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Writing We Belong Together in the pandemic might explain the main character Eleanor’s desire to create a retreat for people to escape the stress and strain of day to day life. I absolutely loved writing about the Damson Farm retreat because creating opportunities for people to gather together, especially to enjoy good food, is one of my favourite things to do.

Pre-covid, this included events on a fairly grand scale. For 10 years I organised and cooked an annual 3-course dinner dance for over 100 women in my community. I’ve hosted gatherings in my home from St Patrick’s Day parties to jam-packed afternoon teas and years of antenatal classes. I’ve also catered for weekend retreats, like Eleanor at Damson Farm.

So, over the years I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t. For those of you who tremble at the thought of hosting a gathering, or for those of us who feel like we’ve forgotten how to do it, here are a few tips on getting back to gathering together:

Firstly, the two most important rules:

People want to feel welcome, not impressed.

The key to a succesful gathering is making sure your guests feel comfortable.

It’s a big thing, inviting people into your private space. Some of us have no problem letting others into the mess and the chaos. Others feel like they need to redecorate the whole house first.

Here’s what I think: if our home is immaculate, people feel like they need to behave immaculately. If we welcome people into our Real Lives – a bit of clutter, the odd stain, sense of humour essential – they feel able to relax and be themselves, and that’s when everyone has a good time.

I want people to take their shoes off so they can get comfy, not because they’re worried about getting my carpet dirty.

And if you feel more comfortable keeping your shoes on, that’s fine by me.

Know your limits – if you’re feeling stressed, so will your guests.

Whatever you’re doing, keep it simple. Be realistic. Choose menus that you can prep in advance. I like to do two pots of chili – one meat, one vegan (or several pots, if needed). Cook it beforehand. Assemble (or buy) a couple of nice salads, add dips, tortilla chips and some nice bread and then all that’s needed last minute is to cook some rice. For a crowd, I bake jacket potatoes.

On a similar theme:

  • Fancy décor won’t make or break a party. Fairy lights or some bunting go a long way.
  • Set up a drinks station so people can help themselves. You’ve got enough to do.
  • If someone offers to help, find them a job. Some people are happier in the kitchen doing something than standing about making small talk.
  • If kids are coming, a few simple things can provide hours of entertainment. Those little yellow stretchy men are brilliant. Also bubbles, stickers or wooden bricks for younger ones.
  • Wear something comfortable! Choose an outfit that is cool and easy to move about in. Avoid straps that need hoiking up or scratchy lace. Trust me, it will matter when you’re rushing about in a hot kitchen.
  • Choose music that suits the group. Classics are better than ‘cool’. I learned the hard way that 90s cheesy pop that rocks at a 40th birthday will bomb at a 60

Most of all, remember to enjoy yourself. People don’t want perfection, they want to feel at home.

It will be so wonderful to finally be together again, none of the rest will really matter.

And if the worst comes to the worst, and it’s a complete disaster, as long as you can laugh about it then you’ve still managed to create a memorable story that will be told at many more gatherings to come.

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