If you plan to use a caterer, be sure to ask in the beginning what each item you want to hire will cost. Don't be shy about asking. And be sure to call your caterer early on -- you may have chosen an evening that conflicts with another huge "do" and his tables and chairs will already be spoken for, if you leave it too late.

I recommend from experience renting everything from the caterer in the way of equipment you may need -- like silverware, plates, cups and saucers, glasses, ashtrays, and even large plastic tubs for ice. I found borrowing from friends, as we did for Tish's party, too nerveracking for the money saved. If a crystal wine glass from your friend's dear Auntie Nettie is smashed, it will be irreplaceable. If her silver spoon slips into the dishwasher and is mangled or, worse still, mysteriously disappears, you will have another awkward situation to deal with. Simpler to get equipment from the caterer and really not that much more expensive.

Be sure to rent coatracks if you have over 40 guests. They can go in a hall or a bedroom or outside on a porch and will avoid guests raking through mounds of coats piled on beds, especially in wintertime.

Ask the caterer's men who deliver the racks to assemble the coatracks, however. They can seem like knocked-down giraffes and take an inordinate length of time to assemble.

Food from a caterer is something else. It always seems as if it is from a caterer and is inevitably a bit synthetic or mass-produced. Good food is never improved by driving about in refrigerated trucks on its way to your house.

Moreover, food from a caterer is enormously expensive. As soon as the caterer tells me it will be 20 or more dollars for each guest for a dinner party, I begin to think the party isn't such a good idea after all. Businessoriented parties are fine for caterer's food. Private parties, no. Parties at home should ideally mean food cooked at home, too.

I did have one catered cocktails and buffet supper party which was for a number of members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House, and their wives. The caterer enjoyed a long-standing reputation so I assumed all would be well.

The main dish, chicken tetrazzini, came in three large half-gallon containers.When, on arrival at the house, the top rose, unaided, from one of the three cartons, it seemed an ominous note. A whiff of the contents confirmed my suspicions -- it was clearly "over the hill." Imagine if I had felled a number of congressmen with a poisoned supper!

Not only did I have to throw out a third of the main course, but there was no time to substitute something else except rice and more rice.