Tanya Zumach isn't afraid of fire. She got engaged at Burning Man, an annual desert gathering in Nevada that culminates in a huge ceremonial fire, and her frequent parties sometimes include fire spinning, a sort of dancing performance art with flaming objects.
But simple candles, placed too close to the curtains, turned on her one night. The curtains caught fire during a huge Thanksgiving party she and husband Matthew McCune were giving in their Portland, Ore., home. Luckily, guests managed to quickly douse the flames.
A party disaster can happen just that quickly -- something breaks, falls, catches on fire. Or it can happen more slowly, like not allowing enough time to thaw the turkey.
Either way, the party doesn't have to be ruined. This holiday season, hosts should remember two essentials for handling the inevitable glitch: alternate plans and a good attitude.
As Beth Wareham, editor of the latest ``Joy of Cooking'' (Scribner, 2006), quotes that book's co-author, Irma Rombauer, as saying:
``A host is like a general: It takes a mishap to reveal his genius.''
Or take it from Zumach, who has fond memories of her Thanksgiving emergency. ``After that, the party had a whole different energy,'' she said. ``It was, 'We just saved the house. Let's party!'''
When party disaster threatens, first, have a plan. And a backup plan.
`` does exist,'' said Greg Jenkins, an event planner for Bravo Productions in Long Beach, Calif. ``To minimize damage control, the party-giver should think of every possible scenario. That might include having the emergency number of a plumber and electrician handy, as opposed to thumbing through the yellow pages making a plethora of calls.''
Even with a Plan B, hosts should expect something to go wrong and not let it upset them, says Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, which teaches etiquette in San Antonio.
``It would be a miracle to host a party and have the entire event go off smoothly without even a minor accident. If someone spills wine on your favorite chair, take care of it immediately and assure your guest that it is no big deal. Even if it is a huge deal,'' she said. ``You don't want your guest to feel bad or put other guests in an uncomfortable situation while you sulk.''
Have realistic expectations about your culinary abilities in particular, said Ted Allen, host of ``Chopped'' on the Food Network.
``The holidays are the one time a year when people who don't cook any other time of the year suddenly cook for 27 people,'' he said. If that sounds familiar, cook as many dishes ahead of time as possible and consider going potluck, which not only takes the pressure off but gives guests a chance to share traditions and recipes.
Allen once baked cinnamon rolls for a restaurant-critic colleague but neglected to use a drip pan to catch the bubbling icing and sugar. Just as the smoke detector went off from the mess in the oven, the doorbell rang.
Another time, he instinctively reached for a pan handle without thinking where it was -- in a hot oven where salmon filets were cooking. He sat at the dinner table for the rest of the night with his hand in a glass of cold water.
Allen didn't consider either event a failure.
``There aren't many better ways to show your love for friends than to cook for them,'' he said. ``If it doesn't work out, you need to have the ability to laugh it off and order a pizza.''
If something goes wrong, your guests might not even know, said Sara Gaum, owner of the event-planning website VendorBar.com.
``Your guests do not know all of the details of your event like you do, and they won't know if the cake flavor is wrong or if dinner was served five minutes late,'' Gaum said. ``Guests will look to you to see how they should react. Shrug off the bad stuff and enjoy yourself.''
Lori Shaffer and her husband, Michael, had just moved into a new home in Hainesport, N.J., when they invited their neighbors to a holiday party. One, Karyn Lockshine, accidentally knocked over a dark green candle, sending wax flying onto the walls, the carpet, the tablecloth and the white dining room chairs. Together, she and Shaffer tried to clean up, but the wax had stained everything.
A few days later, Lockshine arrived at Shaffer's door with a basket of cleaning products, and the pair ironed wax out of the carpet and repainted the walls.
One chair, Shaffer said, ``was ruined, but still to this day I have not recovered it. The green stains just remind me of how I met my best friend.''
As for Zumach, she continues to host Thanksgiving dinners and has no delusions they will be perfect.
``It just becomes a story to tell,'' Zumach said.