Managing a large-scale party

December 17, 2008|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Bob and Suzie Thieblot know how to throw a holiday party. They have been inviting crowds of merrymakers into their home for 47 years for a feast that consumes cases of wine, 25 pounds of cheese, plates of smoked turkey and seafood, and hundreds of homemade sugar cookies. For a time, they put on two holiday events: one for their neighbors, one for members of Bob's law firm, Thieblot Ryan.

As a neighbor who over the years has benefited from the Thieblots' hospitality, I was curious how they engineered this large party. Recently, Suzie paused from her preparations for this year's gathering to tell me about the logistics behind the festivities.

First, there is the task of sending out invitations. The list, which now numbers close to 400, was first drawn up in 1961. That's when the couple - he a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, she an art history graduate of Wellesley College - moved, with their baby daughter and cat, into a house in the 1400 block of John St. in Bolton Hill.

"We didn't know many people, so we thought we would invite people from the neighborhood for a little party. It has grown from there," Suzie said. The couple later moved to a larger home on Park Avenue, which had tenants renting the top floors. When the Thieblots took over the top floors of the home, the two celebrations were combined into one night.

The address list of the guests is kept on a computer, but Suzie writes the invitations by hand. "We tried printing the list with the computer on mailing labels, but it was such a pain. So I write them out at odd moments in the day," Suzie said.

Keeping the 47-year-old list current is a task, she said. "There are a lot of corrections. People either move away from the neighborhood or move away permanently to the great beyond."

Suzie puts out two smoked turkeys and two roasted pork shoulders and lets the guests carve. "Bob and I used to smoke the turkeys ourselves," she said. "But one year I ordered them from a place in California, Mo. [Burgers' Smokehouse]. My son-in-law, Harley Walker, said that was the best we had ever had." So from that year forward, the turkey came from Missouri, she said.

The pork comes from Celio Oliveras, a retired Baltimore policeman, who makes the garlicky dish for clients using a recipe he got from his late mother, Caridad, a native of Puerto Rico.

The Thieblots order a selection of smoked seafood - oysters, mussels and salmon - from SeaBear, a smokehouse in Anacortes, Wash.

The array of cheeses comes from Wegmans. "For an evening party of this size, you want a variety of milks," Monika Thompson, cheese manager at the Hunt Valley store, told me. "Cheese made from cow milk, goat milk and sheep milk give you different mouth feels.

"Then you blend in the countries, matching the terroir of the cheese with the wine. So with Suzie, we have French, Italian, Spanish, American artisan, Swiss and one from Holland."

The best companion for cheese, Thompson said, is a classic baguette. The Thieblots use plenty of baguettes, but they also serve some delicately flavored crackers that they match with particular types of cheese. The crackers with olive oil and sea salt go well with Italian cheese, Thompson said. The rosemary-flavored crackers go well with soft cheese, celery-flavored crackers pair with blue cheese and chile-flavored crackers match up with cheddar, Thompson said.

A unique cheese that the Thieblots are serving this year, Thompson said, is a Mobay from Carr Valley Cheese Co. in La Valle, Wis. It is double cheese: goat cheese on one layer, cheese made from sheep's milk on the other, separated by a layer of natural vegetable ash.

The wines are equally divided between red and white, with a sprinkling of sparklers. "For big parties like this one, you try to have a variety," Lee Grandes, the wine manager at Wells Liquors, told me. For the reds at this year's Thieblot party, Grandes selected chianti, Bordeaux and a cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir from California. For the whites, he picked an Italian pinot grigio, a California chardonnay and some Macon-Villages from France.

Years ago, the holiday crowds drank more white wine than red but, recently, red wine has passed white in popularity, Grandes said.

Another feature of the Thieblot party is the Christmas cookies, sheets of sugar cookies, which Suzie bakes and her daughter, Aline Walker, decorates and sets out for guests to munch on. The preparations as well as the food and drink for this party are impressive. But there is another factor, I think, that makes it successful. That is the couple's spirit.

In previous Decembers, Bob has stationed himself at the front door, greeting some of the 200-plus guests, while Suzie circulated through the multiple floors of their Bolton Hill home.

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