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Snakes passed a landmark birthday back in early July, one that deserved to be celebrated beyond the usual night on the town. (Look- it even merits a blog post!) He was hesitant because we’d both had a stressful and difficult year, but I pushed back, insisting that this was exactly why we had to pause and honor this time. I reminded him of a decade earlier when we threw a party for his fortieth in our Detroit backyard, “The Circus in the Hood”. We had an intern staying with us, working with Snakes at The Detroit News. As luck would have it, this intern also happened to be an accomplished juggler. We hired a local bluegrass band and a friend to tend bar. When the band took breaks, the juggling show would begin. We talked about it for years after.

Our social circles have changed almost entirely since then but we shot off a few hopeful emails to some old friends who were around for The Circus in the Hood.  Incredibly, one couple accepted. They flew in from Detroit to help mark the occasion. I decided that a dinner cruise would provide an solid framework around which I could create a beautiful meal and memorable experience for Snakes and our guests.

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Boat rentals are available at the riverside for around $30/hour. They have an upper and lower deck, in case of rain showers.  I figured we could use the lower deck as our staging and prep area as well. The captain cruises south to where the Tonle Sap joins forces with the Mekong and putters along until the party decides it’s time to head back up stream. I reserved one for the evening and set to the details.

First I went on line to seek out pretty, lightweight melamine tableware and cups. World Market came through with the beauties pictured above. I found the gold foil placemats at a local market; each is a different design. The price was far too high at a dollar a piece but after some shrewd bargaining on my part, I was able to get four for that price. The candles are from Amazon, LED lights that flicker through the wax casing. Our friends from Detroit carried with them the battery powered string lights that are seen in the background. I am confident we will use all of these things many times over.

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A friend who manages some local hotels recommended a couple of assistants who had experience working in food service. I was thrilled to have two extra sets of professional hands to help this all come together. I planned the menu with some input from Snakes. There were a few items he insisted on having, shrimp cocktail was one. Again, our traveling friends came to the rescue with some fresh and zippy horseradish carried across the Pacific to make the cocktail sauce complete.

We started with a white sangria, spiked with St. Germain Liquour and Grand Marnier. I swapped the recommended berries and peaches for local fruits instead, fresh mango and lychee. It was not a decision I regret.

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I served bruschetta with lemon feta dip topped with those insanely addictive sweet hot cherry peppers from Trader Joe’s, a staple on my consumables shipment shopping list. I also made one of my oldest stand-bys and crowd pleasers, caramelized onion dip with kettle chips. It cannot, it will not be resisted. We all kicked back with our drinks in hand and a full moon rising over the Mekong as the captain pulled up the anchor and cast off. It was a beautiful evening, straight out of a story book.

Soon we switched over to champagne and shrimp cocktail which had both been waiting below on ice. The waiters brought them up and topped off glasses. Snakes took the opportunity to make a quick toast and thank all of our friends for joining us.

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The sun went down as quickly as the champagne and the city sparkled from the river banks. We moved to the table and settled in for the salad course. I prepared a classic caesar since the greens needed to be fairly hearty and amenable to a little travel and humidity. Nothing fancy, but a homemade garlicky Caesar is popular for good reason. I had my helpers dress the greens just before service. Then they uncorked bottles of wine and placed them on the tables, refilling as needed.

The entree came next. I had poached red snapper in olive oil with fennel and tomatoes in my big Le Creuset dutch oven. It held it’s heat nicely in the heavy cast iron. I prepared this recipe once before when we hosted a giant gourmet picnic years ago on Belle Isle, a city park in Detroit, where we were mistaken for an art installation. But that’s another story. The point is, this recipe is delicious and it travels well. I paired it with an off-the-cuff green bean and potato salad with roasted tomatoes, dressed with a caper dijon vinaigrette.

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Just as we were finishing up storm clouds began grumbling in the distance and a light rain sent us all to the lower deck. It was a perfect change of scenery by then, like shifting dinner party guests into the living room at home to relax with dessert and coffee after the meal. Though, cheese and dessert were yet to come, nothing so civilized as coffee was brewing.

Snakes opened presents while I served the cheese course and Sauternes. The ukuleles came out (I think we had three on board) along with a bottle of Four Roses bourbon.

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Finally we sang happy birthday with uke accompaniment and a sparkler light show. The last and entirely unnecessary course was slightly tortured key lime bars. They’d gotten tossed around the cooler and squashed into their cellophane a few times too many. I doubt anyone noticed, I barely did. By then we were all merrily singing and strumming our way down the Mekong, headed back to shore.

***Photo credits go to the incomparable Mike G., an ideal dinner guest and a phenomenal photographer.

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