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The Basics of Entertaining

I'm fine-tuning a series about the Basics of Entertaining because, let's face it, if you're shaky on the basics, then knowing the difference between high tea and afternoon tea or serving unique cocktails won't save your party from turning into the sort that people talk about with a certain sense of thank goodness that's over.

First, some previously written SCS articles on the topic:

Avoiding the "Party Killers"
Making the Mood with Music
When to Hire Help

Secondly, I'd like to hear from you!  What are some of your sure-fire ways to please your guests?  Do you have a go-to playlist?  How do you break the ice with new guests?  Deal with small space?  Maybe you're a beginner and have questions - let's hear them!  You can comment below, or email me


Functional Yet Fun Hostess Gift Ideas

While a bottle of wine (to drink later!) or a bouquet of flowers (already in a vase so your hostess doesn't have to stop what she's doing!) are classic and always appreciated hostess gifts, sometimes you might want to do something with a little more pizzaz. When departing from the norm, it's a good idea to keep your gifts either consumable or functional. A hostess gift should be something small, thoughtful, and perhaps something she wouldn't buy for herself.


Who can't use a little more storage space?  Pretty, functional boxes from World Market ($14.99 ea)

Is she constantly entertaining?  Bring this set of delicious dips and bowl from Frontier Soups ($15.95)


Chocolate is another classic gift, but these exotic mini-bars from Vosges give it a gourmet twist. ($25.00)


Instead of a candle, give these fragrant home perfume cubes from L'Occitane.  ($20.00)


If it's possible for a chopstick rest to be both pretty and soothing, this one from Urban Outfitters accomplishes it. My friend Eileen gave me a set of these - love it!  ($6.00 ea).


Does she love fresh herbs but doesn't have garden space?  Bring the outdoors in with this cute basil plant from Perpetual Kid ($8.49)


It's Derby Week!

Next Saturday is the 135th Kentucky Derby. I attended last year for the first time, and learned a few things about this American institution. First, the locals don’t call it “the Kentucky Derby” but rather Derby or Derby Week. Secondly, it’s a holiday in Louisville, to the point where complete strangers wish each other “Happy Derby!” the day of the race. Lastly, "the Derby" refers to only one of many races held that day. This is probably obvious to those who follow horse racing, but then, I’ve always been the sort who arrives at my alma mater’s homecoming events without knowing who we’re playing at the game. I’m more about the social events surrounding a sporting event rather than the contest itself.

Happily, the Derby presents social opportunities even if you’re not in Louisville.  Want to hold a Derby party of your own?

Roses, bourbon, mint...it must be Derby time! (source)


Of course, you must serve mint juleps...it’s the official Derby drink! The mint julep I tried at Churchill Downs was not so great, sadly. The experienced was salvaged by the mint juleps we had back at our host’s house (a HUGE antebellum home complete with white columns). Delicious! Refreshing! Minty! I think the difference is that our hostess used mint infused simple syrup. Make a big batch...it's delicious in iced tea, too.

Once you’ve made that, you can make your Mint Julep. Here’s a how-to video (replace the sugar & water with your simple syrup). If you want to make a non-alcoholic version, use lemonade instead of bourbon.

Traditionally, mint juleps are served in silver cups, but those are a little hard to find outside of Kentucky. Surprisingly, you can sometimes get them at floral shops. In Chicago, I’ve been told that A New Leaf has them in stock. Otherwise, just use a glass of medium height...if that was good enough for the pretty house on the banks of the Ohio River, it’s good enough for your condo in Lincoln Park.

Other traditional Derby Day favorites include:

Benedictine sandwiches
Hot Brown
Derby Pie

Round out the menu with additional Southern staples like fried green tomatoes, deviled eggs, cheese grits, and fried chicken.

Mmm...delicious Derby Pie (source)


Since it’s the Run for the Roses, it’s appropriate to decorate with red roses. Short stem roses look gorgeous in silver mint julep cups, but don’t stress out if you can’t find them. A silver or clear vase will suffice.

If you trust your guests to control their hand-eye coordination even after a few juleps, this is a great time to use pretty china plates. It adds to the gentility of the occasion. Speaking of gentility, you can set the tone for the party and ask your guests to dress up...although if you live in the north be aware that most women don’t own a big hat (I don’t, and that makes me sad), nor do most men own a seersucker suit (my husband doesn’t, and it makes him sad...no, really. He wanted one after seeing them all over Louisville last year.).

I'm swooning.  I need this hat.

Need more stuff? There’s still time to order from the official Derby site.
Want to go crazy? Purchase horseshoe coasters.

Otherwise, go to a store that sells stamping supplies, buy a cute horseshoe stamp and some fabric ink, and stamp a horse shoe onto heavy paper cocktail napkins.



