Once a year a friend used to send out an urgent call to all and sundry to join her for a chicken dinner.
So what, you say?
Well, these were not ordinary chicken dinners. The bird simply roasted or boiled or fried had no place on her table. This was the occasion when her entry into the annual Chicken Bake-Off contest would be chosen, and guests were asked to vote on the chicken of choice -- did the colorful Confetti Chicken stand a better chance than the vodka-soaked Chicken Chekhov? Did she dare submit Coq au Coke?
Conversation never lagged, and no one went home hungry.
I was reminded of those evenings at a picnic where four different guests, asked to bring something, arrived with potato salad. Depressing? Not at all. "A potato salad sampler," cried one happy woman as she grabbed a paper plate and lunged toward the table.
How boring the balanced meal, a little from this food group, a little from that, and how creative are the cooks who know that when it comes to the table, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.
A summer sampler party would not be balanced at all. Like the chicken championship, it would be devoted to one food and its infinite variations. The choice must be narrow. You cannot simply say, "Dessert, everyone will please bring dessert." You must instead demand a dessert made of peaches.
Peach mousse and brandied peaches on ice cream; peach pie and peach halves poached in strawberry syrup and served with whipped cream; thin crepes spread with peach preserves, rolled up tight and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar -- the variations on a peach are as numerous as the imaginations of your guest chefs, and to encourage the competition, offer to award a bottle of peach liqueur to the chef whose dessert wins highest marks from the other guests.
Or perhaps by this time everyone will be sick to death of peaches and you should reward the winner with framboise.
Bread can also be featured at a sampler party. One reason many people don't bother to bake their own is that they haven't found a recipe they care for. Why go to all that trouble to produce a loaf you don't like?
For a staff of life party, there might be white breads, whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel and sweet breads using the fruits of the season. Each of the breads should be accompanied by a recipe so that tasters can copy the ones they like. Bread, pots of butter, cheeses and jam -- a spread that would make a perfect brunch.
What about a brownie bake-off for afternoon tea? Or a week-night meatloaf supper, with four or five versions to choose from? You could have a Rice Is Nice night with risottos and paellas and fried rice or a Night of Noodles with everything from oriental noodles to German noodle pudding to pasta with pesto sauce to macaroni and cheese.
Best of all, assuming that all the guests are aware of what they're getting into, and they have been warned not to schedule an important early morning appointment, would be to stage a Garlic Gala, with everyone bringing a dish that is absolutely redolent with garlic. The pungent clove has its own festival out in California so there's no reason why you shouldn't stage a smaller version on the East Coast.
As the giver of the party, you should provide large bowls of the spice, just in case someone's dish fails to pass the garlic taste test.
You will notice all of these parties have one thing in common -- the guests are flattered into bringing the food. This is an extremely old trick with many variations.
Another is the box lunch. In preliberation days each woman brought a picnic lunch for two and each man bid on it. Today, ask half of the guests to bring a picnic lunch and warn the other half that they will have to buy their meal at a picnic auction, with the money collected going to charity. The bidders are not told what is in the box or basket they will bid on, only who made it. This way they are forced to base their bids on the appearance (the assumption being that someone who decorates a basket beautifully on the outside would hardly do less inside), the culinary reputation of the person who prepared it or the desire to share that person's company.
By the end of a summer of samplers and other parties where the guests do all the work, you will have acquired a reputation as a creative and innovative party giver. When you know all along that what you really are is lazy.