Friday, September 21, 2012

The (Lost) Art Of Entertaining, Part I

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The following is Part I of the presentation I gave at the Dawson County Arts Council in Georgia last Friday, September14, 2012.  I think I covered the main points from my perspective but if you have additional tips or ideas that you would like to share with us they would be gladly welcomed.  I would like to leave a copy of this to my children and grandchildren for posterity as a blueprint should they ever want to entertain like we did "in the olden days". 

Before I share with you some of the entertaining tips and ideas that have made my life a bit less stressful and more enjoyable when it comes to having guests, I would like to go over where we have been and where we are today in the way we entertain.

But first let me give you some background about myself and why and how I came to speak to you today.

I write about food and entertaining in a blog called Lindaraxa.  I am not a chef, or a caterer, and definitely not a party planner.  I have never had a cooking lesson in my life nor attended the Cordon Bleu.  I am a former investment banker from New York who, because of circumstances, came to live with my daughter on a lake here in Georgia.  I was born in Havana to a family of substantial means whose world turned upside down in January 1959 with the advent of the Cuban Revolution and  subsequently moved to New England in the early 1960's.  Although I have spent most of my life in the Northeast, I have also lived in the South on two occasions.  First in North Carolina in the 1970's and now here in Georgia since the Fall of 2010.  I have also lived for a few years in Miami, Florida but I don't consider that the South, for it is mostly a Latin American city that happens to be in the United States. Miami  beats to its own drum.

I started my investment career in 1976 with Merrill Lynch and later went on to senior positions on Wall Street which gave me the opportunity to travel and entertain clients all over the world.  I am now retired, dabble in the stock market, and write about food and entertaining in my blog where I also share with my readers some of my recipes and menus.   I am a self made cook and hostess and come from a family of avid gourmets who from an early life implanted in me a love for the art of cooking and entertaining.  That is why I am here today.

One of the reasons for all this background is to show you that you don't need to go to school to be a good hostess.  And there is no secret formula.  All you need is to observe and do what works best for you.  I remember one day when I was helping my daughter set up for a small dinner party and she did something that made me ask her where she had learned what she was doing.  She looked at me for a moment, with that "dah" expression that young adults use these days, and replied,  "Mom, I have been watching you all my life".  That made me feel that everything wrong I had done as a PARENT had suddenly been erased and I had accomplished my goal as a MOTHER.
Like my daughter, I watched my mother give dinner parties and entertain all my life.  I am sure she did the same with her mother and her mother with hers. Learning the art of entertaining starts at home and develops as you grow older and new things and new ideas come into your life.
When I was growing up, entertaining at home was not just an art, it was a necessity.  People did not go out to eat as often as they do today.  There were not many restaurants or movie houses and there where only three channels on TV.  There was nothing to do on weekends to keep us "entertained" except going to a dinner party at a friend's house.  Christmas was the busiest time of the year and hostesses made plans as far back as the summer to corner the best dates, which were usually the two weekends right before the holidays.  If necessary, a weeknight was okay, but only during the holidays  God forbid you planned a party mid week any other time of the year.
A hostess worked for days preparing for the night of the event, starting with drawing up the guest list, making the phone calls or mailing out the invitations, coming up with a menu, and starting the process of cleaning up the freezer to fit all the make ahead food before the party.  Table cloths and cocktail napkins had to be ironed, the silver polished, the crystal shined.  If she had live in help, the service was no problem.  But if she didn't, she would often talk her cleaning lady into coming in that night or sending a friend.  Sometimes that was not possible and I remember helping my mother with the arduous process of the before and after on many occasions. It was a thankless task but it had to be done.  The alternative was Siberia.
As women began to enter the workforce in full force in the l980's and families had more money to spend on leisure and less time to spend in the kitchen, changes began that drastically changed our entertaining habits. Gradually all kinds of restaurants began to open,  from high end to fast food; and later, with globalization, ethnic restaurants from Greek to Vietnamese opened their doors to the new worldwide gourmet.    Nowadays you don't have to travel to India to have Indian food .  You can have it at the local Indian restaurant or in the comfort of your own home.  All the ingredients are easily available, and you can find plenty of books on Indian cooking on the shelves of your local library or bookstore. If you are lazy and don't feel like cooking, there is even ready made Indian food in the freezer section of your local grocery store.
I remember living in Hendersonville,  North Carolina in the 1970's and buying the only cook book available at the time on Chinese food for American cooks. It was Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee's Chinese Cooking. Nothing fancy or extraordinary, but it sure satisfied the yen! My husband tackled the pizza,  for there were no Italian restaurants within at least 60 miles of where we lived. Things have definitely changed from those days  and I find myself cooking Chinese food and making pizzas at home again, not because I have to,  but because I like to.

And this brings us to today...

Entertaining Today
In the past couple of decades entertaining has evolved from a rigorous affair full of rules and regulation to a more casual and personal approach.  The sky is the limit as far as the type of entertaining you can do.  From the more formal cocktail and dinner party, it is now okay to have a barbecue, a picnic, a tapas party or a Super Bowl Party.  Gone are the days of white linen table cloths, fine china and Waterford crystal.  Today many people prefer to hang out around a large kitchen island sitting on a stool while the hostess puts the finishing touches on the main course. The kitchen has evolved into the new living room and is not only the gathering place of the typical modern dinner party but the center of every day life. Look at the way we are designing our kitchens today, they are the height of luxury. Granite or marble counters, top of the line appliances and sinks, bar stools and even chandeliers and TVs grace the new kitchens. And forget about selling your house if your kitchen is not upgraded!

