Graduation Party News

Your graduation party can be simply sweet if you follow this advice


Thursday, June 14, 2007


By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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.


  Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette photos
Sharon 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 celebrate."


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 2007.


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 cookies.


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

  Guest 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, easy-to-handle batches.


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 platters.


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.


Clockwise 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 planning company.


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 packages.


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 around.


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 party."


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 talking.


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 black.


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 or 412-761-4670. )