party can be simply sweet if you follow this
June 14, 2007
By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh
There are plenty of momentous occasions in
your child's journey from birth to adulthood:
the first day of kindergarten, a first communion
or bar mitzvah, getting her driver's license, a
first date. But for many parents, one of the
biggest causes for celebration is their son's or
daughter's high school graduation.
O'Neill, Post-Gazette photos
Larimer serves her son Victor Powell's
graduation cake during his party at
their Ben Avon Heights home.
Some 18 years in the making,
this most special day officially marks your
child's entrance into the "real" world, whether
she's going on to college, entering the military
or buckling down and joining the work force.
As Sharon Larimer, who on Friday watched as
her youngest son, Victor Powell, graduated from
Avonworth High School, succinctly puts it: "It's
one of those rites of passage you really want to
In her case, the celebration translated into
an elegant garden party under pristine blue
skies at the 1905 farmhouse in Ben Avon Heights
she shares with husband, Rick. About 70 friends
and family members were on the guest list,
including quite a few members of the Class of
Greeted at the front steps by a large poster
of the grad, who will study engineering at the
University of Pittsburgh this fall, the crowd
was treated to a culinary spread that would have
impressed even Martha Stewart.
Along with an assortment of homemade dips and
salsas, the crowd noshed on everything from
grilled vegetables dressed with balsamic vinegar
to spicy grilled chicken satay, tomato pie and
sister-in-law Roberta Turkus' signature (and
delicious) Oriental shrimp wrapped in snow peas.
An old hand at this (this is her fourth
graduation party in nine years), Mrs. Larimer
also served roasted beef filet with assorted
mini rolls, and a dessert table that included
homemade rum cake, miniature pastries and
Sharon Larimer served these desserts at
her son's graduation party. Foreground
is lemon roll; left, fruit tart; rear
right, miniature carrot cake.
"We wanted to have everything
that everybody likes," says Mrs. Larimer, whose
father, Raymond Turkas, owned Farmers Choice
Poultry and Meats on Penn Avenue in the Strip.
"And we love to have parties."
If your child already has brought home his
high school or college diploma, you may be
thinking it's too late to plan a party,
especially one as sumptuous as the Larimers'.
Yet that's not necessarily the case. Ginger
Venable, co-author of the new "Graduation
Parties: Everything You Need to Know from Start
to Finish " (BookSurge, $14.95), actually
recommends throwing a graduation party a few
weeks after the actual event, because the
day/weekend of is so darn popular. "Too many
people throw them on the same day, and then you
have to choose," she explains.
If you want your event to be remembered for
the right reasons, it will take some planning.
For starters, you'll need to figure out how big
or small a party you'd like to throw. Will it be
strictly family and close friends, or will the
invitation extend to the entire neighborhood?
And what about the kids? Your graduate might
want to invite his entire class, while you'd
prefer to limit it to just those kids he was
friends with. The answer will help you determine
where you should hold the party (i.e., your back
yard, a rented hall or a local park) and how big
a budget you'll need.
Make sure your child is part of the
decision-making process. He worked hard to get
here and so should have some say in how the day
is celebrated. Here is some good advice:
Keep it simple, ask for help
Laura Grace Swanson and Gregory Powell
enjoy his brother's graduation party in
Ben Avon Heights. This is the fourth
high school graduation party his mom,
Sharon Larimer, has thrown.
Given the importance of a
graduation, you might be tempted to go overboard in
terms of menu, decorations and activities. Yet Ms.
Venable strongly recommends keeping things simple.
With regards to food, that means no more than five
or six graduate-friendly items that are easy for the
hostess or host to replenish on the buffet table.
Painful as it might be for all you Type-A party
throwers, it's also a good idea to swallow your
pride and ask for help. A good host may feel as if
she has to do all the cooking herself, but allowing
your mom to bake the baklava, pizzelles and galettes
served as dessert -- as Donna Cook of Bethel Park
did last year for her son Tyler's graduation party
-- actually will take some of the stress off, as
well as give you more time to mingle with guests.
Or, consider purchasing some of the food from a
restaurant or caterer and re-plating it in small,
For example, while Mrs. Larimer and her son Greg,
both foodies, made some of their party's dishes,
they also outsourced a few. Sous-chef Robert "Pug"
Pudis from Shannopin Country Club grilled the
veggies and satay and made the fruit platters, while
pastry chef Ainsley Renton of Mt. Lebanon crafted
the two-layer rum cake and assorted pastries and
cookies. The family also purchased hummus and
tabouli from their favorite Middle Eastern
restaurant, Christo's Mediterranean Grill on 6th
Street, Downtown, and tomato and mushroom pies from
Enrico Biscotti in the Strip.
That help should extend to servers and cleaners,
whether the jobs go to a friend or someone for hire.
