Fire up the grill, set up your picnic table and slice open that watermelon! July is here – and it’s not only the month for celebrating the birth of our country. It’s also National Picnic Month and National Grilling Month. So what better way to enjoy the festivities with family and friends than in the comfort of your own backyard?This year’s outdoor entertaining trends have summer party hosts moving even more of the experience outdoors. Serving delicious food is only half the fun of being a gracious host. Providing ambience and comfort also helps to create an enjoyable and memorable outdoor dining experience. Colorful outdoor place settings, tablecloths, and serving platters can help bring life to an otherwise basic picnic table. Likewise, candles, lanterns and light chains add a feeling of festiveness to an evening get together. “It seems people are spending more time at home and, therefore, want their outdoor living areas to be more comfortable,” says Cindy Marze, sales manager at The Hearth and Patio on Smith Corners Boulevard in UCity. “We have noticed that customers are actually expanding the idea to several areas now instead of just one.”Partying with the top dogsDeborah Ryan, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte, and her husband, Mike, a retired packaging executive, have lived in their home in the Radbourne neighborhood since 2001. The couple, who also co-own and manage Wikiplanning – an online site to increase civic engagement in the community planning process, have dinner parties a couple times a month and also host deck parties for the Radbourne neighborhood once a season. The Ryans especially enjoy having elaborate pool parties once or twice during the summer.Last month, the Ryans hosted a first-birthday pool party celebration for George, their Golden Doodle. “How silly is that?” jokes Deborah, calling the event a good “excuse to have folks over.”Whether the guest list includes canines or humans, the Ryans usually begin the party with drinks on the screen porch.“The porch is set up as an outdoor living area with comfortable seating and lots of pillows. There’s a TV and stereo with outdoor speakers,” explains Deborah. “Our back deck overlooks the pool and garden. We have an umbrella-covered table that I set up just as I would inside when we have guests over in the winter. I always have lots of candles on the table and lanterns lit throughout the garden.”The Ryans don’t reserve all of this beauty for their guests, but enjoy it nearly each day as a couple. “We eat outside daily if it is not too hot. Sometimes, even three times a day. Breakfast is pretty great outdoors,” Deborah says. “We are empty nesters. Mike cooks and I set up the table almost always with flowers from the garden, candles and good china. I never really understood the use of plastic dinnerware for us adults. If we are in the pool, sure. But on the deck, we still use the good stuff.”And, what is the meal of choice for the Ryans?“Anything grilled or just anything. My husband comes from a long line of excellent Italian cooks. Whatever he makes, it is good, and all the better when served outside.”Country livingBridget and Jim Bongaard enjoy entertaining outdoors at their picturesque UCity residence, which includes streams, pastures, woods, a pond and eight acres of a restored farm settlement.“We entertain several times a year, friends and family mostly, though sometimes we open our ‘farm’ for celebrations for the students that I teach, as well as the staff at NorthEast Internal and Integrative Medicine,” says Bridget Bongaard, MD, who teaches holistic nursing and other topics. Most recently, the Bongaards hosted a Low Country Boil to celebrate their son Dan, who is in the Navy and was home to visit. The party included Frogmore stew, salad, beer, and fun to welcome Dan and his friends. “We usually do the boil, cover the table by the pool with newspaper and pour all the goodies in a big pile, then chow down,” says Jim Bongaard.Having a pool on the premises to keep everybody cool is key to summer entertaining for the Bongaards.“Summer feasts are often around the pool, and extend late into the night with poolside hors d’oeuvres, drinks and candles to soften the night,” says Bridget. “On other occasions, the weather and company dictate the menu and setting. Sometimes we will throw a tapas party and cook paella for the finale, or have a Mystery Theater dinner, or whatever appears to have an element of fun and adventure. ”Though the Bongaards enjoy preparing all-American meals, such as “Colonel Jim’s” grilled ribs with sides of potato salad, homemade coleslaw and salad from their garden during the summer, they also love to focus on international cooking for more intimate soirees. “Our smaller dinner parties can revolve around Spanish, Creole, Mexican, French, Italian, Indian or Fijian cuisine.whatever looks fun and delicious,” says Bridget. “We just love to cook and try different things. Sharing with others is the spice of life!”
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