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Two Ways to Party

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Recently, I found myself attending a Junior League lawn party in Pasadena. While walking up the narrow driveway to the event, I spotted the featured speaker assembling something out of the back of her shiny Navigator SUV. She took out a bell-shaped glass vase, poured in several inches of yellow aquarium sand, and then jammed a branch of orange sea coral into it. What was she was making? Not much later, during the woman’s presentation, I learned she’d created a quick ’n’ easy party-table centerpiece.

“It’s for a ‘Nautical Night!’” the woman gushed to the audience of gals in silk sundresses and big floppy hats. Then out came her quick ’n’ easy party dessert — cubes of cut-up Sara Lee cake stuffed into a wineglass and topped with a blob of vanilla pudding. I realized I was in a land that still pledged allegiance — and not in a kitschy way — to a ’50s-era approach to social gatherings.

So what did I learn from the Junior Leaguers? Well, for starters, I’ll probably never throw a party with a maritime motif. But I’d gladly attend one — especially if the hostess carried out the theme by wearing a black eye patch and shouting, “Ahoy!” at arriving invitees. I am always touched by genuine effort — even the crazy kind.

But it also got me thinking about what my favorite party hosts would have to say on the subject of home entertaining. And so I put in calls to two chefs whose home invitations you’d be crazy to refuse: Nancy Silverton (Campanile, La Brea Bakery) and Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill, Ciudad). Of course, when I asked them to share some of their philosophies about entertaining, it quickly became apparent that great minds do not always think alike.

Mary Sue believes party food should be served hot. Nancy believes in room-temperature serving.

Mary Sue favors entrées put out fragrant and still bubbling in the Le Creuset pots she cooked them in. Nancy favors plain white rectangular platters for food that has the appearance of being casually thrown together even though it’s arranged as meticulously as an Oscar attendee’s hair.

Mary Sue convinced me that sit-down dinners for 10 to 12 are the ticket. Fifteen minutes later, I was nodding along with Nancy that buffet is the only way to go.

Common ground? Both expressed a mutual horror of paper plates and food put out in the disposable Styrofoam, paper or aluminum takeout containers they came in. A summary of their rants: What an eyesore!

Aside from that, not one whit of Mary Sue and Nancy’s advice meshed. Then it struck me: Aren’t the best parties a pure reflection of the people who give them? After all, Mary Sue hails from the wintry Midwest (“the casserole capital of the world”) and had a mom, Ruth, with a flair for table-centric events, including a competitive shrimp-shuck with a title awarded at evening’s end to whoever dominated the shelling and swallowing. Mary Sue’s cousin Tod still holds the record with 87.

Nancy, who I grew up with, is Encino-bred and was raised in a rambling Spanish-style hacienda that had areas, both indoors and out, where you could sit with a plate of food, including a sort of open-air mini-den with a fireplace in the back. Some of my most vivid memories are of her parents’ huge, informal get-togethers where the doorbell would toll for hours as guests arrived at wildly different times. After a life of parties held on Planet Straggler, it makes sense that Nancy would develop an appreciation for lunch-dinner-whatever that can sit out for hours and still be appetizing.

So just for the purposes of discussion, let’s split the art part of entertaining into two groups: The Nancy party and the Mary Sue party. Where does that leave us? With a useful set of guidelines, actually.

At a Mary Sue party, the prevailing theory of décor is that if her table setting is colorful enough, then no other ornamentation is needed. Before guests arrive, she dresses her long, rectangular table with plastic Melamine dishes bought in Singapore, soft cloth napkins from her vast collection of vintage estate-sale linens and swinging dingbat-patterned glassware designed by her architect husband, Josh Schweitzer. If it isn’t directly involved in the consumption of food, forget it. Flowers? “No.” Candles? “Never!” The trick to a successful Mary Sue party is an intentionally crowded table. “Everybody is very elbow to elbow, which is very intimate,” says Mary Sue, who makes a racing stripe of soufflé dishes, pots and casseroles down the length of the table, then has everyone sit down at the same time. “You eat like a family. Food, for me, is all about interacting. I like the layout that’s most conducive to that.”

There’s one tiny hurdle with a Mary Sue party — she is of the opinion that the host does all the cooking. So if you’re all-thumbs in the kitchen, you’re out of luck. On the other hand, a Nancy party can take the form of a take-out extravaganza — one of her mainstays is an awe-inspiring array of Middle Eastern meze and kebabs ordered off the mile-long menu at Carousel on Hollywood Boulevard – or she’ll put out, say, grilled marinated flank steak hot from her outdoor barbecue. But the real work is less about the cooking than the serving. Nancy’s modus operandi is that all things homemade or purchased, big or small — including olives, nuts, crackers, even condiments — be redistributed to individual bowls, plates and platters. Those are then transferred to the buffet, where she moves them around according to size, texture, color and what goes with what — i.e., garlicky Greek yogurt belongs next to the lamb sausage — until she has composed something akin to a dreamy Cézanne still-life painting. She’s so protective of her canvas that wave after wave of guests can descend upon it without fear that the careful layout will transform into the usual party wreckage: the bowl containing a thin, congealing smear of dip, or the plate with one sad, broken asparagus spear. What Nancy figured out is that everything, even salad, is best put out in small portions. That way, when the food level drops precariously, the offending dish is whisked away and replaced, post-vigorous primping, of course.

For all the fussy behind-the-scenes action at a Nancy party, however, her guests rarely know it’s happening. They just know they’re eating extremely well. Sometimes even they think they’re partly responsible. Nancy is so focused on giving the people what they want that she serves not just a single dish but a variety of ingredients radiating like a sunburst from a central item so that each person can construct a salad or maybe an ice cream sundae, according to personal predilection.

Typically, she has small bowls of, say, Gorgonzola cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, spiced candied walnuts and several kinds of freshly prepared salad dressings (Green Goddess, Thousand Island, blue cheese and, maybe, a lemon vinaigrette), plus whatever is in season – fresh peas, heirloom tomatoes, avocado, shell beans, braised artichoke hearts, arugula, frisée or crisp wedges of iceberg or butter lettuce. With those ingredients, it’s practically impossible to make a bad salad.

Of course, if Mary Sue were to feature a make-it-yourself entrée, she’d probably opt for a more organic serving arrangement. But that day may never come. “I never give anyone an option,” she said. “I know how things should taste; they don’t. That’s why people come over to my house, right?”


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