Amy Sedaris gives us a Halloween party to scream about
Jolène M. Bouchon, photos by Steven Sullivan; originally published on Epicurious.com
Make no bones about it: Amy Sedaris is an entertainer extraordinaire—and we don't just mean as a comedian, actor, and cocreator of such oddball gems as the Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy. Sedaris is also an entertainer of the domestic variety, charming guests with her culinary stylings and party-throwing panache. She loves hosting so much, in fact, that she's published a book about it, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence.
"Entertaining alone is one of the most creative and rewarding experiences I can think of," Sedaris says. But she doesn't believe it has to be complicated. According to Sedaris, you don't need to be a celebrity chef or a style maven to throw a great party, spending hours making elaborate recipes and heirloom-quality decorations. Nor does she buy into the trappings of formal etiquette. "Who can have fun with all those rules?" she asks. For Sedaris, entertaining is more about the gathering of friends, which is why she named her book I Like You: "That's what you're saying when you invite someone into your home."
Since fall is her favorite season, we asked Sedaris to share her secrets on holding a Halloween celebration. Her answer: a discount-movie-theater dinner party that's sure to charm your guests. What's more, it couldn't be easier: Just scare up some creepy movies, set out some crafty decorations, whip up a meal made to be eaten in the dark, add some frightfully good drinks, and enjoy!
For the last few years I've entertained people on Halloween," Sedaris says, "I've rented a scary movie and turned my apartment into a discount movie theater—vacuuming before the lights come up and all."
It's a simple idea that's easy to execute. Choose your film right off the, ahem, bat. That will serve as the basis for your drink and decor decisions. "The fun of the party to me is the movie I'm featuring," says Sedaris, whose favorites include the classic versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Trilogy of Terror, The Bad Seed, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The next step, she says, is creating an in-home theater. To be certain all your guests have a clear view of the movie, place your television or projection screen in a central location, with the seating arranged around it. Make sure, too, that your seating is cushy enough to keep your guests comfortable for a couple of hours—or more, if you're showing a double feature. Finally, give your guests dining trays or set out some small side tables to give them a place to put the dinner and drinks you're going to serve.
It's true that discount movie theaters aren't exactly known for their dinners, unless you count stale popcorn and dusty chocolate candies as a meal. However, no hostess worthy of her charm-school crown would ever be caught dead letting her guests go hungry.
For her discount-theater dinner parties, Sedaris usually serves meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn. "I choose this menu because you don't have to see it to eat it," she says. "This is important, because the lights are out." Nor does the menu require a knife—the one-handed fork operation makes it easier for guests who prefer to hold their plates while eating rather than placing them on a table or tray. It also provides an extra measure of safety should there be psychotic murderers lurking about.
In homage to the season, Sedaris also makes a pumpkin pie decorated with bats and owls. She likes to use the recipe on the back of the canned pumpkin, cutting out shapes in the dough with Halloween cookie cutters to place on top. (Set these on the pie after it's been baking for 15 minutes, she instructs.) Or, use our recipe for Spirited Pumpkin Pie. You can also make Sedaris's famous cupcakes, decorating them with orange and black sprinkles or frosting (use food coloring), or seasonally appropriate sugar shapes or plastic cupcake picks, available at baking sites such as sugarcraft.com or babykakes.com.
Sedaris also likes to have her guests help carve a jack-o'-lantern at the beginning of the party. "You have to bake the seeds from the pumpkin," she says. "People have an association with that smell." Place cleaned seeds (give them a good rinse, then dry) on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt, and then bake them in a 350°F-oven for about 10 to 15 minutes until lightly browned. Cool, then set out in a bowl for snacking.
When figuring out which beverages to serve at her party, Sedaris takes her cues from the movie she's featuring. "Last year we watched The Changeling. I served wine because there was a lot of whining going on in the movie." Bloody Marys, Sedaris says, are always good for Halloween, too. Either of these choices would be perfect with some of Sedaris's favorite movie picks, The Bad Seed, the original Dracula, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? For the latter, you could also serve the Blanche.
Beyond red wine and Bloodies, there are a variety of drinks that pair perfectly with classic screen screams. Here are some of our favorite macabre matches:
The Shining - Berry Rum Punch
Night of the Living Dead - Zombie
Texas Chainsaw Massacre - Sangria
Frankenstein - Corpse Reviver
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Shanghai
Any seasoned entertainer will tell you that one of the most important aspects of throwing a party is to set the tone with music and decorations. Not only does it get your guests in the proper spirit, it also gives them an idea of the type of evening they're in for.
First, send out invitations that look like a movie ticket or film reel, or copy the cover of the movie you're going to feature. To emphasize the discount-theater theme come party time, play some Muzak (who doesn't find that creepy?), drape red velvet over your walls and TV screen, roll out some mildewy carpet, and strew popcorn about. You could even ask a sullen, acne-faced teen to show your guests to their seats. And if you want yours to be a costume party, suggest that your guests come dressed as characters from the feature film.
Sedaris, however, prefers to go with more traditional Halloween-themed decorations. She pins a skeleton to her door, hangs tissue-paper ghosts, and suspends orange and black crepe paper from corner to corner of her ceiling. "That's what we used when we were little, and I still love it." Sedaris might also draw a body outline on her floor. "One year I sprayed cobwebs on an 800-year-old wheelchair I had in the apartment (long story) and placed one shoe on the footrest. I thought it would be scary to think where the other shoe was." She also likes to play an old sound effects tape as her guests enter the apartment. "One of the lines on the tape says, 'Didn't the other children tell you?'"
And because Halloween is a holiday intimately tied with fall and the harvest, Sedaris includes painted gourds and pumpkins, acorns, scarecrows, and leaves ironed between two sheets of waxed paper among her decorations. She also places the pumpkin pie, jack-o'-lantern, and other decorations on a display table for guests to see as they enter her apartment.
Another signature Sedaris touch, which she sets up whenever she entertains guests, is a sale table—a kind of concession stand, if you will. "I sell unwanted items. It can be anything from unwanted half bottles of lotion to a fancy bottle of wine, buckets, sponges, batteries—whatever you want to give away." She charges 25 cents (quarters only), no matter what the item, and caters her merchandise to her audience. "People like to pay for things and I like the transaction. It takes me back to a time when I was selling Girl Scout cookies door to door or collecting Coke bottles. I use these quarters to do my laundry." For your Halloween party, you could set up a sale table with candy or random parts of old costumes.
Shot on location at Visions 11, Brooklyn, NY
Amy Sedaris is a comedian, actress, writer, all-around entertainer, and cupcake baker whose credits include the Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy, as well as a movie based on the series, plus roles in Elf, Bewitched, and School of Rock. She is also the author of I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, a cookbook and entertaining guide.