Wisdom From My Party-Savvy Pals

Merrily shares advice and ideas from friends who frequently entertain.

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

Even if you’re serving only pistachio nuts and wine, having people over is a big fat P.I.A., isn’t it? It costs money and time. It obligates us to spiff up our homes. It begets squabbles with our spouses. It makes us vulnerable: in the very act of inviting people, we open ourselves up for rejection. It’s a wonder we entertain at all. So why do we?

I posed this and other questions to some friends who entertain frequently and well. And I asked them to share with me their hard-won party-giving advice to pass along to you.  Following are a few of the nuggets they shared. 

Because People are Worth It
Entertaining might be considered a frivolous topic, but good hosts take their party-giving seriously.

“It’s almost sacred,” says Deirdre Devine, a healthcare consultant who gives the most rollicking little dinner parties in her tony Sulgrave condo high above the Plaza. “The act of serving food and drink to my friends is precious to me. And while it is a lot of work, for me it’s pure joy. Whatever effort you put forth comes back to you many times over, because people are truly grateful to be invited over.”

Beth Zollars, who divides her time between KC and Southern California—she is on the faculty at USC—is one of the most accomplished hostesses I know. “Entertaining for me is truly primal,” she says. “It’s my love language. No matter what is on the menu, treating your guests with your time, attention, and beautiful objects creates the foundation for bonds of friendship and building a deeply rooted and long-lasting communit

Keep It Simple, Sweetheart
When I ask friends to tell me the biggest mistake they’ve made when giving a party, all give pretty much the same answer: Overdoing it.

“Early in my entertaining life, I felt that bigger was better,” says Beth. “Numerous floral arrangements, multiple courses, layer upon layer of flatware and china … a complex evening that often left me a bit flustered and exhausted.

“I’ve grown and so has my style. Today’s typical ‘look’ involves non-ironed linen napkins tied with twine and an herb clipping from my garden, a few tall cuttings in my favorite vases from same garden, organic shaped simple handmade ceramic dishes, and a less complex meal with farmers-market purchases made that morning and prepared in part on the grill and often served buffet style.

Timing is Everything
Style icon DeeDee Arnold hosts sophisticated, merry gatherings in her George Terbovich-designed Plaza condo. She says the phasing of pre-dinner drinks is important for a lively dinner party: the cocktail hour should be neither too long nor too short. “The worst mistake is to wait to serve dinner until everyone is cross-eyed from too many cocktails,” says DeeDee. “But it’s almost as bad to give people time for about two gulps and then hustle them into dinner.”

Speaking of sitting down to dinner, Deirdre has a lovely tradition. As soon as everyone is seated, she says something specific about each person and why she is grateful he or she is there, and then she raises a glass to her guests. It’s such a simple thing, but a wonderful way to start dinner because it makes everyone feel beloved and welcome

Mixing is Good
Susan Gordon, known for her creative and elegant cocktail parties, used to work for the U.S. Department of State. She calls upon her experience with diplomacy to create her guest lists.

“Synergy is key,” she says. “I make it a point to have enough high-energy types to keep the party going, and I think about how guests will interact with each other.”

She says she makes sure everyone invited knows at least two other people at the party. “Unless you have time to care for that guest, he or she will feel isolated,” she says. 

“On the other hand, it is important to shake up the usual-usual crowd. Invite one or several people who are outside your regular group, but whom you think will blend well with the others.” 

Pointers from Paula
My college friend Paula Gabrault is the most intuitive cook I know. I have never seen her use a recipe, yet she effortlessly produces dish after delicious dish for casual gatherings at her spacious home in Andrew County, Missouri. What are her secrets? “Know how to sear meat in a hot cast-iron skillet and have a meat thermometer handy,” she says, “and always have a garlic-butter-parsley mixture made up in the fridge. 

“Have a few finishing sauces under your belt so you can fancy a dish up,” she adds. Hollandaise, white wine reduction, bechamel, and bourbon/brown butter reduction are the sauces she uses most. Since she doesn’t use recipes for any of them—yes, she is that smooth—I can’t share them with you. But I can email you the sauce recipes I use. They produce a worthy result, but they’re not as good as what Paula makes.

Did Someone Mention Recipes?
Beth has offered to share her menu for the perfect late summer dinner party: A first course of roasted beet hummus with fresh veggies, followed by moqueca (Brazilian fish stew with coconut milk, tomatoes, and peppers served over rice), then for dessert a gorgeous berry fruit salad in honey lime dressing.  

In just a few short months it will be perfect weather for Deirdre’s hearty Irish stew, her go-to recipe for when the thermostat starts to drop, which she serves alongside a simple green salad dressed in her amazing tarragon vinaigrette and Farm-to-Market rosemary olive-oil bread. 

For winter dinner parties, DeeDee turns to a recipe she got years ago from The American Restaurant, which she calls “Dressed-up Short Ribs with Cognac and Mustard.”  She serves it over noodles or polenta. Email me and I will send you any of the above-mentioned recipes. 

Any discussion of my friends who cook is deficient without mentioning Don Loncasty, known amongst his friends as The Snobby Chef. For all his insufferable ways, Don is a wondrous cook. He’s prepared a compendium of his favorite recipes called “Things I Cook,” which I can also send you if you ask nicely. 

Deirdre Devine’s Tarragon Vinaigrette

My friend Deirdre Devine serves this tangy dressing over a combination of arugula and romaine lettuce tossed with whatever salad mix-ins she has on hand. It’s also delicious over warm fingerling potatoes. As with any salad dressing, the better your ingredients, the better the result.

Makes 1 cup

  • 1 sprig fresh tarragon, chopped finely
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Small glass jar

Add tarragon, garlic, mustard, salt, pepper, and vinegar to jar and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Add oils and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Keeps for 2 weeks in refrigerator. Best served at room temperature.  

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