The Art of Entertaining

Melanie Crawford shares hosting tips

Robert Clark

Melanie Crawford is the consummate entertainer, throwing memorable dinner parties and creating unforgettable brunches for family and friends. She comes by it naturally — both her grandmother, Pauline Mattingly, and mother, Mary Walker, were fabulous at hosting people in their homes. Melanie would serve as the assistant, providing whatever support was needed. She observed, she listened, she learned. Her close attention to the bustling activity of the kitchen helped Melanie become the cook and entertainer she is today. But she is quick to add that it took a little bit of comic failure to acquire her culinary skills.

Her first attempt at hosting a large family brunch was the day of her oldest child, Mary Caroline’s, christening. “We had a lovely brunch planned, and I really thought I knew exactly what I was doing,” says Melanie. “If my future sister-in-law hadn’t been there, I don’t think anyone would have had anything to eat! I had so underestimated the time needed and overestimated my personal abilities.”

Melanie had not taken into consideration the significant amount of help her grandmother and mother always had available. She also had not factored into the equation the fact that she had a newborn baby. This was during the early years of Martha Stewart, where everything looked fabulous and picture perfect — yet was very labor intensive. Thanks to the assistance of Melanie’s sister-in-law, Julia Walker, the brunch was a success, and they created fond family memories. The family still laughs at the story of their great aunt, Hortense Heitmuller, who at the time was in her 80s. She had not yet met Julia and asked, “Where did you find the caterer? She is simply lovely!”

While that event is a distant memory, it was a wonderful learning experience for Melanie, as she now fully appreciates that successful entertaining is a mix of experience and timing. She has built on that and today is a fantastic hostess, entertaining on at least a monthly basis. “There are so many people you want to see, and there is never enough time to see them,” she says. “Holidays are a wonderful time to see family, but it’s also important to put that long-awaited dinner party on the calendar to make sure you get together with people you want to see.”

With the busyness of life, the day of the traditional dinner party seems to be waning. Melanie believes that is in large part due to people’s high expectations. “People love to get together — that’s the main point,” she says. “If you can have some good food, that’s a bonus, and if you have a pretty table, that’s one more bonus. But people worry too much about perfection, and that’s a roadblock. The fun is in the togetherness, not in the perfection.”

To be sure, spring is always a wonderful time for togetherness. With graduations, Mother’s Day, and christenings, the feelings of renewal and joy provide an ideal opportunity to spend time with loved ones. And it doesn’t have to be hard! For Melanie, it all revolves around the menu, as that dictates the timing and the tablescape. Once she has the menu in mind, she then figures out the cooking schedule, the china, the place settings, the flowers, and such. She gets a theme in her head and everything works around that.

When deciding on the menu, it is all about time — what time of year and what time of day. It makes each family occasion more memorable if the menu changes with the seasons. Melanie tries to keep the likes and dislikes of her guests in mind, and she works to make sure that everyone has at least one item they particularly enjoy. For family occasions like christenings and graduations, there are often multiple meals to be planned but there is always the one signature event that receives the most attention. The menus for the secondary meals are driven by practicalities — do we need to make it quick so we arrive at the event on time? The menus for the main event revolve more around fun and an atmosphere that leads to conversation and time together.

Coming from a family of collectors, Melanie is fortunate to be the custodian of several china collections, so she always puts out the fine china when entertaining. “A lot of times, I use more formal items even when it’s not a terribly formal event,” says Melanie. “I like to use things that people might consider fine items, but not in a formal way. Since the pretty things are here, I like to use them, but the focus is on everyone having a good time.”

She is particularly fond of flowers and is sure to make them an integral part of her event. Again, she gets that from her grandmother and mother, both avid gardeners and flower arrangers. While flowers are Melanie’s must-have, others may put their energy into an original centerpiece or their focus may be on baking the perfect dessert. “I believe we shouldn’t try to do too much,” says Melanie. “If flowers are your thing, spend your energy on them and buy your dessert. If dessert is your thing, spend your time baking and buy the flowers. Entertaining for friends and family shouldn’t be a stressful time; it should bring you joy.”

To keep the afternoon or evening event stress-free, Melanie also recommends that the host plan ahead. Find those things that can be done in advance of the day, such as setting the table, buying the flowers, or pre-baking some items. Get them checked off the list. The preparation on the day of the event should fill the host with excitement for the gathering ahead, not exhaustion or stress.

While Melanie has years of experience and today finds entertaining easy, she still believes in having a Plan B. “You always have to have a backup plan in the back of your mind. At this stage, I don’t really have many massive disasters because I am not trying to do too much at one time. I have a better sense of what I am personally capable of and how much I can get done in a day. Sometimes a recipe might look amazing in a cookbook, but I know the effort for that one dish is going to make me too tired to enjoy my company. That’s more important than the most awesome recipe.”

To be sure, Melanie is a pro and knows what to focus on, but she is still always sure to have homemade cheese straws in the freezer at the ready. Just in case …

While no brunch is typical for Melanie, here is an example of a spring brunch menu she may create:

Cheese Straws

Spicy Almonds Hors d ’Oeuvres

Fruit Bruschetta

Sausage and Egg Casserole

Spinach and Ricotta Pie

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Marinated Shrimp

Tossed Salad

Lemon Squares

Bloody Mary Bar

Peach Bellini Bar

A Few of Melanie’s

Favorite Recipes

Spicy Almonds

Recipe from Martha Stewart

3 tablespoons peanut oil

2 cups whole blanched almonds

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2  teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

1 tablespoon sugar

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan over medium high heat. Add the almonds and sprinkle the 1/2 cup sugar over them. Saute until the almonds become golden brown and the sugar caramelizes. Remove almonds from the pan and toss in a bowl with the salt, cumin, pepper flakes, and the remaining sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight box or tin. Makes 2 cups.