Secrets of the Best Hostesses

Secrets of the Best Hostesses

Washington has seen more than its share of great hostesses. Whether they’re first ladies, ambassador’s wives, major philanthropists with a specific agenda for an evening, or people who just like a good party and entertain beautifully because it’s a form of self-expression, all great hostesses operate on the same theory articulated by Dwight Eisenhower when referring to the D-Day invasion: plans are useless, planning is indispensable.  It’s not surprising that great hostesses are compared to generals.  There are details to consider in putting together a party, resources to marshal, alliances to be called upon, guest lists to ponder…  It’s an exercise in strategic thinking, and those who do it best can be breathtaking in the scope of their accomplishments.

Secrets of the Best Hostesses

This week is devoted to the things that great hostesses know: secrets that add up to real success in entertaining.

To get us started, here are a few small things you may find useful:

  1. Set aside time on the day of the party to fix last-minute issues.  The flowers might need to be reworked, the dessert may flop and need a bakery replacement, you may have forgotten to buy ice – any of these little things become mini-crises if they happen an hour before the party, but are easily handled earlier in the day.  This leads me to the next tip…
  2. Do as much ahead of time as you possibly can.  The more details you’ve taken care of before the day of the party, the less stressful it will be, and the more time you’ll have to concentrate on your guests when they arrive.  Having a to-do list can make this amazingly easy.
  3. Don’t use a party as the time to test new recipes; make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re cooking and have done it before, preferably recently. Be certain you’ve tasted the wine before the day of the party; don’t wait until just before you serve the wine to taste it, in case it’s bad and you have to replace it.
  4. If guests offer to bring things, and you are amenable to that, suggest that they bring things that are not essential to the party. You don’t want to be without a dessert if your guest doesn’t make it, or their version of dessert is not exactly what you were hoping for.  After-dinner chocolates or wine are safe things for guests to bring.
  5. Music is great for setting the tone for an evening, and I always think about the mood I’m trying to evoke among guests, through the use of music.  Playlists are great for this, but I would stay away from anything that’s so loud it keeps guests from being able to talk to each other.
  6. Cleaning up after a party is the worst, but it’s so much worse the next morning when the dirty dishes need intensive scrubbing and the dog is on the table eating scraps from the night before.  If you can get the dishes washed and the dining room and kitchen tidied, you will awake the next day feeling so much better about the great party you had the night before, instead of getting up to a mess that is just a hangover of another kind.
  7. Don’t be afraid to let guests know when it’s time to leave. This can be awkward, but simply saying, “This has been such a great evening, and I love you all for coming, but I’ve been cooking all day and I’ve got to sleep” usually is effective. Honesty presented in a kind way is surprisingly successful with people.  Another trick I employ when it’s time for guests to leave: I let our dogs come to the party.  They usually stay in a bedroom during the party, mostly because our big dog still jumps on people when he gets excited and we don’t want to subject guests to that much affection. When we do let the dogs out, and they come bounding downstairs to greet people, it sends an unmissable message about the party being over.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s post, with a recipe from a spectacular hostess and former White House resident!

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