Anatomy of a Dinner Party: a day in the life of a hospitalityaholic

Guest Post – Is The Dinner Party Dead?

Written by Patti on March 14th, 2011

Good Morning Darlings!

I have a very special treat for you today!! Our guest blogger is none other than the simply charming Mary Kay Andrews, the author of the New York Times bestselling SAVANNAH BREEZE and BLUE CHRISTMAS, (HarperCollins) as well as HISSY FIT, LITTLE BITTY LIES and SAVANNAH BLUES. She and I were discussing the state of the dinner party on Facebook after someone had posted an article saying the art was dead. She and I disagree with the article and I asked if she would like to write a little something for my blog. Mary Kay was so very kind to write this post and I am thrilled to welcome her to Anatomy of a Dinner Party. Please put your hands together for Miss Mary Kay!

You say the art of the dinner party has died of natural causes? Somebody forgot to send me the memo. I love dinner parties. I love giving them and I love going to them.

No, not the stuffy kind, where you spend weeks cleaning your house and polishing the silver and ironing the table linens, and then many hours agonizing over the guest list and the menu, and who sits where, ad infinitum. And not the kind of dinner party where you turn out tortured-looking trays of teensy little canapés, and create five course masterpieces.

My kind of dinner party is the loosey-goosey kind. A clean house is nice, but not a fixed requirement. After all, my guests are friends, dear friends, usually. They know I’m never going to win any awards for my housekeeping skills. It’s enough for them that I’ve cleared the piles of mail and books and papers from the dining room table. Oh, I do hit the high points—a procedure I call “policing the area,” and my husband—and children, if they’re around, get pressed into assistance there.

Front doorstep swept? Living room picked up? Kitchen counters cleared off? I do like to make sure the bathrooms are sparkling clean, spiffed up with some clean hand towels, extra rolls of toilet tissue set out, maybe some fresh guest soaps if I’m really feeling fancy. Once that’s done, I dim the lamps and light some aromatherapy candles, while my husband loads the CD player with jazz, oldies beach music, or crooners like Steve Tyrell, Harry Connick Jr. or Sinatra.

Once that’s done, I can concentrate on the fun stuff—setting the table and planning the menu.

True confession. I am a hopeless junker and consummate bargain shopper. I love to pick up vintage table-top items—napkins and tablecloths, china, silver and glassware, at estate sales and junk shops. When I hit my “happy places”—like Target or HomeGoods or Tuesday Morning, the first place I head is the housewares department.

I may, just may, have a little china issue.

In the kitchen cabinets of my Atlanta house right this minute, I have two complete sets of white dinnerware—my Mikasa Italian Countryside—(service for eight) and ten heavy square Williams-Sonoma dinner plates. (Pottery Barn outlet) They’re snugged up against a set of eight green lettuce leaf salad plates (T.J. Maxx) and eight strawberry print salad plates (Marshall’s). In the Welsh cupboard in the dining room you’ll find ten place settings of my wedding china—Minton, Stanwood. Also assorted pieces of a very pretty teal and ivory with gold trim Rosenthal china pattern called Classic. Wow, talk about a china issue? I bought the Rosenthal china at an estate sale held in a fabulous mansion in Atlanta. I counted at least ten different kinds of fine china at that sale—including china displayed in an out-of-order elevator. Now that’s some china! Also stashed in that capacious dining room cupboard of mine are approximately ten mixed place settings of Blue Willow transferware.

And that’s just upstairs. Downstairs in the basement, (otherwise known as the dish annex) I have an unopened box of Cornflower china—I think there are ten place settings, plus serving pieces, which I bought from my friend Sue. Also? Eight or so LuRay pastel luncheon plates which I found years ago at an estate sale in my hometown of St. Petersburg. Also, an unknown number of plates, bowls, cups, ect. In a pretty floral pattern china which my sister bought at various yard sales and then gifted me with.

And that’s just the china. I do only have one set of silver flatware. But I own an infinite number of tablecloths and napkins, and what seems like a vast collection of footed crystal ice tea and wine glasses. In my own defense, I pick up the table linens and crystal at estate sales, usually in incomplete sets—of five, or seven, or even nine, which means I get them on the cheap—rarely paying more than ten bucks for a set.

This informal inventory also does not address the issue of my six individual miniature covered glass-domed butter dishes (Williams-Sonoma outlet), which cause paroxysms of laughter from my unappreciative children, or the ten aqua cut-glass salt cellars purchased for a song at an estate sale in Savannah. “Salt cellars,” my husband said, with raised eyebrows. “Really?”

It also does not count the two kinds of dishware we keep at the Breeze Inn, our beach house on Tybee Island, Georgia. There, we have a service for twelve of plain white porcelain “caterers china” from the Pottery Barn outlet, plus cute beachy plastic dishware from Target, plus eight sea-anenome salad plates from HomeGoods, and eight blue pottery soup bowls from the Ballard’s outlet. And eight aqua juice glasses from Ballard’s, plus a cupboard full of beachy table linens culled from my happy places.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

So, yes, sue me, but I love to set a pretty table, even at the beach. For a recent impromptu dinner party at the Breeze Inn, I unearthed a vintage Florida-map souvenir tablecloth, and atop it I placed lime green fluted straw placemats (Tuesday Morning, end of season), topped with the white dinner plates and sea-anenome salad plates. I used lime green cotton napkins—50 cents apiece at a Sur La Table clearance sale! And those pretty aqua Ballard’s juice glasses.

