Most of what is written about big meals focuses, not unsurprisingly, on grand entrees — the turkey always gets the fanfare. Comfort-giving sides and dramatic desserts soak up most of the rest of the limelight, leaving bits and bobs behind for cocktails and appetizers.
Totally lost in the shuffle is the most prosaic stuff: the challenge of keeping dozens of guests happy by keeping them hydrated, and — later in the evening — caffeinated. You can burn precious time pouring water and brewing and rebrewing coffee while other, more critical stuff gets delayed or forgotten, or you can let your guests languish or forage haplessly for their own refills. The state of your liquids at a big meal barely merits consideration until it becomes a constant hassle.
Not surprisingly, it’s a problem that money — and not much of it — can easily solve. Once you’ve equipped your pantry appropriately, you’ll never go back to the desperate days of empty pitchers and French presses.
Step one: Get an acrylic beverage dispenser. It’s not glass, so it’s tough to break. Fill that sucker up with ice, water, and lemon slices, and your guests will be set for the meal, if not the evening.
Step two: Get a coffee urn. They’re church basement staples for a reason: they brew and dispense insane amounts of coffee, and guests can easily refill at will. If you use high-quality coffee and familiarize yourself with the machinery, you’ll get good results. As good as a lovingly massaged pour-over? Perhaps not. Good enough to wash down pie and put a smile on your guests’ faces? Absolutely.
Step three: If you really want to knock it out of the park, get a vacuum-insulated pump pot dispenser and effectively double your brew capacity. A good one will keep coffee piping hot for shockingly long periods of time. Four or five hours after the coffee goes in, it’ll still likely be hot enough to scald, so clean with care.
Step four: Who still has a punch bowl? Bad news: almost nobody. Good news: They’re available at any antique store or many tasteful rummage sales for a song, sometimes in crystal with matching cups. If you’ve got kids in attendance, whip up a fruit punch (with real fruit, orange juice, a giant ice cube (use a Bundt pan or loaf pan), and a bit of sparkling pear or apple cider, plus some Sprite (if you’re feeling charitable). Make sure the cups are unbreakable; supply a ladle and a towel-lined ladling station, and let the kids serve themselves while the adults suck down cocktails on the other side of the room.