Soon the flurry of graduations, baby showers and weddings will signal the start of the entertaining season. The weather improves, and we are drawn to gathering on patios and porches.
For many of us, though, entertaining is a hornet’s nest. Normally competent people, wondering what to serve and where to seat the guests, fall to pieces.
It’s time to seek inspiration and encouragement, and for that we need merely to look south — to a place known for its effortless hospitality.
At 6 o’clock in Charleston, S.C., they say, one need only pour a cocktail and go for a walk to find a gathering. The city needs no excuse for a party, and two women in particular are well known for their contributions to the entertaining arts.
At their Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits, Suzanne Pollak and Lee Manigault — they call themselves “the Deans” — offer classes replete with their own blend of acerbic, hilarious and completely practical advice for hosting a cocktail party, business lunch, bridal shower or dinner party.
For instance, the Deans have no problem with wearing jeans to greet dinner guests. “Put a drink in their hands, introduce everyone, then go up and change!” Maybe they prefer to make an entrance (something that’s admittedly easier to do when you have a grand staircase).
With great charm and grace, the two women blithely hand down advice, referring to themselves only in the third person; each statement is a proclamation. The Deans say, “Never stop the party to do the dishes.” (It kills the atmosphere.) Invite seven people to a dinner party. (It livens things up.) Not six. (Three couples are so boring.) Not eight. (It’s impossible to have one conversation.) The Deans are utterly certain about absolutely everything. (When asked their ages for this article, they replied, “The Deans are old enough to know it’s rude to ask a lady her age.”)
Spend any time at all with the Deans and you get the sense they could pull together a cocktail party for 50 people in 45 minutes. Asked to impart some advice to those of us less blessed with the entertaining gene, Manigault had plenty. “Our main ethos: We love to use nice china, sure, but if it’s going to keep you from having people over, use a paper plate,” she said. “Just have people over.”
“The point is to get together, not to show off your china,” Pollak says. “We have all been there with the chipped plates, and those are some of the best times. Reflect your personality, not a magazine.”
When their students gather, they have one frequent lament: “My house isn’t put together.” The Deans proclaim that no one is paying attention. “The guests are much more worried about themselves,” says Manigault, with a throaty laugh.
They insist that entertaining should be relaxed. Enough with the contrived centerpieces. Instead, select herbs from the farmers market or leaves and flowers from your yard and plop them in unconventional vessels such as pitchers, julep cups and other precious containers.
Place cards? Absolutely. Manigault’s daughters decorate them for her. And what about the guests who discreetly swap place cards? The Deans have no patience for that behavior. “The worst manners in the world,” says Pollak.
They encourage inviting guests across all age ranges and professions and mixing up single and married people; it energizes the party.
Have at least one person you can’t wait to see.
“If it’s all hosting for payback, it’s just not fun,” says Manigault. The Deans say that entertaining should be worry-free. “Find cool people doing cool things, and you’re guaranteed a great time,” Pollak says.
The Deans freely admit that they’re bossy. They worry that the next generation wants to entertain but has no idea how. “Yearning for cocktails, dressing up like ‘Mad Men’ characters, yet missing the road map,” says Pollak.