Buffet service fits perfectly into the relaxed, informal pattern of busy lives. If you have limited dining space, or if you are a do-it-yourself hostess, buffet service permits you to entertain with more ease than any other type of service, and just as graciously and pleasantly.
Your buffet table may be set against a wall, or in the center of the room. For only six or eight guests, it is often placed with the long side against a wall; a larger number may need both long sides for sufficient elbow room when serving themselves.
Because it presents all the food to the guests at one time and is thus the center of interest, the table should be arranged with care and artistry - and of course with common sense too, for the buffet table is functional, and its arrangement is as important as its beauty.
The table itself should be dressed as attractively as possible, in lace, linen or pretty place mats. This is also the time to bring out your beautiful serving trays and plates. Flowers have an important role to play on the buffet table. If the table is against the wall, the flower arrangement may be a background for the foods; if in the center of the room, it will probably be a centerpiece. Since guests will all be standing, there is no need to keep it low. If candles are used for lighting the table, be sure to use plenty of them, placed so they are really illuminating.
For the convenience of your guests, plan the arrangement of the table carefully. Confusing traffic plans should be avoided in order to help the serving line progress with ease and speed. Place a stack of large dinner plates at the point where guests are to start - probably at one end of the table. Napkins and silverware should be where they will be picked up last, after the plates are filled. Unless the guests are to eat at small tables, it is customary to serve only foods that can be eaten with a fork, since use of a knife is difficult. Rolls are usually buttered before they are put on the buffet. If you serve a tossed salad, tongs are far more easily handled than the conventional salad fork and spoon, when one hand is occupied by a plate. Since seasoning is so largely a matter of individual preference, individual salt and pepper shakers should be provided on snack tables or other convenient surfaces near the guest's chairs rather than on the buffet. A side table may hold a tray with goblets or glasses and a pitcher of iced water.
Courses for a buffet meal are usually limited to just two - a main course with salad and rolls, and a dessert. Dishes should be chosen that are easy to serve and that stand up well. Casserole dishes are better than delicate souffles which need to be served immediately. A chafing dish is a great convenience on a buffet table; heat-retaining casseroles are also an aid in keeping hot foods hot. Mixtures should not be too thin and runny, salads not too juicy. Tossed or molded salads are always good; fruit salad mixtures may be served in lettuce or cabbage cups which can be transferred to plates.
When guests have served themselves, emptied serving dishes should be refilled or removed from the buffet. Second servings may be passed by the hostess or she may ask the guests to return to the buffet to serve themselves. When the first course is eaten, the buffet table is cleared, and dessert and the dishes in which it is to be served are then brought out.
The basic pattern of buffet service is varied in many ways. For the most informal type of service, guests may serve themselves with everything, even pouring their own coffee. At a semi-formal buffet party, the hostess or a friend may pour the coffee at one end of the table; sometimes another friend may be asked to serve the main hot dish, if it is a casserole.
Ornamental trays large enough to hold the plate and coffee cup, napkin and silverware, and water glass may be provided for the guests; the trays may be held on the guests' laps, or they may be mounted on folding legs; if trays are not provided, snack tables or card tables should be provided to set things on while guests deal with their plates on their laps. Plates and silver used in the first course may be returned by the guests (either to the kitchen, if the party is very informal, or to a table set up near the kitchen), or cleared away by the host, or a friend. On some occasions, when space allows, a seated buffet may be preferred. Under this arrangement, guests select their food and seat themselves at smaller tables, such as card tables, where a place is set for each one.
Remember to consider eye-appeal of foods as well as their taste-appeal. The colors of the foods themselves as well as their arrangement on serving dishes and their garnishing are important, for a buffet meal provides almost the only opportunity for guests to see the whole menu at once. In planning for your party, be sure to estimate quantities generously, for there is something about a buffet which is irresistible to the appetite!
Larger, heartier buffet meals are sometimes served. For example, a roast turkey may be placed at one end, and a handsomely garnished baked tender ham at the other; both of these may be set out either hot or cold, and sliced or partly sliced beforehand. The could also be sliced and served by the host's helpers. To complete this particular meal, serve small, hot Southern biscuits with a big relish tray of carrot sticks, celery curls, olives, a platter of sliced tomatoes drizzled with French dressing and lemon meringue tarts. Don't forget some cranberry jelly to go with the turkey and spiced crab apples or peaches for the ham. Sumptuous!
MaryAnn and Kimberly, AKA: the Party Divas, are the talented mother-daughter team behind ThePartyWorks.com, the net's premier informational party site.