceiling fan turned on, and voila! Kingston. Resist any urge, however, to spread sand over your living room floor. It is an effect you will be forced to live with for a very long time.
Do ask your guests to show up for your Bahamas Bash wearing native dress: sarongs for the women, bright patterned shirts for the men, pants rolled up like a beachcomber's and sandals to shuffle around in.
Everyone who has ever been to the Caribbean will have their own recipe for Planter's Punch, but start with this one, while laying in a plentiful supply of bitters, sugar syrup, lemon and lime juice and a basket of fruit garnishes such as orange slices, strawberries and cherries, so that when someone begs to inform you that your recipe is nowhere near as good as his, you will have the ingredients for a punch-out. When guests first arrive, hand them glasses of your starter punch made with 1/2-ounce sugar syrup, one ounce fresh lime juice and four ounces rum. Add cracked ice, splash on a dash of grenadine and stir. Grate some fresh nutmeg on top.
Tropical foliage, high heat, colorful clothes and singing birds will begin to make people feel that they've escaped Washington -- and candles, of course, casting large and flickering shadows on the walls. If you can afford to rent them -- or are able to borrow them -- move your dining room table and replace it with small cafe' tables lit by hurricane candles.
And, of course, you will have the music of a steel band playing on the phonograph all night long. Are your friends supple enough for a round of Limbo? Well, why not? Take a broom handle, or any stick of similar length, and while the music plays have your guests -- one at a time -- dance under the stick. When everyone has passed beneath, the stick is lowered. Carried too far, or rather too low, however, the Limbo practically guarantees that at least one person will put out his back, so unless you want to reenact "The Man Who Came to Dinner," call a halt to the dance before the dance calls a halt to you.
Nowadays, as often as not, food in the Caribbean is fine French fare, though in some countries local dishes are still served. The problem is finding the ingredients, but if that's not possible, you can still create the same ambience. Imitate the street vendors who set up charcoal burners on the corner and sell bits of grilled meat by dotting the room with hibachis and letting guests feed themselves. You probably cannot get goat meat and your guests probably would not be happy if you did, so stick with beef.
Fish is an obvious choice, and sometimes the easiest thing is to be obvious. Since grilling fish for a crowd means that the host has to spend the entire evening tending coals, let the fish dish be a spicy, chunky fish stew, thick and full of vegetables so that it will not slosh onto the guests, who, if they have followed instructions, are already sufficiently patterned.
When the make-believe holiday comes to an end and guests must shove their sandalled feet through snow to reach their cars, remind them that those same chilly blasts greet travellers returning from real trips to the Caribbean, too.