Are all your home gatherings and parties the same? Do you find yourself running around town, getting flowers and groceries, cleaning the house like a madwoman and then setting about making a five-course meal to impress, only to realize — with flour in your hair at the 11th hour — that you forgot to leave time to get yourself ready? You scramble to get ready and the guests arrive but you’re too focused on the timing of the meal to truly enjoy their company, and by the time you join them at the table — the first time you’ve sat down all day — you almost pass out into your soup!
Enough with the ridiculously high expectations! Let’s get real. Your home is not a Michelin-starred restaurant and it’s not being scouted by the editors of Architectural Digest. It’s just dinner with friends. It should be about sharing time together with soul-nourishing belly laughs and heartfelt conversation in the welcoming comfort of your home with some simply made, home-cooked eats. However, as we all know, the Southern lady in all of us yearns to pull out all the stops, including the china, silver and heirloom linens to impress our guests. So, we’ve enlisted the expertise of Suzanne Pollak — Southern tastemaker; author; social strategist specializing in cooking, hospitality and design; and co-founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits — to help us walk that thin line between traditional elegance and laid-back charm.
Suzanne, or “The Dean” as she’s known at the academy, is serving up the ultimate in dinner party etiquette, including what to wear, who to invite, what to serve and what to talk about! Suzanne gives us her nine tips for gracefully achieving a no-fuss, stylish and engaging soiree that your friends won’t soon forget.
The Dean’s Top 9 Tips for an Unforgettable Party
1. Invite people who you admire.
“Invite people over whom you do not know well but want to know well,” says Suzanne. “Your life will change!” Some of Suzanne’s favorite people are friends she made when she took a chance, got up her nerve and asked them over. And guess what? There is no reason to be intimidated. “Almost always people are flattered,” she says. “And if not, they can always say, ‘No.’”
2. Go bold (and non-messy) with big statement earrings.
Make a bold statement with big earrings. “Grease will inevitably find a way to attach itself to your bracelets and low-hanging necklaces while you finish last-minute cooking. Remove them,” she says. “Rings are magnets for dough and uncooked meat — remove.” Suzanne relies on eye-catching earrings as her choice party accessories.
3. Use your grandmother’s silver!
Suzanne came back from her summer in France with an elegant new way to serve cocktail-hour snacks. Bust out those sterling silver demitasse spoons your grandmother left you and fill one bowl with nuts and another with spoons. Guests can spoon a few nuts into their hand and munch away. “The French approach accomplishes two results: individual portion control and avoiding fingertips in the food,” says Suzanne. “Demitasse cups for chocolate puddings and lemon forks for pickle spearing — and spearing husbands under the table when they stray dangerously off topic.”
4. Engage your guests in the kitchen activities.
This isn’t “Downtown Abbey.” Being involved in the kitchen action appeals to most people these days. Let guests make a cocktail or give them a job in the kitchen. “Involving guests sets the tone for hanging out and having fun instead of things being so formal and stiff,” says Suzanne. Depending on guests’ interests and skill levels, one person can simply open a bottle of wine, mix a real cocktail, stir a sauce, chop chives, glaze a tart — it doesn’t matter. “When guests are asked to participate, they immediately become part of the party, are in the moment and have ownership in making the night fun,” says Suzanne. “Try and see!”
5. Don’t try to mimic a restaurant experience. Think outside of the “dinner party” box.
Do something different than restaurants and forget about timing out the perfect hot meal. “Do not obsess about hot food,” advises Suzanne. “Restaurants need to but not you, home entertainer,” she says. “Guess what? Most flavor is more intense when at room temperature.” Serve one-pot meals for main courses — gumbo, paella, whole roasts — and one pie for dessert. It’s fun to pass around. And it’s fun to do something unexpected. Consider a breakfast gathering or a lunch party. “They each have their magic,” says Suzanne.
6. The more, the merrier!
“Buy more chairs so you can squeeze too many people around your table,” says Suzanne. “This is one of my steps to create dinner party magic!” Bringing people close together can create an immediate sense of intimacy and a feeling of group togetherness.
7. Put your house to work for you!
Start in the kitchen or living room for cocktails, move to the dining room — or wherever — for dinner and then make one more move to the patio, rooftop or library for after-dinner drinks and conversation. “Just don’t end up in the kitchen or let anyone touch the dishes,” says Suzanne.
8. Consider mistakes as happy accidents.
When you burn the bread or a guest spills their wine, be the ever-gracious hostess and laugh it off or offer your guests some wine-stain remover and a change of clothes. “The rest of the guests are waiting to see what you do,” says Suzanne. “Guests take their cue from their captain.” Your unflappable spirit will make everyone feel even more happy to be a part of the fun!
9. Especially in fall of 2016, no politics at the table!
Absolutely no talking about politics at the table. Suzanne says it’s too boring for words. “It’s inappropriate to talk about current politics at any dinner party — ever — or, even worse, to assume that everyone you know thinks like you do,” says Suzanne. “Almost always, the topic of politics — along with sex, religion and football — categorically leads to disaster, outrage and gnashing of teeth. We entertain our friends and go to parties to relax and enjoy ourselves, not to get blood boiling.” Suzanne says that when you are at a party and the talk turns to politics, turn to your neighbor and begin another subject or else take a break. Find the powder room or a breath of fresh air. “There are finer things to discuss during social situations,” says Suzanne.
Now, bust out your sterling silver demitasse spoons, buy some extra chairs and don your favorite statement earrings for an unforgettable dinner party with friends!
Thank you, Dean Suzanne Pollak, for sharing your wonderful dinner party wisdom!
And thank you to Abrams Books for the images from Suzanne’s book, The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes!
Meet Dean Suzanne Pollak! This preeminent tastemaker will be at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Antiques at the Gardens annual event on Thursday, October 6, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. to share her steps to creating magic at your dinner parties and home gatherings. From style and conversation topics to cooking and decorating, Suzanne’s lecture will not disappoint. Space is limited, so get your tickets now! Proceeds from Antiques at the Gardens support the educational programs and outreach initiatives of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Since 2006, the event has raised more than $3 million for the gardens.