"Party Trick" from Veranda Magazine
VERANDA loves a party. In each print issue, the magazine spotlights gracious gatherings—from holiday dinners and poolside soirees to garden parties and more—to celebrate the art of entertaining.
Each month, the magazine tap favorite tastemakers to share their signature hosting ritual (or their “party trick”) and why it’s the secret behind their successful soirees. I'm so honored to join some of my favorite folks in the world of entertaining and design - Stephanie Summerson Hall of Estelle Colored Glass, fashion designer, Lela Rose, author Ajiri Aki, and designer Shea McGee, to name a few - in talking about my favorite party tricks. Here's the interview I did with Veranda's Grace Haynes who turned my stream-of-consciousness answers into a much more organized column.
Grace of Veranda: What is your “party trick”? What’s a hosting ritual you swear by for a successful party, and why do you rely on it time and again?
Keith: One of my go-to tricks – whether I’m hosting a big bash with 100s of guests or a small, intimate dinner party – is to serve a my four favorite Southern hors d’oeuvres passed on one of the silver trays my grandmother left me. People go wild for bite-sized biscuits with Virginia ham, cheese dreams (decadent cheese covered stacks of Pepperidge Farm thin sandwich bread toasted to perfection), bacon-wrapped dates, and hot cheese olives. Many of these recipes are familiar to Southern hostesses. Some were handed down through my mother and grandmother and come from tattered cookbooks like “Gourment of the Delta,” published by the Garden Club of Leland, Mississippi, or “Southern Sideboards,” a favorite from the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. Others recipes I got from my beloved friend Julia Reed, who, as far as I know, never gave a party without serving bacon-wrapped watermelon pickles.
Veranda: Is there an interesting backstory to your discovery of this party trick? Was it perhaps passed down from a family member or friend, or did you encounter it at another memorable event?
KSM: My husband and I lived in New York City for 16 years. Every Christmas, we put on a big holiday party in our 1500 square foot apartment and invited everyone we knew. It felt very Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with people shoulder to shoulder holding champagne glasses above their heads. Anyway, many of our friends hadn’t grown up in the south, and they just died over these old Southern standby recipes and thought I was a genius for coming up with them, which of course I hadn’t – they were things most of the women I’d grown up with could cook by memory. So, the affirmation of some of the New York’s most accomplished hostesses gave me the confidence to serve these delicacies at all of my parties. It never fails.
Veranda: From whom did you learn what a good party should look, taste, feel, smell, and sound like?
KSM: I was lucky to grow up in Mississippi, where gracious party-giving was in no short supply. I learned a lot from my grandmother, whose Christmas Eve party still provides some of my favorite memories, my mother, whose laissez-faire attitude about hosting is still something I envy, but most of all, I learned from my friend Julia Reed, who probably goes without introduction for the readers of this magazine. Julia taught me what her mother had taught her: serve food that tastes good; invite a mix of people who don’t know each other; do your own flowers; pour copious amounts of booze; have live music wherever possible.
Veranda: How would you describe your entertaining style?
KSM: Fly-by-night. I entertain a lot, and to some degree, I have the drill down. I know my house, love my caterer, and am good at arranging flowers at the last minute. Still, anyone who knows me would describe me as slightly manic on the day of a party. There is not a lot of budgeting, mood boarding, or even advance silver polishing going on in the weeks leading up to a party, so lots of things are happening last minute. I’ve tried it other ways, but the pressure of a deadline is a big motivator for me. I’m usually running down the stairs five minutes before people walk in the door with one of my daughters racing to keep up while she zips my dress!
Veranda: What’s your favorite type of party to host, and why?
KSM: I love all parties. Small casual gatherings of close friends around the kitchen table, fancy dinners served in the dining room to welcome someone to town, but I think my favorite parties are big, crowded affairs celebrating someone else – a new book, a birthday, a going-away fete. I love that line from the Great Gatsby when Jordan Baker says: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” So true! You can’t escape a bad dinner partner, but the world is your oyster at a big to-do. I love it when people break off into smaller groups and head to our boxwood garden to smoke a forbidden cigarette, or wind up in a corner continuing a particularly lively conversation. Every time I have a big party, people call me the next day to ask for someone’s number or to tell me how fun it was to meet someone new. The greatest compliment to any hostess is when someone makes a new friend at a party you’ve given.
Veranda: What can guests count on at your parties?
KSM: Cigars in my husband’s study after most guests have left. My husband is a big cigar afficionado (even though smoking is definitely out of favor these days), and he loves gathering the late-night crowd for one more drink, a smoke and a debrief on the party.
Veranda: In your opinion, what should hosts think more about? Less about? In other words, what's your best advice?
KSM: It’s so easy to get caught up in perfection and to arrive at your own party stressed out and ready for it to be over. But I try to let it go a little (which is not how I am about most things). I think people appreciate a little imperfection. It makes the house seem warmer, the atmosphere a little more unexpected. I know that when I ease up on myself a little bit I’m a much more relaxed and attentive hostess.
I’m also a huge fan of thinking carefully about the guest list and making sure there is a good mix of people from lots of different worlds. I had a party recently where I’d say only about 1/3 of people knew each other well, if at all, and it turned out to be so much fun. I was careful to think about everyone’s professional worlds – the music business, academia, design – but also about who I had met recently and wanted to get to know better. It’s fun to get dressed up and to see people you’re really close to, but it’s way more fun to arrive somewhere to find an ecclectic crowd of people, some of whom you’ve known since childhood and some of whom you’ve just met.
Veranda: What is one of your go-to entertaining items, and why do you believe hosts should always have it on hand?
KSM: It sounds a little crazy to say that my favorite entertaining tool is Reed Smythe’s Kasbah table – a small wooden occasional table with a Moorish vibe that is perfect for plopping a drink but also doubles as a stool. I have one or two in each of the main entertaining rooms in my house and they come in handy when someone wants to join a conversation where the couches and chairs are already occupied.
I also love to fill the bar or accent the dining room table with our handblown colored glassware in jewel-toned hues. It’s great to have a shot of color on every table.
Other go-to pieces in no particular order are: candles of lots of different heights, wine rinsers filled with flowers encircling a larger bowl of massed flowers, placecard holders and placecards, monogrammed French napkins, and my new favorite - small handpainted porcelain songbirds by Wolfe Studios in Mississippi scattered among the flowers and silverware.
And then of course, there is the most important go-to for entertaining: A great guest list!