By Brady Sloane
Photography by Jennifer Nichols
The holiday season has officially begun. It’s a wonderful time of year, filled with family and friends and celebrations. And, it’s often a stressful time of year, filled with expectations and pressure and busy-ness. For starters, the holidays require food, and lots of it. Maybe you entertain at your house every year, or perhaps you are new to the idea of hosting a party of your own.
Don’t despair if you’re overwhelmed at the thought of holiday entertaining. There are many ways to feed your friends and family over the holidays: making everything from scratch, hiring a caterer or chef to take care of everything, or something in between. We’ll look at some Abilenians’ party traditions and how they make their party both food delicious and do-able.
Simple snacks for a large crowd.
For more than twenty years, Julie and Buddy Napier have hosted a hot chocolate and cookies party for the children and staff of Hendrick Home for Children. Julie explained that years ago on a cold and snowy evening she was visited by a small group of six caroling children and two adults (Hendrick children go caroling every year visiting friends of Hendrick). Her home was the last stop of the night, and she invited them all in to warm up by the fire with hot cocoa.
So moved by the visit, she and her husband decided to host the group every year on their night of caroling.
“Since then, the home has grow, and we now host three vans full of children and staff who begin by caroling in our living room,” Julie said. “Barbara Dahl and Susie Brecheen are great about giving us an hour notice of arrival.”
Julie has tried different cookie and snack recipes over the years and typically offers a mix of cookies from McKay’s bakery with her homemade favorites.
“I like to make pizzelles with anise, like my mother and her Serbian family did,” she says. “Rather than making them full size, mini, bite-size pizzelles are easier to eat and leave less crumbs.”
The cookie selections may change, but one thing remains the same: hot chocolate. The preparation of this featured menu item is down to a science, cooking 2-gallon batches at a time in cast iron pots on the stove. She enlists the help of one or two volunteers who tend to the constant stirring needed.
“The greatest part about this method is being able to ladle out a cup of hot chocolate to each and every eager guest,” Julie said. “It’s a special time to greet each child, some who have memories of this party for most of their young lives.”
While she plans the event a month or more before the party and organizes her tasks accordingly to avoid last minute rushing, she also keeps the event in perspective.
“Over the years, I have found that fellowship and fun with family and guests is more important than fancy and sometimes exhausting food preparation,” Julie said. “At the end of the night, it’s inspiring to see these children grow every year and meet the amazing house parents and staff of Hendrick Home for Children. It’s an honor to be a little part of that miracle.”
Come and go with heavy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails
Betty and Charlie Hukill of Abilene have been hosting a New Year’s Eve party at their home consistently since 1984. As their friendships have grown over the years, so has the guest list (a “ridiculous size” according to Betty), and they have decided that next year will be their final large fête.
To feed such a large group, many of whom are standing, they offer a menu with food items that are hearty and easy to grab.
Hukill said she tries to add one new dish (and let go of a previous one) every year. Menu items have included pre-made meatballs simmered in a barbecue sauce concocted by Charlie, Hickory Farms beef sausage, and a chili dip. Pork tenderloins marinated overnight and baked throughout the party, smoked turkey, and shrimp round out the hearty, filling menu (perfect for a holiday that is celebrated into the wee hours). Betty also has added finger sandwiches, which she prepares herself. Trays of cheese and fruit offerings abound, as well as chips and dips. She uses some prepared and easy-to-prepare foods but also makes several items from scratch.
“I love to make Ellen Webb’s recipe for Chili Cheese Squares, and if any are left over, they are terrific for New Year’s Day breakfast,” Betty says.
For dessert she bakes a batch of brownies using Charlie’s grandmother’s recipe and slices up a pound cake purchased from McKay’s. Betty also relies on baked good contributions from guests, including a longtime tradition of a variety of delicious baked goods from friends Lynn and Carroll Haggard.
As for drinks, beverages include coffee, soda, wine and beer, and, of course, Champagne for the midnight toast. Betty adds that they have learned not to overstock, since many guests bring extra. She will make cosmopolitans for the crowd as well.
Betty’s advice is to allow ample time for all of the preparation. She adds that pacing herself and planning ahead is especially important, as the day after New Year’s Day, she is back at work and running a seven-hour junior musical rehearsal.
Sara and Bill Core host an evening Christmas party for family, friends, co-workers and “church-folk” annually since 2010. Sara says she is thinking about recipes, caterers and ideas all year, but gets serious about planning by Nov. 1. A favorite resource is the annual Southern Living Christmas book. She changes the menu every year, focusing on creating a balance of savory foods and sweet dishes. Sara also includes gluten-free items.
At various times she has had the event entirely catered, half catered and done it entirely on her own. Caterers she has used include Goober on the Go, United Supermarkets, and Becky Scheible of A Delightful Bite.
While she said making all the food herself is hard, and she primarily caters a portion of the event, what is most helpful each year is hiring servers (sometimes college students and sometimes the caterer).
“To me, the greater need is to have someone there to serve and keep the table full, so I can spend my time visiting with my guests,” Sara said.
She enjoys baking “forgotten cookies” (often with help from her grandchildren) made with meringue, chocolate chips and nuts, and always offers a non-alcoholic punch that includes cranberry juice, orange juice, and lemonade.
A signature detail of the Core event is a party favor. Sara selects something small for each guest to take home to remember the gathering, such as a single flower or an ornament.
“Start early and keep it simple,” Sara said. “It’s really about the fellowship and thanking God for a great year by blessing others with a fun event.”
Brunch from Scratch
Sherri and Chuck Statler host a Christmas brunch on the first Saturday in December after the close of the Abilene ISD football season. Sherri enjoys collecting recipes all year long and making everything entirely from scratch, but she does not finalize the menu until about a week before the party. Sherri said she wants her menu to include “some tried-and-true, no-fail favorites, and then at least one new, never-tried-it before-but-it-sounds-good experiment.”
“Fortunately, our guests are daring and hungry. And it’s breakfast. You’d have to work at messing it up,” she says.
Cooking is a family affair with her daughter Caroline (and friends) helping with baking muffins and sweet breakfast breads while listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas album. And Sherri and Chuck watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” while setting up the night before the party.
Sherri’s never-fail annual recipes include her mother’s Apple Cake (re-named Apple Bread when served before noon), and her mother’s punch, which they also drink while opening gifts Christmas morning. Her time saving tips include baking ahead and freezing. While Sherri limits her menu to 6 or 7 different foods, each one is made to serve 100 people.
Tips from the Hosts
- Plan a menu that can be made ahead of time. – Sherri Statler
- Don’t stress about your house! If we waited to have a party until all the projects at our house were done, we’d never have anyone over. Instead, we just invite more friends. It’s so crowded, no one can see the chipped paint on the baseboards. –Sherri Statler
- Invite people you enjoy being with, and especially those you don’t get to see very often. – Sherri Statler
- Don’t ask for an RSVP, just prepare plenty of food and hope your guests will stay longer than you planned. –Sherri Statler
- Start early and keep it simple. It’s really about the fellowship and thanking God for a great year by blessing others with a fun event. –Sara Core
- Allow ample time for all of the preparation. –Betty Hukill
- Focus on creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere. –Julie Napier
If you haven’t already, go ahead and invite people over. Cook what you like and outsource the rest. Share your food, your home and and special memories with friends and family this holiday season.