I love to use fresh flowers in table settings. Fortunately, our Atlanta house is only blocks away from the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, which always has a large selection of inexpensive cut flowers, but I sometimes buy great cheap flowers from Costco, or even Publix or Kroger. Since we have a very large oval dining room table, I have a collection of very large bowls—an ironstone wash basin, a silverplate punch bowl, a cast-iron urn, and even a galvanized tin dough-rising bowl that I use for centerpieces. Generally, I buy the biggest, cheapest flowering potted plant I can find—orchids, minaiature azaleas, or, my favorite, hydrangeas, and plop them into the bowl, along with some smaller potted baby’s tear ferns or trailing ivy. Those centerpieces, if I keep them watered, will last for weeks and months after the dinner party, so I always think they’re a bargain.

Flowers are a little harder to come by on Tybee, which has only one modest grocery store. Happily though, in warm weather, I can cut hibiscus and ferns, bamboo shoots and palmetto fronds from our yard, or drive fifteen minutes to Publix, where I recently bought a big bunch of pink alstroemeria for three dollars.

Fortunately for me, my husband loves to cook and entertain as much as I do. We’re not afraid to try out new recipes on friends, with me doing the research and development menu creation. Our division of labor is simple—he usually does the meat, or seafood, especially if we’re grilling. I do the appetizers, salads and desserts. He’s amazingly adept at knife skills, so he also acts as the sous chef when there’s lots of slicing and dicing to do. And he also buys the wine and liquor. Because my husband and son are the outdoorsy types, fresh caught seafood and game—usually quail or dove, are frequently on the menu.

Generally, our dinner parties are informal affairs. Take Sunday night, when our friends Jack and Shay were coming back into town from their mountain cabin. We invited them at 4pm. My husband fixed an amazing herb-crusted tenderloin, I made a gruyere-cheese scalloped potato casserole and chilled poached asparagus. Shay managed to whip up some stuffed mushrooms for an appetizer, and she purchased some white chocolate fudge at a store on the way home.

I set the table with some antique red damask placemats and white cotton napkins, and used our square white Pottery Barn plates. We sipped wine and nibbled on the mushrooms standing around the kitchen island, and by 8pm, we were sitting down to great dinner with great friends.

So now, dear reader, the dinner party isn’t dead. At least, not at our house.

Thank you so much, Mary Kay!! Go check out her website and pick up one of her fun books. Beach season is coming up so if you haven’t stocked up on your beach reads, now is the time. Paula Deen and I are big fans.

xoxo, Patti

Today blogging to Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind


8 Comments so far ↓

  1. Melanie says:

    The Dinner Party has evolved into something more relaxed for the host & guest….the host with sweat on the brow is no more, he or she can sit down, sip wine and mingle with the invited, and still pull off a remarkable gathering….Yes, I have seen it done….I’ve been to Patti’s house….:)
    Great write up!

  2. Patti says:

    Melanie, you are on my A-list of guests!! xoxoox, P

  3. Millie says:

    Well Hello Mary Kay & Patti!
    I loved this guest blog entry and I totally agree with MKA. I love dinner parties and everything about them as long as they stay casual and I don’t have to go into full on “clean as if my white glove, former military wife mother” isn’t coming to dinner. I should definitely have friends over more often but on Saturday, the day I could most likely host friends for dinner, I’ve spent hours out at those garage and estate sales that MKA loves and by dinner time, all I want is to go to bed early or to go to someone else’s house to eat!

    By the way, MKA, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE all of your books. My garden club secret palm bought me Hissy Fit as a gift and now I’ve read all but one and it’s on the shelf and waiting as I just picked it up a week ago.

    When I read your books it’s as if you and I are old kindred souls. Just ask Patti, I love junkin’ just as much as you and I surely can throw a hissy fit every now and then too!

    Oh, and dishes obsession; let me think here: Franciscan Starburst from the 50’s that we had to “Buy” from my MIL (long story on that one…); Canonsburg Temporama, a set of adorable Pink, Black & Gray 50s dishes, some adorable melmac pieces, my hope chest china that my mother bought me from Winn Dixie a piece at a time that I can’t remember the pattern of and so much more!

    Keep up the good work MKA and Patti and I was thrilled to see MKA was a guest blogger today.

    Love and miss you Patti!
    Miss Millie

  4. Patti says:

    Miss Millie!! So happy to see your comment! And I would love to see photos of all your dishes. We are three dish-obsessed ladies!


  5. Stitchfork says:

    Now that’s my kind of dinner party -relaxed and fun, enjoying the company of friends.

  6. Patti says:

    My Dear Arlynn,

    I couldn’t agree more with you. And you have years to build up your collection of beautiful tableware. Enjoy the journey.


  7. Wow, Thanks Mary Kay for turning me on to this fab web blog via a google alert. What a wonderful post, and yes, Mary Kay and Mr. Mary Kay are wonderful hosts as I have been to some great functions at both their houses, I am very grateful to say and thank them for. But, now that I have been renewed to the art of hosting a dinner party,I am going to raid MK’s booth at my shop on Tybee and remake my table for when they are here next. Thanks Mary Kay and Patti, love this site!
    Susan, Seaside Sisters, Tybee Island

  8. Patti says:

    Hi Susan!!

    Thanks so much for your kind words. We love Mary Kay and I adored her guest blog post for me.

    I would love to see what you come up with at her booth and how you put it all together.