If you want to have a party these days, any kind of a party, and need someone to plan it for you, all you have to do is turn on your computer, or IPhone,  type a couple of keywords and a whole bunch of party menus, ideas and decorations pop up on your screen, including my blog.  You don't have to think.  All you have to do is implement.

Ironically, all this abundance of options and resources have only made us lazier about entertaining at home. I often wonder what people do with all this information for it is seldom these days that I hear that somebody is having a party at home.

In spite of all this, there is nothing, really nothing that can supplant the old forms of entertaining, particularly the dinner party.  For the guests, the expectancy of a dinner party was almost as good as being there.  What to wear always translated into an excuse for a new dress.  For the hostess, and as a woman, it was her moment to shine.

I remain, to this day, an old timer even though I have adjusted somewhat to the new times and to the new forms of entertaining. If nothing else, my options have expanded which is something I gladly welcome as I get older and lose some of my enthusiasm for ironing tablecloths and polishing silver. No matter the times or the circumstances, we still have to entertain. There is no excuse these days for not reciprocating an invitation or a kind deed. You don't have to be lavish or put on a dog and pony show, but you do have to reciprocate and you do have to do it well.

What is important about entertaining is getting together and having a good time. The tablecloth and the silver, the menu and the flowers are just the icing on the cake. 
Next...Entertaining, Part II...Making Your Party A Successful Event

top Alberto Pinto
 bottom San Francisco Decorators Show


  1. A great post! You had a wonderful program! I clan't think of ONE thing to add!

  2. Another "old timer" nodding his head in agreement with you...

  3. Excellent advice as well as analysis of has become of entertaining at home. I watched my mother as well and hope that there will be a resurgence of the dinner party!
    Thank you,

  4. This is absolutely wonderful!
    Can't wait for the next post.

  5. This is a wonderful article. The only thing I can add is that when you acknowledged the obligations and necessity of entertaining, you didn't emphasize enough how enjoyable it can be to entertain people in your house, preparing good food and using the objects you have accumulated, whether fancy or informal.

    By the way, you evidently learned to type on a typewriter, using a lowercase 'L' as a number 1--we'll call that another example of old-fashioned craftsmanship.
    --Road to Parnassus

  6. Parnassus,

    I did learn to type on a typewriter when I was in high school many moons ago. My parents insisted I go to secretarial school just in case I didn't make it in the business world. However, that is not a l but a capital i. For some reason it comes like that in the title which uses a different font than the rest of blog. I am very careful to check these things, after all, I went to secretarial school!

    Thanks for letting me know though as sometimes I do miss stuff.

  7. Parnassus,

    You are right although, if truth be told, my focus is really in making sure my guests are having a good time so my enjoyment of the evening is limited. It is only after dinner is over that I can relax and enjoy myself. But don't tell a soul!

  8. anonymous,

    Thank you for leaving a comment but I wouldn't hold my breath! People have become too self indulgent and having a party is work and expense. On the other hand, what goes around comes around so let's hope it does come back.

  9. Columnist,

    Unfortunately there are only a few dinosaurs like the two of us to keep the tradition alive. This is something that has to come down from generation to generation and unfortunately these days families are spending too much time texting, tweeting and on the new Iphone. Did you see the sales?! Doesn't bode well for the dinner party!

  10. Martha,

    I am sure you will have something to add when Part II comes along!


    Sorry you couldn't come, all your friends were there!

  11. Roxie, m'dear -- this is a brilliant post, and I am sure that your audience was in raptures listening to you speak it. I would have given my teeth to be in that room! As another old-fashioned entertainer, your points resonated with me, to be sure. One of the most important contributors to successful entertaining I believe is the capacity to THINK. One must think their way through the details, the guest list, the silver, the menu, etc. And it requires WORK, too, although of a highly gratifying sort indeed. It all doesn't "just happen!" One of the myths that irritates me no end is the concept of "effortless entertaining." I want my hosts to go to effort when they entertain me, it"s a party after all. I do!

    Boy and I are having a brunch for 35 next weekend, and the planning for such an event, for it to be successful and appear "effortless" (ha!), started months ago. And you can bet the (hired) staff will be wearing uniforms!!!

    I am looking forward to the next intallment with bated breath! Your most admiring friend, Reggie

  12. Reg,

    You are so right...effortless, my foot!

    What a wonderful idea. Brunch in the Fall in your neck of the woods. Knowing you and Boy it will be a smash. I hope you will grace us with a post. BTW, the mums in my garden this year are in Reggie approved colors!

  13. Marvelous, Julieta. Brightly and crisply written, candid
    and direct. You never disappoint!

  14. "What is important about entertaining is getting together and having a good time." You could have stopped there and walk off the stage, leaving them with something to think about. Too often the 'good time' gets lost in the details--that's why planning is so important. And honestly, Simplify, simplify, simplify.


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