My first experience with celebrating from a distance came early.

According to the handmade, felt-and-glitter calendar thumbtacked to the wall of my kindergarten classroom, Charlotte’s was the last birthday of the school year, and it was approaching fast. But nobody had seen her for more than a week.

Chickenpox was the culprit. And while several of my classmates (me, included) had already scratched ourselves bloody during our own bouts, many remained uninfected. A party was not in the cards.

Ever inventive, our teacher Mrs. Cassidy opened up a package of precious, as-yet-unfaded construction paper and sat us all down with safety scissors. Our task: to fashion birthday cards that she promised to deliver that afternoon.

I remember many of us went a little overboard with the red marker, generously blotching our cartoony depictions of our classmate. (Sorry, Charlotte!)

But more than anything, I recall understanding how important it was for us to make our isolated friend feel special that day.

Now, as then, parties probably aren’t in the cards for those of us who have occasions to celebrate – at least not the sort we’d normally choose. But that shouldn’t stop us from kicking up our heels and marking our red letter days (though not with blotches).

It’s not as hard as you might think: With the help of several staunch Portland-area food and beverage businesses operating throughout this crisis, you have plenty of options to pull off something festive.

Now, yes right now, is absolutely the time to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s or Father’s Day, graduations, or just the weekend. It honors the people you love, and perhaps more than ever before, it makes people feel good. Jubilation in the face of hardship is a true act of defiance.

Celebratory event: Adult birthday

Cards and Facebook messages are fine, but what’s better? A cocktail party.

I don’t mean sipping martinis at a 6-to-10-foot remove. Factor in a little music, and that arrangement could quickly turn clamorously loud. You need to remain on your neighbors’ good side when you’re stuck at home, after all.

Instead, take advantage of the online Mixology 101 class from Vena’s Fizz House. Over two hours, you and up to ten guests will learn how to make three types of cocktails: one shaken, one infused, and one surprise “classic” chosen by your instructor. The cost is $22-25 per person for the event, and all participants receive a 10% discount on mixers, bitters, and materials bought on venasfizzhouse.com. (Base spirits aren’t sold through Vena’s but are widely available for delivery.)

“We give people a list of what they’ll need. They don’t have to buy it from us, so no matter what, it’s great for us, and it’s great for them,” Vena’s co-owner Johanna Corman told me. “I love to see the orders for supplies come in, when they (the participants) all write little notes, things like ‘I can’t wait to see my friends!’ It just makes you feel really good.”

For a simpler virtual get-together that requires a few days’ lead time, arrange for all your guests to receive and prepare one of Vena’s Spirit Sipper Infusion Jars ($12.50), to have at the ready when you gather on FaceTime, Zoom or Google Hangouts. My favorite is the Jasmine Swizzle, a blend of freeze-dried mango, granulated honey and jasmine flowers. Fill the jar with rum or vodka, seal it up and let it steep for up to a week, and you’ve got around half-a-dozen fruity, floral (and potent) drinks.

Bonus: Host a subdued, non-alcoholic celebration with Dobra Tea’s $30 Tea Tasting in a Box. The kit includes several loose teas, from Oolong to Pu-erh, and offers the tea-curious a chance to explore the aromas and flavors of all six major classes of tea. If you’ve got a tea-curious parent and a little hot water, this box promises to be the highlight of a belated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day afternoon. (dobrateame.com)

Celebratory event: Child or teen’s birthday

When you’re a kid, one of the best perks of a birthday party is a goodie bag. Even in the current lockdown, where you shouldn’t be bringing a dozen children together to play backyard games and terrorize a rent-a-clown, you can still create a fun birthday experience.

And that includes goodie bags. Rather than hand them out face-to-face, you can store them in a box or cooler on a porch or in an outdoor space. Guests can stop by and grab their treats contact-free, at their leisure.

If you don’t feel like baking the goodies in question, you can order Gross Confection Bar’s sweet-savory brown butter and chocolate chip cookies ($3.25) or macarons filled with a nostalgia-inducing, ganache-like blend of strawberry milk and chocolate ($3.50). If you place your order to grossconfectionbar.com before Wednesday, you can collect everything on Friday afternoon.

Norimoto Bakery’s sticky, crumbly, white miso caramel MeSo Millionaire’s Shortbreads ($3) would also fit right in any well-appointed goodie bag. Better still, if you cannot store your guest’s treats safely outdoors, your guests can swing by owner Atsuko Fujimoto’s shared South Portland baking space for a contact-less pickup from Thursday to Sunday. Find her at @NorimotoBakery on Instagram.

Birthdays aren’t just about desserts, though. So in that goodie bag, include directions for a scavenger hunt that kids can complete on foot with their parents, in their own neighborhood. A list of 10 tricky-to-locate items will suffice: a house or building with a wacky door, a tree that resembles a person, a street sign covered in at least twenty stickers, etc. As kids locate qualifying items, they’ll snap a picture with a smartphone or digital camera, then enlist the help of an adult to e-mail or upload them to a Google Doc or invitation-only Facebook page.

On the day of your celebration, you and the birthday kid can host a party on Zoom where you tear into your goodie bags and screen-share images from the best entries from scavenger hunters.

