I threw my first “grown-up” party when I was nine, for my father’s birthday. It featured surprise balls and Quiche Lorraine from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Though my party throwing skills have evolved a bit since then, that basic formula—good fun and good food—remains the basis of any successful shindig, and I still love a surprise ball. Here’s the formula: Delicious food and a lot of it; more booze and wine than you think you need; good music (even if it’s just a playlist and a speaker); a great mix of people and a festive host or hostess.
The single most important thing is the attitude of the party giver. If you are uptight, your guests will be uptight too. The inverse is also true: If you’re having fun, your guests are bound to. I have parties because I want to have a swell time myself—never out of duty or payback. I’ve also learned to go with the flow—no matter what. Here I invoke my Madeira School motto: “Function in Disaster; Finish in Style.” Once, in a divine, high-ceilinged French Quarter flat I lived in for a year or so, I set a long refectory table with enormous platters of food and lots of candelabra draped with Spanish moss. Naturally, the moss caught on fire, but I always say every party needs a certain element of danger. After we got the fire out, I dusted the ash off the food and carried on. If I’d freaked out over a little moss fire, the party would have been all but over. Same thing if you burn a roast or some other faux tragedy happens. Pick up the phone and order pizza or send someone to Popeye’s for fried chicken and dirty rice. For that matter, you can serve Popeye’s on purpose. You don’t have to be a great cook to have a yummy party. Who doesn’t love fried chicken? And almost every town has great sources, from Popeye’s or the Colonel to gas stations and grocery stores. My fave in New Orleans comes from McHardy’s. In Julia Reed’s South, it came from the Piggly Wiggly in Franklin, Tennessee!
Like Keith Smythe Meacham, I grew up in the Mississippi Delta where parties always mixed two or three generations. I love that. (Since I was older than Keith, I “graduated” downstairs to the “grown-up”, aka totally wild, Christmas Eve party at our close friends the McGees’ house while she was still upstairs with the littlest kids and cookies!) I also mix professions, political leanings, you name it. In But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria there’s an essay in which I describe one dinner party guest beating another over the head with a loaf of French bread because he said Al Gore would have made a good president. They shrieked and laughed and it was all in good fun. Even if I’m having a small group of close friends for an impromptu casual supper around the table, I’ll invite one person we don’t know as well. It forces us to step up our game, gives us someone to show off for.
I live in two places, the Delta and New Orleans, where music is so ubiquitous it’s sort of a crime not to include it at parties. I had a party on a friend’s enormous New Orleans roof terrace not long ago and a fiddler and a guitarist roamed around playing among the guests. I also ADORE walking into a party and hearing a little piano music tinkling from somewhere. I immediately start to move a little differently, I smile inside (and out)—I can’t help but imagine I’m a guest at the party in one of favorite songs, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” At our recent Reed Smythe & Company pop-up in New Orleans, the uber talented Eden Brent on the keyboards and her husband the great Bob Dowler on jazz trombone were the first folks you saw—and heard—when you walked in the door. Even at small dinners at my Delta Folly, my guitar playing friends always bring their instruments just in case—and we happily encourage them to serenade us after dinner. Two of my dearest friends usually play along on the spoons. If you don’t have a bunch of musicians in your back pocket, that’s what playlists are for. I have several in both Julia Reed’s South and Julia Reed’s New Orleans or you can make your own. You can’t go wrong—ever—with Ella Fitzgerald.
4. GRACIOUS PLENTY
The thing that can definitely break a party is not having enough—of everything! There should always be too much! Too much food, too much booze (and lots of mixers and flavored bitters for teetotalers), too many votive candles, a generous amount of flowers. Even if you are just shoving grocery story roses or Peruvian lilies into vases (I prefer our Reed Smythe wine rinsers, naturally!), shove in a lot.
I try very hard to be as prepared as possible before a party, but all too often I’m zipping myself up as the first guest knocks on the door. Still, aim high and do as much as you can ahead of time. It helps with that unstressed hostess thing. But by prep, I also mean that you should be prepared for impromptu parties because they are so often the very best kind. I always have eggs, bacon, frozen biscuits, and cold Champagne on hand in my fridge. One of the most fun dinners I ever had was late at night around the dining room table. The only thing I had enough of for 8 hungry folks was the above. The Champagne happened to be a magnum (or now that I think of it, two!), the bacon was from the great Allan Benton, the eggs were scrambled (secret weapon: a generous splash of half and half or cream), and the biscuits were accompanied by yummy fig preserves a friend had given me for Christmas. Perfection. I also highly recommend keeping a big batch of frozen whiskey sours and a Ziploc full of frozen cheese dreams (here’s looking at you, Libby Page), both from Julia Reed’s South, always at the ready.