I'll take romance, goes the song, and so would we all if we could just figure out what it is. But what's breakfast in bed for one is quite literally a crummy idea for another. Lover A is sent into a swoon while picnicking under an apple tree; Lover B screams about wasps and bees and makes for the darkest corner of the Old Angler's Inn.
Most of the year we can suit ourselves, but in February there is that one day riddled with hearts when we go public with our notion of romance. Lovers newly met will have no problems at all. To those freshly enthralled, the least little thing is romantic and, since they are unwilling to share their delight with the multitude, there will be no one else to question their taste. They will prefer to dine alone and their desire will be respected by any right-thinking hostess. There is nothing more certain to slow down a party than two people who have gone witless with love, staring only at each other, even sharing bits of food from one another's plates. Separate them at the table and they will gaze at each other across the sauce boat. Pity the guest who tries to converse with either of them.
So, save for the amorous participants, a romantic evening is not romantic for everyone when new lovers are brought into company. Despite the spirit of the holiday, the hostess must cross them off her list. Next she must draw a line through the names of quarrelsome types who relish intellectual arguments; another line knocks out the bores who go on and on and on. If this leaves you with no one to invite, you should forget about a romantic Valentine's Day event and spend the time in search of new friends.
The key to a romantic gathering lies in the unexpected. Those things that happen every day lose their thrill and the hostess must apply this same principle to planning her party. If guests walk into her living room and see the same setting, the same people and soon are eating the same food, all the candlelight in the world will not produce the desired effect. To turn on the love lights, one must put people off balance, make them believe that exciting and unusual things are about to happen. The opening note can be as simple as lining your driveway with candles; if there is no wind, set each atop a mound of snow, or cluster votive candles on a tray held by a snowman. If the weather is too stormy for outdoor candles to survive, set a candle in each of your downstairs windows.
If you ordinarily do this when you entertain, this time do something else: Tape red tissue paper across each of the downstairs windows so that the light will shine out onto the snow with a rosy brilliance. The point is not what you do, but that it will take the guests by surprise. Hire a bagpiper to pipe the guests up the walk. If that's too expensive, hang Cupid with his bow and arrow from the branch of a tree and tuck a tape recorder playing Cole Porter songs at its foot. Empty your living room of its ordinary furniture, and rent or borrow handsome garden furniture and enough plants to turn the room into a Victorian conservatory. Or line up all your couches and chairs, rent one of those massive screen TVs and settle your guests in to watch an old romantic comedy on the VCR while feeding on champagne and popcorn. If you're concerned about a balanced meal, pass a bowl of parsley.
Or let the evening be perfectly ordinary until after dinner. While the guests linger at the table over brandy, excuse yourself and set up card tables in the living room, covering them with red felt and putting out the cards for games of hearts or old maid, either appropriate to the holiday.
Just as the unexpected is romantic, so is that which occurs in excess. Serve as a first course a small helping of very good caviar; serve as a second course a large helping. Or instead of offering an ordinary dinner, let the appetizers be chocolate truffles, the main course chocolate mousse cake and the dessert chocolate covered strawberries. You may not be able to find the perfect lover for a female friend, but you can boost her ego by giving a dinner where she is the only woman present -- save the hostess, of course. Tell your extra men that it will be an entire evening of extras and challenge each of them to gain the attention of the only available woman.
With romance, there is a wavy line between that which inspires love and that which inspires giggles. The best way to protect yourself is this: If you think you'd feel an awful fool doing what you're about to do, don't do it. Your guests will feel foolish too.