Savvy hosts share tips for party-perfect entertaining (and don’t forget to count the chairs)
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Katie McDill
Does the thought of playing host bring on a case of party-planning jitters? Not so for Ralph Null and Fred Kinder of Columbus, Miss. They frequently open their riverside home for soirées and receptions. And far from dreading the preparation, Null and Kinder embrace their entertaining roles. “A good party is really just about getting the mix right — good, ample food, interesting people and a comfortable space,” says Null.
That was the formula for a Twelfth Night party given in January 2012 as a “Dining for Art” fundraiser benefiting the Columbus Arts Council. Null currently serves as president of that organization’s board. Twelfth Night, observed Jan. 6, celebrates the arrival of the magi at the manger in Bethlehem and marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas.
“It’s a wonderful way to welcome the new year, and it’s a last chance to have a party with your house decorated for Christmas,” Kinder noted. “Plus, it’s after the frenzy of the holidays, so everybody’s had a little intermission.”
Null has a wealth of expertise to draw from. The Mississippi State University professor emeritus founded and then directed the school’s retail floral management program for 25 years, taught party and event planning courses and has crafted designs for White House state dinners and events for the Smithsonian Institute. All of this has informed a philosophy on entertaining that he and Kinder have fine-tuned through decades of creating special occasions in their own home.
“In years past, we gave huge parties, and at the end of the evening you sometimes didn’t even know who was there,” says Null. “We’ve found it’s better to stick to 30 to 50 people most of the time; then you get to interact with everybody.”
MAKE IT MANAGEABLE
One of the easiest ways to give a party is to pull together a convivial mix of co-hosts and let each host prepare something he or she enjoys making. That way, the experienced planners say, no one is overworked.
For Twelfth Night, Null and Kinder — and co-hosts Scott and Ruth Berry, Lee and Kathryn Burdine and Betty Clyde Jones — came up with a buffet-style menu of Mexican cheesecake appetizer, blanched asparagus, turnip greens dip, marinated shrimp, tenderloin on party biscuits, smoked salmon, cheeses and fruit, Swedish meatballs and sweets. Too often, party hosts let the food planning overwhelm them, says Null. A “wow” dish (like the smoked salmon) and a few other choices are usually all that’s needed.
“Really, it’s all in the presentation,” he says.
If your function includes spirits, the hosts advise having someone service the bar for crowds of 25 or more. Hiring an experienced bartender more than pays for itself.
Mobility is fundamental to a lively gathering, and savvy hosts can keep the crowd circulating with a simple strategy or two. For example, it can help to evaluate your party seating beforehand.
“If you have more chairs out than the number of people, everyone just stays in one place,” Null says.
Another way to promote mingling is to separate the bar from the food, so guests naturally flow back and forth, sparking new contacts and conversations.
When it comes to de-stressing party planning, Null’s mantra is “practice makes perfect.” Those who entertain often find it much easier than others who rarely have guests. Try hosting more than one function in a condensed period of time, such as the holidays.
“If you do it a lot, you’re not as uptight,” the designer encourages. “And once the silver’s all polished and serving pieces are out of the cabinets, you’re ready to roll.”
Kinder adds, “Really, once you get used to it, it’s amazing how simple entertaining is.”
A diverse mix of people is key to making a party interesting, Null emphasizes. “That helps make everyone more aware of the community in which they live,” he says. “And, after all, where do you meet your next new friends?”
8-ounce package cream cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
8 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup toasted almonds
3 chopped green onions
• Mix all ingredients together. Spread on a platter (or serve mounded in an oversized martini glass or other container).
• Top with a small jar of orange marmalade and sprinkle with 10 slices of cooked and crumbled bacon on top. Serve with crackers.
(Source: Kathryn Burdine)
MARINATED PORK TENDERLOIN WITH JEZEBEL SAUCE
2 pork tenderloins (3/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each), skinned (all white membrane removed)
For the marinade:
1 tablespoon grated onion
Clove crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1/4 cup white wine or dry sherry
1/4 cup light soy sauce
Splash of Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon honey
• Combine all ingredients in heavy-duty Ziploc bag or marinating container. Add tenderloins. Marinate eight to 16 hours, turning occasionally.
• Remove tenderloins from marinade and place them in a 400-degree oven. Using a meat thermometer, cook until tenderloins register 140 degrees. Baste occasionally.
• Remove from heat, cover with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Allow to cool; meat will continue to cook. Slice and serve warm or chilled. Serve with party rolls and Jezebel sauce. (Marinade can be cooked down and used as a warming sauce when serving.)
For the Jezebel sauce:
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup apple jelly
1 cup orange marmalade
5-ounce jar horseradish
6-ounce jar mustard
• Beat all sauce ingredients together. Serve with sliced tenderloin and biscuits. (Jezebel sauce will keep four weeks or more in the refrigerator.)
(Source: Betty Clyde Jones)
MEXICAN CHEESECAKE APPETIZER
For the crust:
1 cup tortilla chips, finely crushed
3 tablespoons melted butter
• In a small bowl, stir together crushed tortilla chips and butter. Press onto the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
• Bake at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes. Cool slightly.
For the filling:
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 package taco seasoning mix
2 cups Mexican cheeses, shredded
1/2 cup thick and chunky salsa
1 cup sour cream
• In a large bowl, combine cream cheese and taco seasoning mix. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until well mixed, about one to two minutes. Add eggs. Continue to beat until smooth. Stir in cheese and salsa. Carefully spoon mixture over crust, spreading to smooth.
• Bake at 325 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until edges are set. (Center of cheesecake will be slightly soft.)
• Cool completely. Top with sour cream. Cover and refrigerate (overnight is ideal). Just before serving, remove sides of springform pan; garnish with green onions, ripe olives and tomatoes. Serve with tortilla chips or Frito Scoops.
For the topping:
(Source: Kathryn Burdine)