My choice for a prize? A gift certificate for a large ice-cream sundae (redeemable through curbside pickup) from Captain Sam’s Ice Cream ($7.95).

Please invite us to your next socially distanced Gorgeous Gelato party. Photo by Antony DiBiase/courtesy of Gorgeous Gelato

Celebratory event: Graduation
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Class of 2020 – their senior year has been cleaved in half, lopping off arguably the best parts: Mischief Week, senior prom and (most importantly), the chance to march through a crowded auditorium while wearing a dangerously flammable acetate gown.

You could ask your soon-to-graduate teen to process up your driveway as you hold a Bluetooth speaker aloft, John Cusack-style, cueing each step to the beat of “Pomp and Circumstance,” but a better choice for everyone might be a gelato party.

Stagger brief, distancing-friendly visits with your new graduate (preferably in full regalia) every 15 minutes or so, so that one family of well-wishers arrives just as another leaves.

As groups depart, they’ll raid a cooler you’ve filled with hand-packed Gorgeous Gelato gelato pints ($12.95) in flavors like Boston Cream, rum chocolate or kiwi, and perhaps a few crisp, sugar-dusted gelato cannoli ($10.99 for three). Flavors are updated daily on facebook.com/TheFamousGorgeousGelato.

Wouldn’t you like to see this pull into your driveway right about now? Photo by Donato Giovine/courtesy of Gorgeous Gelato

Since the shutdown began, the Fore Street dessert café has stayed busy, filling orders through curbside pickup and, more recently, by delivery. Each afternoon, owner and chief gelato maker Donato Giovine loads up his branded freezer van and deposits quarts and pints of his dense, elastic frozen creations around Greater Portland.

He has also already supplied at least one virtual party. “About two weeks ago in Gorham, we had something like 25-30 orders all in the same neighborhood,” he said. “It’s something nice: probably one person who used a Facebook page or WhatsApp group to bring people together for a sense of community during the lockdown. All the people eating gelato together, everybody in their own homes, all the dessert coming from the same shop. To me, I feel it’s a neighborhood of gelato.”  

Celebratory event: Wedding

Maine still lags behind states like New York that, in the days of COVID-19, have granted permission for couples to marry via videoconferencing software. Here in Vacationland, you can apply for a license online, but when it comes to the marriage ceremony itself, you’ll have to find an officiant willing to get close enough to perform the ceremony face-to-face (or mask-to-mask).

But what’s a wedding without a toast? With big reception shindigs off the table, perhaps the best way to get a little pop and fizz into someone’s big day is through a cork-popping simulcast on Zoom.

To supply your guests with identical bottles of bubbles, place an order from a wine shop like Grippy Tannins. Owner Lindsey Murray’s tasting room may be closed temporarily, but she still offers pickup and limited delivery of wines that range from $11 to north of $100 a bottle. For a wedding toast, she recommends a case of citrusy Spanish Lacrima Baccus Brut Reserva rosé cava ($16/bottle), or fruity Montelvini Tullia Prosecco di Treviso from Italy ($17/bottle).

Host the case at your home if you can, alerting your friends when to wander past and pick up their bottles, or, if that is not an option, ask Murray to keep the wine at Grippy Tannins, where your guests can stop by to collect their bubbles during regular business hours (updated regularly on grippytannins.com). Either way, she’s used to customers buying and sharing cases.

“We are right across the street from a big condo building, and already we’ve had people who live there coming here, ordering a case and then dropping bottles off at their friends’ doors so they can do a virtual happy hour, or just any kind of celebration,” she said. “It’s really sweet.”

Celebratory event: Anniversary

Two-person gatherings require much less planning and coordinating than many of the events on this list, but even intimate celebrations can benefit from a strategic upgrade.

One little boost is to outsource everything and allow yourself and your partner to luxuriate in being pampered. Through Wine Wise Events, that remains an option. The company’s fine-dining-adjacent, virtual wine dinners ($120-180 per couple, all-inclusive) offer multi-course meals prepared at local restaurants like Chaval, Sur Lie and Solo Italiano, delivered to your home a few hours before your online dining adventure begins.

The winewiseevents.com site gives specific instructions on how prepare, from configuring your computer or smartphone, to setting your table: “…fork, knife, spoon, napkin, water, and two wine glasses per person so each of you has one glass each of the two wines to enjoy through the first three savory courses.” At the time of your “reservation” (usually 6 or 7 p.m.), you’ll log in to chat with the sommelier who selected your wine, the chefs who prepared your meal, as well as up to five other couples there to celebrate alongside you.

If one-on-one time with a loved one is more your speed, you can always go the old fashioned route, pre-ordering a pound of fresh-caught scallops ($17.99) from Gulf of Maine Sashimi  and capping your meal with a cream cheese frosting-slathered carrot cake ($25 for 7”, $40 for 10”) from Portland Cake Company (@PortlandCakeCompany on Instagram).

That is, if baker/owner Jacky Gerry has recovered from her recent, 4/20-centric uptick in business. “I usually do a lot of whoopie pies, cookies and cakes,” she said. “But for the 4/20 holiday, I made cereal bars. They’re like Rice Krispie treats, but with lots of kinds of cereals. They were a huge hit. Nothing funny in them though – I had to tell people: These are for celebrating, but they’re for after the fact.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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