Just be sure, advises Ms. Venable, that you're clear
in what you want them to do and when, whether it's
continually clearing plates or filling up the
One way to make things even simpler is to pair up
with the parents of another grad, thereby splitting
the cost and effort. Or limit the food to one
category, such as appetizers or dessert. Just be
sure you go with a food you know, as party day is
not the day to be fumbling around with new recipes.
In planning their menu, Mrs. Larimer and her son
Greg made several taste-testing trips to the Strip
to try out various dishes. They also traveled to
Whole Foods to get ideas.
from front are shrimp wrapped in snow peas;
roasted fresh vegetables and chicken satay.
"Nothing ruins a party more than
taking on too much and scrambling at the last minute
to pull everything together," notes Simone Hudson,
owner of 5Senses Events Design, a boutique events
Pick a theme or color scheme
A theme might seem a little hokey past the fourth
grade, but it can help keep the look consistent. And
it doesn't have to take that much work -- it can be
as simple as buying balloons and napkins in your
graduate's school colors or photocopying various
pictures of your child and stapling them to posts
placed around the party area.
Lacy Wilson, a 1999 grad of Bethel Park High
School who now lives in Lakewood, Ohio, suggests
putting out pictures of the grad from birth to
graduation, and also including past awards or
trophies and framed artwork. (Just be sure your
child signs off on any bare-bummed bathtub shots!)
Or you might follow the lead of Mike Suley and take
a "this is your life" approach. For his son
Michael's graduation party from Mt. Lebanon this
year, he'll show a 40-minute DVD that documents his
son's first day of school in each grade from
kindergarten through high school.
For her son David's graduation party in Kentucky
on May 26, Chartiers Valley grad Becky Hurst
downloaded photos of the ceremony onto a laptop and
created a slideshow that ran on a monitor during the
party. "It was nice for our guests to see pictures
of the graduation," notes Ms. Hurst, who now lives
in Anchorage, Ky. "And the teachers who attended the
party were thrilled."
You might also include information on one of the
tables about the graduate's future plans: what
college he'll be attending, his new mailing address
if he's going into the military. It'll make your
guests feel more part of your child's life -- and
give them an idea of where they can send future care
Mix it up
It's tempting (and easy) to plop everything down
on one big table and hope your guests will find a
way to mingle while they're filling their plates.
But that doesn't always work. A better strategy,
says Greg Powell, is to put different foods on
different tables, thereby forcing guests to walk
Mr. Powell, whose own graduation party two years
ago was held at the Firehouse Lounge in the Strip,
says, "You want to get a current going in the
Don't forget music and games
Everyone likes to eat, but you can only stuff
your face for so long. So make sure you plan a few
games or activities for the younger set. Set a small
table with crayons, coloring books and toys, and put
out some simple games for the teens, such as
horseshoes or Frisbee. But don't overdo it -- most
kids will want to spend most of their time simply
One way to kill two birds with one stone, says
Ms. Venable, is to rent some sort of fun,
food-related gadget, like a carousel-style hot dog
machine or popcorn or cotton candy maker. In
addition to having her mother, Rose, make all those
cookies, Donna Cook rented a slushie machine from
TruValue Hardware. She also ordered personalized
M&Ms in her son's school colors and placed them in
graduation cap-style dishes. Both moves, she says,
won raves from the crowd.
You might also ask your graduate's classmates to
bring one item that sums up their high school
career. Then, put those items in a box and assign
someone to save the "time capsule" until their 10th
high school reunion.
Speaking of dessert ...
No party is complete without some sort of sweet,
and for graduation parties that often means a sheet
cake. Yet while these giant desserts are a cheap way
to serve lots of people, not everyone likes the same
flavor of cake. Mrs. Cook tackled that problem by
making four smaller cakes in different flavors
(carrot, white with raspberry filling, banana and
chocolate) and also offering sugar cookies with her
son's picture on them, plus chocolate-covered
strawberries in the school colors of orange and
Not only did this create a beautiful dessert
table, but all of her guests found a flavor (or two)
that they really enjoyed.
And don't forget the thank you's
Even though it shouldn't be expected, many guests
will bring your graduate a card. So make sure you
have some sort of decorated box into which they can
put them so they don't get misplaced. It's also a
nice idea to take photos during the party of the
graduate with each guest, not only so they can
remember who was there but also so they can send a
copy with the thank-you note as a memento. And make
no mistake: now that your graduate is officially an
adult, he should act like one. And that means
sending a thank-you for each and every gift.
But don't forget to pat yourself on the back,
too. You did a great job raising this person, and
your efforts, along with hers, should be applauded.
Realizing this was the last party she'd have for
one of her children at this house (they are moving
to Washington, D.C.), Mrs. Larimer concedes her
son's graduation party was "bittersweet."
"But it was definitely one of our better
parties," she adds quickly. "And everyone said the
food was great."
(Gretchen McKay can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-761-4670. )