So Entertaining!

Grandmothers pass on special traditions to their granddaughters

By Katie McElveen

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Caroline Cotter comes by her love for entertaining quite honestly from Janet Cotter, her grandmother. After discovering more than 20 college friends living in Charleston when she moved there in 2010 to pursue her Master’s degree, she organized a supper club so they could all get together regularly without having to juggle schedules every time. “We were super-organized,” she says. “We’d plan out the entire year at one time, then give everyone their assignments via email. Invitations were sent via Paperless Post.” 

The supper club went so well that when Caroline moved back to Columbia in June of 2012, she created another one. “This time, we included guys in the club, which has been fun,” she says. “When they host, they have oyster roasts and cook on the grill. The girls do pastas and things like that, so it’s always different.” Since many of her friends aren’t married and haven’t established permanent home addresses, she finds that email invitations work the best. “At this point in our lives, email addresses change less often than our mailing addresses,” she says. “Plus, we’re always emailing and texting, so when you let people RSVP that way, you’re more likely to get a response.”

Caroline’s grandmother, Janet Cotter isn’t at all surprised that her granddaughter started a supper club. That’s because Janet did the same thing right after she and Arlen, her late husband, married in 1957. “At the very beginning the hosts would provide the entrée, and the guests would bring sides, but that only lasted a time or two,” recalls Janet. “We found that it was easier to plan when the hostess provided the entire meal, so we quickly made that change.” Soon, Janet and her friends were throwing all sorts of events, from picnics at Lake Murray, where they used a tablecloth made from bandanas, to Cold Duck parties, which centered around a certain beverage from the 1970s. “We decorated the tables with cat tails and antique duck decoys, with mirrors under it all to represent the water,” she recalls. “Planning was as much fun as holding the parties!”

As the children began to marry, the parties got more elegant, and soon Janet and her friends were polishing their silver biscuit boxes, platters and chafing dishes for engagement parties and bridal luncheons. It’s a step Caroline is looking forward to taking. “Eventually, I’d love to own the kinds of things my grandmother uses to entertain,” she says. “Both of my grandmothers were big entertainers. I love to hear about their parties!”

When Sally Menge Liipfert married, she did what many newlyweds do: she began hosting wedding and baby showers for her friends. Although Sally knew that entertaining had changed in the days since her grandmother, Sally Pulliam, had been entertaining, she didn’t know just how much until her grandmother came over one day while she was getting ready. “She couldn’t believe I was using dinner napkins and not the smaller tea napkins for the party,” she says with a laugh. “I had out all my beautiful china and silver, but it had never even occurred to me to use tea napkins! It’s something we don’t even think about, but they sure did years ago. She sent me some the next day!” 

Like silver tea sets, manners and a much-loved recipe for Chinese chicken salad, knowing how to throw a great party gets passed down from generation to generation. Even though the rules may have relaxed over the years, being a thoughtful, prepared hostess never goes out of style. “I find myself doing things that my mother and grandmother have always done, like using linen napkins every night for dinner instead of paper and always setting the table,” says Sally, who grew up in Columbia surrounded by a family of hostesses. “We never talked about it. It just happened. When I entertain, I try to follow the example they set for me. Although we obviously don’t have as many rules as they did! I’m sure we’re far more casual than they ever were, too.”

She might be surprised. “We were especially close with four other couples, so we all built houses on the same street,” recalls Sally Pulliam. “At least once a week we’d all get together in someone’s home for supper with the children. We’d all bring what we had and cook while the children ran around. They were very casual events! Our supper club, which started in 1950 and is still going on, was also informal.” 

But in between the suppers, there were plenty of formal parties. That’s where Sally Pulliam has seen the most dramatic evolution. “The biggest differences I see today are in the number of parties and the number of hosts,” she explains. “Years ago, there would be ten or fifteen parties for an engaged couple, and each one would be hosted by no more than three or four couples. Not everyone was invited to every party. These days, there are so many hosts, I have trouble finding them all at the end of the night to say goodbye!” 

In addition to formal cocktail parties, they would hold teas, Bloody Mary parties and sherry parties for the newly engaged couple. “Even for a shower, we’d use linen napkins, crystal and silver. At that time, everyone had luncheon-sized napkins and plates, too.” 

There were plenty of parties for debutantes as well, most of which took place during the summer before the girls made their debuts. “I remember one party where we packed up picnic baskets for each couple,” recalls Sally Pulliam. “After the guests had arrived and had a chance to visit, we gave them their baskets and let them find a place in the yard to set up their picnic.”

Mary Cason, who moved to Columbia from Atlanta after her children had grown, remembers both the debutante and sherry parties. “When Betty, my oldest, made her debut, it seemed like there was a party every night, all summer long. By the time Joann came along just six years later, that had started to change. Of course, that was the Vietnam era, so the boys had longer hair than the girls!” She adds, “Our sherry parties started when we were all still in the Junior League. We’d have lunch after our shift at the Nearly New shop and always started with little glasses of sherry. We felt so elegant! The lunches were always held at someone’s home, and we always used our crystal, silver and linens.” 

Coca-cola parties were another trend in the 1940s, both in Columbia and in Columbus, Georgia, where Mary grew up. “They were held during the summer, as a way to greet or welcome a special visitor who was in town. It was a lovely tradition, and made guests feel welcome in our town. It was like a tea, but held in the morning. We’d wear dresses but no gloves.”

Mary Martin Walker Roth, Mary’s granddaughter who now lives in New Orleans, also notices geographic differences in entertaining. “Here in New Orleans, when you go to a cocktail party, they’ll have a mini-meal set up on the buffet, like jambalaya, bread and a salad,” Mary Martin says. “In Columbia, the cocktail buffet tends to be filled with things you can eat in one bite. But they always have live music, which I love!”

Like her grandmother, Mary Martin didn’t do much entertaining until she got married. Now that she’s started, though, she’s found that she is able to mix some of her grandmother’s more formal rules into the casual events she hosts. “My grandmother had beautiful flowers and sent printed invitations,” she says. “I’ve found that spending a little extra time on an invitation, flowers or themed table decorations really does set the tone for a party and makes people feel like you’re excited to have them in your home, which I am. I also mix my silver serving pieces with some of the lovely Terrafirma wedding gifts we received. That way, I don’t have to polish everything, but I’m able to use some of those gorgeous things.” 

Sally Liipfert has also found success adding touches of her grandmother’s traditional entertaining style to her own casual parties. “For bridal showers, children’s birthday parties and cocktail parties, we always send a printed invitation,” she says. “If we’re having one or two couples for dinner, I’ll pull out the silver and make it elegant. But when its friends with children and we’re grilling out, everyone brings something and pitches in to help with the dishes. No one leaves until the kitchen is clean, which is a great help.”

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