Dinner party tips from the pros in Charleston


Lee Manigault, left, and Suzanne Pollak teach sessions on inspired entertaining in Charleston, S.C., a city known for its effortless hospitality. “To be able to put people together and feed them: It’s not frivolous. It’s important,” Pollak says. (Jonathan Boncek/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 7, 2013

May signals the start of the entertaining season; soon the flurry of graduations, baby showers and weddings will commence. The weather improves, and we are drawn to gathering on patios and porches.

For many of us, though, entertaining is a hornet’s nest. Normally competent people, wondering what to serve and where to seat the guests, fall to pieces. Washingtonians seem to entertain less than ever, and when we do, our parties can be so stiff: full of buttoned-up, work-focused socializing.

It’s time to seek inspiration and encouragement, and for that we need merely to look south — to a place known for its effortless hospitality.

At 6 o’clock in Charleston, S.C., they say, one need only pour a cocktail and go for a walk to find a gathering. The city needs no excuse for a party, and two women in particular are well known for their contributions to the entertaining arts. 

At their Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits, Suzanne Pollak and Lee Manigault — they call themselves “the Deans” — offer classes replete with their own blend of acerbic, hilarious and completely practical advice for hosting a cocktail party, business lunch, bridal shower or dinner party.

For instance, the Deans have no problem with wearing jeans to greet dinner guests. “Put a drink in their hands, introduce everyone, then go up and change!” Maybe they prefer to make an entrance (something that’s admittedly easier to do when you have a grand staircase).

With great charm and grace, the two women blithely hand down advice, referring to themselves only in the third person; each statement is a proclamation. The Deans say, “Never stop the party to do the dishes.” (It kills the atmosphere.) Invite seven people to a dinner party. (It livens things up.) Not six. (Three couples are so boring.) Not eight. (It’s impossible to have one conversation.) The Deans are utterly certain about absolutely everything. (When asked their ages for this article, they replied, “The Deans are old enough to know it’s rude to ask a lady her age.”) 

Manigault, descended from John Jacob Astor, was born in Millbrook, N.Y., where her well-placed family frequently hosted large parties. As a teen, she fell in love with entertaining, throwing full-blown dinner parties of her own. She married into a prominent Charleston family (she has since divorced) and began a life of meticulously restoring the family’s 18th-century home and hosting social events. Hers is one of a handful of Charleston homes to sport a ballroom, put to frequent use for fundraisers, lectures, formal dinners and family gatherings. 

Pollak, a child of diplomats, grew up “all over Africa” and remembers nightly parties in the compounds where other expats lived. “When you move frequently, you have to make a friend in five minutes, so we used our house to meet people,” she says. “There were parties every night, sometimes two or three.” 

Spend any time at all with the Deans and you get the sense they could pull together a cocktail party for 50 people in 45 minutes. Asked to impart some advice to those of us less blessed with the entertaining gene, Manigault had plenty. “Our main ethos: We love to use nice china, sure, but if it’s going to keep you from having people over, use a paper plate,” she said. “Just have people over.” 

“The point is to get together, not to show off your china,” Pollak says. “We have all been there with the chipped plates, and those are some of the best times. Reflect your personality, not a magazine.”

Less Margaret Mitchell and more Fannie Flagg, with a modicum of little black dress, the two seem separated at birth. They met in 2010 and bonded over their love of proper entertaining, mouthwatering (and no-fuss) foods and a nagging worry that no one knows the rules anymore. A few months later, the women gave the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits a test run, and they haven’t stopped since.

Pollak hadn’t expected it would be fun; she’d expected distraction. At the time, with two sons in Afghanistan and a third very ill, she decided that “entertaining was just as important as discovering the cure for cancer. To be able to put people together and feed them: It’s not frivolous. It’s important.” (Her son has since made a complete recovery, and the other two have returned home safely.)

For Manigault, at the time recently divorced and dutifully cooking dinners for two school-age daughters uninterested in gourmet meals, founding the Academy gave an enormous boost of confidence. “I never thought I could do it,” she said. “I was a homemaker, and I got fired. I didn’t know what I would do. My kids were growing up. I was sort of desperate.” 

When their students gather, they have one frequent lament: “My house isn’t put together.” The Deans proclaim that no one is paying attention. “The guests are much more worried about themselves,” says Manigault, with a throaty laugh.

They insist that entertaining should be relaxed. Enough with the contrived centerpieces. Instead, select herbs from the farmers market or leaves and flowers from your yard and plop them in unconventional vessels such as pitchers, julep cups and other precious containers.

Place cards? Absolutely. Manigault’s daughters decorate them for her. And what about the guests who discreetly swap place cards? The Deans have no patience for that behavior. “The worst manners in the world,” says Pollak.

They encourage inviting guests across all age ranges and professions and mixing up single and married people; it energizes the party. Have at least one person you can’t wait to see. “If it’s all hosting for payback, it’s just not fun,” says Manigault. The Deans say that entertaining should be worry-free. “Find cool people doing cool things, and you’re guaranteed a great time,” Pollak says. 

Guests are not without obligations, and the Deans want you to know how to fulfill them. Manigault’s advice: “Your job is to be interesting and not complain about your surgery. Bring your best game.” Pollak agrees: “Don’t hog one guest and don’t go on and on about your job.” And, most important, know when to leave. 

The Deans freely admit that they’re bossy. They worry that the next generation wants to entertain but has no idea how. “Yearning for cocktails, dressing up like ‘Mad Men’ characters, yet missing the road map,” says Pollak.

If there is one thing that has the Deans shaking their heads, it’s people who won’t commit until the last minute. “It’s a two-way street: I can’t make something nice for you unless you tell me you’re coming,” Pollak says. “People who think nothing of canceling at the last minute or not showing up at all? That person is permanently off the list.”

The Deans started the Academy thinking they would offer classes in how host a dinner party, but it turns out the students also come to socialize. The Deans can’t seem to help themselves. Pollak says: “We didn’t realize it would become a social occasion. Whatever we are teaching, that’s what happens: a party.”

Barrow, a Washington food writer, is working on her first book, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry” (Norton, 2014). She can be reached through her Web site, www.
mrswheelbarrow.com
. Pollak and Manigault are working on their first book, tentatively titled “The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: The Handbook” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, spring 2014). For information about classes, go to charlestonacademyofdomestic
pursuits.­com
.

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