Ok, so this isn’t the hippest, coolest music out there, but 135 year old institutions aren’t about hip and cool, but rather, tradition. This playlist has some good suggestions (except it’s missing "Run for the Roses" ...a song I was first introduced to in 1983 when my dad bought a new car and it came with a tape to demonstrate the kickin’ General Motors hi-fi).

If you don’t already have these songs and don’t want to hunt them down, I suggest you keep it country. This isn’t the time for ambient trance.



For some, betting is a big part of the day. You can bet online, but if your guests aren’t interested in that, it’s nice to have a list of contenders available so everyone can pick a favorite to cheer on.  Remember, the race is on NBC at 4pm Central, with post time (when the race actually occurs) at 5:04pm Central.  Pass the time with a game of horseshoes!


Additional Resources

The Derby's official party-planning site

Feel like going out instead? List of Derby parties in Chicago.


Pretty Floral Napkin Rings

I know that in yesterday's post I advocated decorating with fresh flowers (and I still do!) but here's another way to add blooms to your table: Flowered napkin rings.

I'm a big fan of napkin rings. They're inexpensive, and if you buy some neutral plates, napkins, and tablecloth (those are the priciest items anyway), it's easy to change the look with seasonal napkin rings and a coordinating runner. Here are some cute options to get you started:


"Stained Glass" by LyonsCreations on Etsy


Felt Daisies by mojaziemia on Etsy


Eye popping red enamel by Cost Plus World Market

Beaded bling by Crate and Barrel


Reducing Party Waste

I'm sure you know that today is Earth Day because it's been publicized, oh, everywhere.  In the spirit of this occasion, let's examine some ways to reduce your party's waste in terms of supplies, decorations, and gifts.  In addition to being nicer for the planet, you probably also know that the throwaway party supplies never look quite as chic as some of the alternatives.

Promise me you'll never use one of these kits.


Of course, the obvious answer is to avoid using disposables. When you don't have enough in your supply of silverware, glasses, and dishes...

Borrow from someone else. My friend Pam did this for her big holiday party. No one cared that her cocktail glasses didn't perfectly match...her guests were much more interested in the contents of the glasses

Go for the medium route. Purchase inexpensive but heavy plastic items that can be reused many times. You'd be surprised at how many products can go in the dishwasher. For instance, I once had about 30 people over for martinis. I don't own 30 martini glasses, so I bought disposables. As I was cleaning up the next day, I lamented all the waste that my martinis had created. Our friend Larry (who had crashed the night before and was now being a good guest and helping to clean up) looked at me like I had three heads and said that they were heavy enough to go in the dishwasher and duh, did I hate the earth or something? Ok, he didn't actually say that, but I took his advice to heart and have since used the martini glasses several times. I am amazed at how well they've held up!

If you can't avoid using disposables, ask people to write their names on their cups (I'll have more on this idea at a forthcoming date), recycle what you can, or choose products made from recycled materials.


Are you still using crepe paper? Oh, honey. I'm sorry, but crepe paper has no redeeming qualities. It's a pain to work with, it can't be reused, and it looks bad. There, I said it. What can you do instead?

Decorate with fabric. It can be reused many, many different times. I bought some inexpensive cream-colored poly silk for a cabana-themed summer party in 2003, and have since used it for a bridal shower, halloween, another summer party, and Christmas. With some duct tape, 3M Command Hooks, and lightweight rope, you can create amazing installations without doing permanent damage to your walls. The next time I use it, I'll snap a photo for you.

Use fresh flowers, and then compost them. If you grow your own cutting garden, display your own flowers, and then compost them yourself, you are my hero. If you can't do all that, join the club and console yourself with the fact that buying fresh is better than buying fake. Remember that large, tight amounts of "filler flowers" (i.e. baby's breath, carnations) can make quite a statement without breaking the bank.

Decorate with party favors. For a recent costume party, we snapped Poloroids of people in costume as they entered the party, then turned that into a voting contest. At the end of the night, everyone took home their photo. The wall of photos was a fun activity, and also decorated an otherwise bare set of utitility closet doors.


I know, it's so satisfying to rip apart gift wrap, but as I'm sure you can imagine, it creates a lot of waste. Some alternatives include...

Putting gifts in a pretty but unwrapped box, and tie with a ribbon. The box will certainly be reused.

Using old newspaper or magazine pages IF they are relevant to the occasion or person. For instance, the "Home" section for a housewarming present, or the front page of Sports section, featuring the recipient's favorite team....and then that idea really only works if the gift you're giving is also sports-themed. Otherwise, you just look cheap and possibly crazy.

Then there's the old standby, the gift bag. You know this will get reused and regifted!

When all else fails, buy recycled gift wrap, repurpose previously used gift wrap (best done for a smaller present the second time so that you don't see the original creases), or recycle instead of throwing out.

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