By Elizabeth Wulfhorst |
COLTS NECK – Gathering friends and family together for a party is nothing new. Asking everyone to bring a dish isn’t a novel concept either – potluck, anyone? But hosting 125 people lugging 35 slow cookers in your backyard requires some serious planning, a feat township resident Patti Dowd has accomplished nine times, most recently last month in her backyard.
Dowd’s son Ryan was just 3 years old when their annual Harvest Party was born. What began as a small fall party for family and a few friends – a precursor to Halloween, really – quickly grew.
“It got bigger exponentially,” Dowd said.
“The first year we had four crockpots, then 10, then 20. Eventually I said, ‘Let’s just go for it.’ ” Going for it meant erecting tents, hiring a service to do set up and clean up, ordering lots of desserts and planning games for the kids. And turning the party into a competition.
Dowd said by the second year, everyone was bragging about their dish, saying it was the best. So she suggested a contest and her guests rose to the challenge. They eventually introduced independent judges because people were stuffing the ballot box and cheating. One year Dowd’s sister-in-law made Irish stew. She dressed the kids at the party in kilts, hired a bagpiper and had them march around just to try and influence the vote.
Each year someone is crowned the grand champion by the judges. That person takes home a trophy, called The Patti Crocker, consisting of a Barbie doll dressed in a bandana, surrounded by pumpkins and leaves. Initially the trophy was passed from winner to winner each year, like the Stanley Cup, but the original one ended up in Wisconsin so this year’s trophy was new. There are also prizes for the most popular dish, voted by all the guests in attendance, and a winner chosen by kid judges.
About seven years ago the party got so big – at one point reaching 200 guests and 47 slow cookers – Dowd decided to call it quits. Ryan was almost a teenager and life was just getting in the way. Then, at the end of this summer, Dowd asked her son what he wanted for his 18th birthday and high school graduation. They hadn’t had the chance to celebrate either thanks to Dowd’s treatment at the time for cancer.
Without missing a beat, Ryan said, “I want to have the Harvest Party.”
So Dowd dragged out her giant tub of outlet extenders and boosters and started planning. Over the years she’s blown so many fuses she’s lost count. This year’s party almost didn’t happen thanks to a faulty GFI on the back patio where she sets up all the tables and less than stellar weather. “Every year I set up tents,” said Dowd, “and every year the weather was beautiful. This year I didn’t bother and it was threatening rain all day.”
But that certainly didn’t dampen the fun. Guests came from as far south as Florida and North Carolina and from as far north as Canada. A fall tableau with mums, a scarecrow and a chalkboard sign invited guests to “strike a pose.” Once pictures were taken they could be posted to Snapchat with a special Harvest Party 2018 filter designed specifically for the party. Printed cups touted “Happy fall, y’all” and “Patti and Ryan’s Harvest Party.”
But the food is definitely the star. “It’s really the best buffet ever,” said Dowd. Over the years there have been some great dishes and some not so great ones.
A chocolate cake Dowd compared to a “chocolate slug” lives in infamy. A vegan tofu miso soup Dowd hated got the judges’ vote one year. Rice balls caused some controversy as they weren’t actually cooked in the slow cooker, just placed in there for serving. And cosmos in a crockpot were so strong one year everyone got a little drunk.
This year’s dishes ranged from a venison chili to a cheesy beer dip to apple cider sangria and a peanut butter chocolate cake. A creative family member was assigned to give the dishes clever names as they arrived: The dip became “In Queso You Need a Beer” and the venison chili was designated “Chili con Bambi.”
Dowd even hired an ice cream truck this year to dispense treats after the judging was over and all the slow cookers were packed away.
And was Ryan happy with his choice of birthday/graduation celebration? “He had the best time,” said Dowd.
Full disclosure: The author was the winner of the 2018 Harvest Party grand champion prize. Her triumphant dish was the cheesy beer dip, accompanied by homemade soft pretzel bites.
This article was first published in the Nov. 8-14, 2018 Colts Neck section of the print edition of The Two River Times.
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