THE SHOW MUST GO ON When the dessert flops or the caterer gets lost

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to party disaster stories, everyone has a favorite.

Have you heard the one about the couch-eating dog?

"I was having my boyfriend's boss and 20 guests over for dinner and had been up late the night before shampooing the carpet," recalls Linda Sherman, a morning personality on WQSR-FM (105.7). "On the day of the party, I came home and discovered that my Great Dane had suffered an anxiety attack."

The damage report:

"She uprooted the ficus tree and dragged it through the house, leaving 2 inches of mud on the carpet," Ms. Sherman says. "I found the tree stuck in the dog door -- I think she thought it was a big bone. After that, she ate the leather couch. It was two hours before the party."

Fighting off panic, Ms. Sherman grabbed a telephone book and found the number of a carpet-cleaning company that advertises emergency service.

"Two guys came over, cleaned the carpet and even helped me move the couch out," she says. "Then I called a local restaurant to supply the dinner. During the party, no one mentioned that the carpet was a little squishy -- or that there weren't a lot of places to sit."

Like most good party disaster stories, Ms. Sherman's offers valuable lessons. ("Never buy a dog that's bigger than your lap!") Her panic-time tale, and those of other experienced party givers and food professionals, can teach us how to avoid (or cope with) last-minute meltdown at a domestic get-together.

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One sure-fire way of preventing dinner-party fiascoes is to hire a reputable caterer. Or is it?

"Read your contract for details such as the date, the time and the place," recommends Roz Goldner, an administrator with the state health department.

"The occasion was my brother's 60th birthday and we had invited about 40 of our nearest and dearest friends," she recalls. "About 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, the day of the party, I was getting nervous because the caterer hadn't showed. So I called and asked, 'What time will you arrive to start setting up?' "

The answer was chilling: tomorrow.

"She told me to look at the date on my contract. I almost died -- it said Sunday," Ms. Goldner says. "It was absolutely my fault. Then she told me, 'Don't worry, I'll be there.' "

If there's a caterer's hall of fame, Ms. Goldner would like to nominate to it Ami Taubenfeld, owner of Great Occasions in Baltimore.

"Ami brought the raw ingredients and cooked the dinner herself," she says. "I could have gone crazy or laughed -- so I laughed. Yet the party was gorgeous. At 11 o'clock I told the guests what happened -- and Ami got a standing ovation!"

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Ms. Goldner's advice applies not just to catering contracts, but to any agreements you make for services or for goods to be delivered to the house on the day of the party.

"My teen-age son was home and was supposed to look out for the cleaning service -- but the fact that they didn't show didn't disturb him," says Nancy Baggett, a cookbook author who lives in Ellicott City. "So after I got home I called the service and asked when they were coming. They said, 'We were there.' "

Hmm. Then why was the house still dirty?

In fact, the house cleaners did make an appearance in her neighborhood.

"It was wonderful for the people next door," says Ms. Baggett. "Coincidentally, their teen-age son was home at the time, too -- and wasn't fazed at all when the cleaning service arrived to clean their house."

And what about the party?

"I had to keep the lights down."

Marlene Meyer, owner of Life of the Party, a Bolton Hill catering company, has a similar story.

"The worst party disasters happen on Sundays, when most services are closed," she says. "One Sunday I was catering a 4-year-old's Barney-themed birthday party. Guess what? A half-hour before the party started, there was no cake. It had been delivered to the wrong address."

Fact: A 4-year-old kid's birthday party must have a cake -- and in this case, it'd better have a dinosaur theme.

"It's the caterer's place to think of Plan B when things go awry -- even on a Sunday, when virtually every bakery is closed," Ms. Meyer says. "I went to the Giant in Pikesville and had a cake in 45 minutes. Fortunately, it even had a picture of Barney on it."

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Hired hands are not the only people who can create headaches for a busy host or hostess.

"I was having 10 people over for dinner and had made everything ahead of time -- gazpacho, lasagna, a salad and dessert," recalls Pat Bernstein, a Baltimore resident and director of Cycle Across Maryland. "I had a friend helping in the kitchen so I could sit with my guests. Out she comes with the soup -- and it's hot! Now it was hot vegetable soup, not gazpacho."

The next course: lasagna.

"To make the platter look attractive, my friend had cut the lasagna into small pieces," Ms. Bernstein says. "But it fell apart and looked like soup. Nothing worked out. Yet aside from that, it was a wonderful evening!"

She says with a sigh, "Don't assume that someone you've known for years knows that gazpacho is served cold or that your homemade lasagna needs to be served in the pan it was made in."

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For Billy Himmelrich, the owner of Stone Mill Bakery, losing his baggage during a vacation trip meant digging deeper in his pocket to throw a New York dinner party.

"My brother and I had gone fishing in Alaska and I had smoked some of the salmon we caught before we flew back," Mr. Himmelrich recalls. "I was planning on using it at a dinner party in Manhattan in a salmon-filled ravioli with a delicate black olive sauce."

Mr. Himmelrich made all the flight connections. His duffel bag containing the smoked salmon -- and some jeans and T-shirts -- did not.

Dinner wasn't canceled.

"I had to pay a very high price per pound for the salmon at a food retailer in New York City," Mr. Himmelrich says. "In hindsight, I should have carried the salmon in a carry-on bag."

His luggage showed up four days later.

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Beverage, anyone?

"People were eating dinner on wicker lap trays and I served a guest a glass of red wine," Ms. Baggett recalls. "It was a long-stemmed wineglass -- and he tipped the glass of wine on the carpet. . . . I told him, no problem -- but I could see he really felt awful.

"Two minutes later, I knocked my glass over. The stains are still in the carpet."

This hostess recommends: "To spare your guests embarrassment -- and to spare your carpets -- make sure your glassware at buffet dinners has a low center of gravity."

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What do you do during an intimate dinner party when your homemade pecan pie goes limp?

"I thought I'd put the pie I had made earlier in the day in the microwave to warm while we were eating dinner," says Fondra Anderson, a Sparks homemaker.

"I didn't turn it on. Since the microwave is located over the range, I thought the heat from the stove would warm the pie."

She knew something was wrong when she began to cut the pie into serving pieces.

"It had turned to liquid, as if it had never been cooked," Ms. Anderson says. "But I had to serve dessert, so I put vanilla ice cream in bowls and spooned the liquid from the pie over it. It was like pecan caramel syrup over ice cream."

And, she adds, it tasted great. A less-experienced cook might have panicked and just served the ice cream without the topping, "but I knew the pie was cooked and OK to eat," she says.

"It turns out serving it over ice cream was the best thing to do. We're still laughing about it."

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Ms. Anderson's lesson can be stated another way: When problems threaten to derail your party, just relax.

"After all, your goal is to have a good time," points out Mark Henry, chef at the Milton Inn in Sparks. "If something unusual happens in the kitchen, just work around it. Either do without the item or find a substitute. So many stores are open where you can pick up high-quality stuff at the last minute. So play it by ear."

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