Throw some burgers on the Weber, load up a cooler with beer, invite a few friends over. What could be easier or more casual . . . or more forgettable?
You want the opposite of forgettable. That means thinking bigger: A great backyard party requires abundance and drama. There is nothing abundant or dramatic about processed meat encased in a bun soggy with ketchup. So forget hot dogs, and aspire to an entire roast pig. And don't just call the usual cast of characters — create an unexpected mix of good friends and complete strangers. There is an art to a great backyard party, to rising to the challenge of getting "people to that special place where everyone is happy and no one wants the moment to end," says Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef whose annual Mexican-themed backyard party is on calendars nationwide.
That is something I understand. I have hosted an annual summer barbecue for the past 25 years. It started with grilled chicken on a hibachi and a keg of Sierra Nevada. But as the years went on, I got more ambitious, and my guests got more demanding. The keg has been replaced by home brew made by friends. I have bought fresh oysters by the bushel, dug a pit to bury a pig Hawaiian-style, and gone to Home Depot for rebar to spread-eagle a lamb for roasting.
Each year the party gets bigger. Guests rave to their friends: Things happen at this guy's party — people fall in love; people get jobs. Each year the number grows.
The peak moment probably came when neighbors, upset about the smoke, called the fire department. Three firefighters trooped in and stood agape at the sight of an 80-pound pig on a spit that was connected to a stationary bicycle so my guests could get their miles in while turning the meat. The firefighters gave me some advice on fire management, told me to trim some branches from an overhanging fig tree, and let the party roll on.
But as every cook knows, culinary mastery is a work in progress. So too are parties. With that in mind, we sought out experts in the art and science of backyard parties. If there is one single lesson to be distilled, it's this: Don't expect it to be easy. Building a legend takes work. If beer and burgers are an easy jog around the neighborhood, then this is a hilly half-marathon. There are no shortcuts. There may be blood, sweat, and tears. If you're doing it right, you'll probably get burned.
Here you will find expert advice and tips, be provoked by challenges, and probably get very hungry. "You shouldn't make things abnormally difficult, but there is no substitute for labor," says Aaron Franklin, the acclaimed Texas barbecue master. "Do what your heart tells you to do. But if you are not having fun, there is not much point."