The unspoken party code (for a certain type of party) dictates that if you are invited, it is incumbent upon you to bring beer. Wine is also acceptable, even preferable, depending on the crowd and the occasion. I do not bring hard liquor, on account of general ignorance, but I have seen it done to great effect, and I commend those efforts.
But alcohol is not appropriate for all occasions. What if you don't drink, or your host doesn't drink? What if your host is pregnant, or is on a detoxifying cleanse, or the party is at 10 a.m. and in celebration of the birthday of a toddler? What if you are simply tired of bringing six packs, which go unnoticed because there are always too many six packs?
Here is the answer: Bring something else. There is a world of festive offerings beyond booze — offerings that will be met with unbridled enthusiasm and consumed with gusto.
1. Homemade Baked Goods
People love baked goods. It is a fact of the human condition. While reasonable people can disagree, I would argue that the best party baked good is the humble brownie, because it taps into a collective nostalgia for simpler times. Also, brownies are very easy and absurdly cheap, and yet make you look profoundly generous, by virtue of their deliciousness. Likewise, you cannot go wrong with homemade cookies, cupcakes, mini muffins, or banana bread (mini or regular size).
2. Store-Bought Fancy Cookies
If baking is not your thing, that is fine (that is what grocery stores and local bakeries are for). Once again, there is no real way to mess this up, but the more interesting, beautiful, unusual, or thematically appropriate your cookies, the better. This is why gently themed parties are a blessing in disguise — they make it so delightfully easy to bring something that will get compliments.
3. International Snack Items
Think global, act local. Your party is (likely) already set on potato chips, tortilla chips, and/or organic multi-grain flax chips, and while I would humbly suggest that you can never have too many chips, it is arguably preferable to bring something that you could not have picked up at CVS. Instead, swing by an international grocery store (or, depending on where you live, a big-chain grocery store) and invest in a whole new world of savory snack mixes. (Note: We've just tried a snack called "Churritos," which are basically thin, crispy noodles flavored like spicy Doritos, and they are irresistible.)
4. Interesting Cheese and/or Artisan Breads
I have never seen a cheese tray go untouched, or bread go uneaten. A wedge of brie and a crusty baguette is always a no-fail, no-booze option. (If the bread can be torn apart sensually, and without a knife, so much the better; if you baked it yourself, you are a local hero.)
5. Guacamole, Spinach Dip, and Salsas
I was going to advocate homemade dips or dips purchased from small, local dip purveyors. But then I remembered that I was at a party recently where someone had brought spinach and artichoke dip from Costco, and I have never seen a group of full-grown adults so excited about anything. In conclusion, use your judgement. Also the more dips, the better. Any kind of dip.
Make Your Own
This could mean a fancy tray of mixed nuts, or a festive tin of spiced pecans from your kitchen, but it could also mean a big bag of pistachios from the bulk bin at Whole Foods. (A plug for pistachios: They are fun to eat, pleasantly green, and, unlike almonds, have no particular connotations of healthful virtue.)
Some Nut Recipes
7. Chocolate-Covered Fruit
There are few foods more singularly suited to special occasions than chocolate-dipped fruit. It is beautiful, labor-intensive, and reserved for elevated situations (one does not, in general, eat chocolate-covered strawberries at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays), which is exactly what makes it so perfect for parties. The chocolate-covered strawberry is the Champagne of fruits.
8. Grissini, Cheese Straws, and Other Savory Puffs
Elegant Italian breadsticks and their cheesier cousins are sophisticated enough for the classiest of cocktail affairs, which is not to say that they won't be at least as appreciated at late-night house parties (everyone loves a cheese puff).
What other non-alcoholic things do you bring to parties?