Entertaining today has changed from the fictitious Jay Gatsby’s lavish affairs about which
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars … At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.”
Hosting in the roaring ᾽20s of The Great Gatsby was fantastical and glamorous, but unrealistic. Gatsby had an orchestra with a “whole pit full of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The bar in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails … until the air is alive with chatter and laughter.” Fitzgerald’s book captures what we long for — crowd pleasing, heightened excitement. The unexpected, sensational, excessive, and extravagant. How can entertaining today reflect and catch the atmosphere of yesteryear?
Currently, with hectic work schedules, children, commitments, and time limits, entertaining can be onerous and overwhelming. While advance preparation and mailed invitations are crucial to the success of a formal affair, impromptu get-togethers can be every bit as gracious with a bit of forethought and ingenuity.
Fashion designer Lily Pulitzer wrote, “That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight!” And spontaneous entertaining is just that — a spur-of-the-moment party with friends who want to have fun together. An elaborate meal is not expected, just friends wanting to unplug, laugh, disconnect, and share stories. It is an opportunity to exhale. Just when you least expect to play hostess, it happens. But it can happen successfully, and often with a startling twist. Think outside the box!
Kindall Otis and her group of girlfriends have enjoyed spontaneous get-togethers for many years. Bonding even before husbands and children, they have dined at restaurants, enjoyed elaborate dinner parties, and grilled in the backyard. Kindall says that at this stage in life, “It’s not about being just right and perfect, it’s about having fun!” Each of her friend’s houses offers different arenas for entertaining, and each hostess creates her own ambiance. While one friend concentrates in advance on a fully prepared meal, another prefers a casserole.
As mothers with young children, the recent “go-to” has been take-out. There is no shame in picking up pizza or sushi and sliding it onto a special tray and pairing it with a fresh garden salad. For Kindall, if the get-together is planned in advance, she often orders arrangements from a florist; however, flowers can also be orchids from the grocery or freshly cut hydrangeas from the yard.
Frequently, a round robin of phone tag will encourage a clean-out-the-refrigerator night. Everyone brings a leftover, or the women throw together something to share. Remarkably, items often work together to make a meal. Some ideas for an impulsive gathering are a taco or potato bar, make-your-own pizza, a prepared roast chicken with salad, spaghetti, chili, or soup. All are tried-and-true alternatives where the ingredients can be divided and brought by everyone to make it easy.
Appetizers paired with wine is a favorite combination for this group. Each friend has the opportunity to participate and bring something new she wants to try or an old trusted favorite. Kindall likes to use her large barrel board piled high with cheese, charcuterie, nuts, olives, grapes, cornichons, and crackers. This can be the meal for a happy hour gathering, and often an unusual cocktail can be an added focus for variety and surprise. Kindall enjoys this type of get-together because all the preparation is done in advance, and guests can graze. It works because everyone, including the host, can have a good time.
What is paramount and important following such an evening is minimal clean-up for these busy moms. A night off needs to be just that. There is no expectation of “eight extra servants, including an extra gardener, toiling all day with mops and scrubbing — brushes and hammers and garden-shears, to repair the ravages of the night before,” as Fitzgerald expounds after a night of one of Gatsby’s explosions.
Dishes and serving pieces can be put in the dishwasher and are often fun and conversational. Kindall has brightly decorated bowls and platters that easily hold a bag of chips and salsa for spontaneous nights.
The spirit in which the gathering takes place is the most important factor, with a friendly atmosphere that is inviting, convivial, cheerful, and fun. Interior decorator Dorothy Draper once said, “Always put in one controversial item … it makes people talk.”
Kindall says that her girlfriend group has a mix of personalities. One friend in particular often shows up with a costume or wig, which starts the night off with loads of laughter. Kindall shares, “You never know what she will do!” Other suggestions might be an unexpected guest, mood jolting music, or themed table settings. Place a basket of outlandish hats by the front door, and invite friends to put one on as they enter. Have your gathering in a room you never use. Change from gathering at the kitchen island to the dining room or just lounge on the patio with candlelight. The key is to leave stress and drama at the door and enjoy the opportunity to connect. Tell a story, relive a memory, recount a joke, compare notes, support one another, give advice, listen and learn, engage, joust in conversation, and be present as a friend.
Audrey Hepburn expressed, “Life is a party, so dress for it.” Put on your confidence and enthusiasm — entertain!
Appetizer recipes for an impromptu evening.
Lemon-Thyme Ricotta Bruschetta
Submitted by Lauren McWilliams
1 baguette, thinly sliced
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1 lemon, zested
Freshly cracked black pepper
8 springs fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Mix together ricotta and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Toast baguette slices in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes until slightly browned and warm. Spread liberally with seasoned ricotta. Drizzle with honey; sprinkle with thyme. Serve warm.
Submitted by Sunny Leppard
4 Roma tomatoes
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped, or dried parsley
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces feta cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 avocados, peeled and flesh diced
Serve with tortilla chips.
5-Ingredient Caprese Phyllo Cups
Submitted by Grace Moore
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 (15-count) package mini phyllo cups
15 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced or torn into small pieces
4 large fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 3 to 5 minutes, or until reduced by half. Remove from heat. Portion the tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil between the phyllo cups. Drizzle with the reduced balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.
Mexican Turkey Meatballs
Submitted by Lucy Folsom
2 pounds ground turkey (or chicken)
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
3/4 cup green onions, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoons cumin, ground
1 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line large baking sheet with unbleached parchment paper and spray with cooking spray. In a large mixing bowl, add turkey, cheese, green onions, garlic, chili powder, cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper, and mix well using your hands. Form into golf ball size meatballs (smaller for appetizers). Bake meatballs in two batches for 15 minutes or until browned. Serve hot with brown rice/quinoa (use pan juice on grains), guacamole, and pico de gallo. Or, serve as an appetizer. To store, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days or freeze leftovers for up to three months.
Submitted by Zan Hardin
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Small handful each of chopped fresh basil and chives
Salt and pepper to taste
1 (15-count) package mini phyllo cups
Pint of grape tomatoes, sliced in half
Mix mayonnaise with cheeses, herbs, salt, and pepper. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. To cook: Preheat oven to 350 F. Fill each phyllo shell with dollop of cheese mixture. Place 1/2 of a grape tomato on each tart. Salt and pepper the tops. Bake at 350 F for 15 to 20 minutes.