'The Party': New column with Sally Quinn on entertaining and how to do it

Sally Quinn
Sally Quinn
Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009; 2:00 PM

Entertaining well is not about which fork to use. Anybody can go to the store and buy a book on etiquette, which will ease their minds on the details. What those books don't tell you about is the spirit of entertaining.

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Washington Post staff writer Sally Quinn was online Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her new Post column called The Party, which is about getting everyone together to have a memorable time and leave feeling "uplifted, affirmed and embraced."


Sally Quinn: Welcome everybody. I'm so happy to have you join me for my first online chat about my new column "The Party. As I said in my piece in the Post this morning, entertaining is something that so many people are afraid of when it's really all about generosity of spirit. So I look forward to taking your questions. Today and every week.


Washington, D.C.: I was glad to read today's piece, as you always struck me as a more literate Martha Stewart. I find like Graydon Carter, I throw parties not because I'm good at it but because I'm not. It's a real stretch for me so I'd suggest that as a character builder for others. As for you, Ms. Quinn, best to you, Quinn and the venerable Mr. Bradlee for the holidays, as we are thankful for you and yours this season.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome to the table (Post, Nov. 23)

Sally Quinn: Aren't you nice. Thank you. And I have to say that Graydon Carter throws the best parties of anyone I know. He is so thoughtful about every detail and gives so much care to how everyone will feel. He truly is a person with a generous spirit.


Columbia, Md.: What a wonderful treat this discussion will be, and I hope that you can make some suggestions for my family (parents and 2 adult-age sons). Our tradition is to travel to N.J. to be with the extended family for the holiday, but due to my knee surgery tomorrow (!) we will be staying home. I thought that we would be satisfied by having our Thanksgiving dinner early, but now as the day approaches, it looks a little hollow. Any suggestions for non-football fans? In advance, thank you for the work you do!

Sally Quinn: Actually we're sort of in the same boat. We always celebrate in our house in the country. My family from California can't join us this year. Our houseguests who we have had for several years can't come either for a variety of reasons. But Ben and I and Quinn and his fabulous new fiancée Pary will be alone for the first time. At first I was a little sad that our friends and the rest of our family couldn't be with us. Then I thought. How can I be sad when I have my husband and my son and our new soon to be daughter in law. I should be filled with gratitude to have them and to be able to celebrate with them. I remember the last Thanksgiving we had down there before my mother suffered a series of strokes which left her with brain damage and crippled. My father said,presciently, we'll never all be happy together like this again. It was weeks later that she had her first stroke. So just think about that and realize how lucky you are to be together and to have each other.


Washington, D.C.: I grew up in a close and loving family, but we all share one trait: we are slobs. My parents didn't entertain much growing up, and I remember even as a child being self-conscious about the mess when friends came over. Fast forward to today, and my boyfriend and I are messy too. We almost never have people over, even tiny groups -- it always feels so daunting, and our cluttered apartment seems like it will never be neat enough for guests. And yet, I wish we felt more comfortable entertaining -- we have a lot of great friends and we would love to show more hospitality. Any recommendations for getting over this hurdle?

Sally Quinn: Cluttered or dirty? If it's dirty you need to clean it up. If it's cluttered, that's how you live. Surely you can remove some of the clutter, at least off of the table and the sofa. People are coming to see you. If you have flowers, set the table and make an effort with dinner they will be happy to be there. You need to stop focusing on you and start focusing on whether or not your friends will have a good time. A lot of great friends means that you know how to be a friend. How bad can it be if you have spaghetti and salad and French bread, a good bottle of wine and brownies for dessert. There's really nothing daunting about that. Or just get started by asking them over for a game and serve chili and beer and chips. It's the company that counts. Always.


Work parties: I recently re-read your book on parties and really enjoyed it! I am delighted to see you will be writing more on the topic.

Here's the background to my question: My husband is an assistant professor, and has been on the faculty of a small town Midwest university about 1.5 years. He and I have offered to host the annual faculty-and-partner party at our place. We're looking at about 40 people tops, 25 minimum. This party has always been a potluck. Last year's was a typical "talk shop, eat some store-bought food, and leave by 9" affair. In fact, one reason I offered to host was because I was so bored last year.

My actual question: Can this party be saved? How can I help this annual gathering turn into something fun?

Thanks in advance for your help!

Sally Quinn: Office parties of any kind can be a challenge because you're there because you work together, not necessarily because you are great friends. Potluck and store bought are two different things. Potluck means everybody brings something. That's fun if it's a small group but this group seems to large for that. When my parents were moving to a new place (my father was in the army) they would always have a party the first day they arrived amidst the packing crates. My mother would cook a huge put of her favorite John Mazetti (noodles, cheese tomatoes, hamburger) serve a lot of wine, put out candles, salad, bread and cookies. You could eve get that at the store if you ordered it in advance, some sort of tomatoey casserole rather than the store bought assortment of hor d'oeuvres. Turn the lights down low, have lots of candles, sit on the floor and make sure people get to talk to those they don't know well. If you do something a little personal it always counts for a lot.


On Faith: I apologize for an off-topic question, but for a while I've wanted to ask you why you chose the name "On Faith." Insofar as "faith" was a charged word during the GWB administration -- used as a euphemism for "religion" -- I have since found it to be a loaded term suggesting a political bias that seeks to soften what religion represents in terms of separation of church and state. So I guess I'm asking whether you see that linkage or not, and if not to suggest that at least the civil liberties types in your audience may disagree.

Sally Quinn: We chose "On Faith" because "faith can mean anything believed. For instance I have faith that I can possibly help some people get over the fear of entertaining. You might have faith in your spouse or partner, if you have one, that they will be there to take care of you in case of illness. I love the story about the young boy who asked his atheist father how he knew that there was no such thing as God. The father replied, "You'll just have to take it on faith."


Hosting a holiday cocktail party: I am always stumped by what appetizers to make for a cocktail party that starts at 9. I love cooking but almost never make any hors d'oeuvres. Please help!

Sally Quinn: First of all, I'm not sure that it is a cocktail party if it starts at nine. Unless people have already had dinner I think you've got to serve them something more substantial than hors d'oeuvres. 6-8 or 6:30-8:30 means hors hors d'oeuvres d'oeuvres. Seven to nine means little plates. If your stumped why don't you have (I know this is boring but everyone loves it) a ham and a turkey or if you are a great cook then something else you like to make. Have little biscuits, that way they can have small bites but don't actually have to sit down or have plates. And don't forget dessert. Just think of what you would like to eat at nine pm. Always think of what would please your guests. That's the whole point.


North Carolina: Hello. I saw your book "The Party" at the library a few years ago, checked it out, and enjoyed it very much. I don't give or attend formal dinners, but I've picked up a few things here and there from reading books about the etiquette of formal entertaining -- information which has helped me tremendously at business lunches and dinners.

My question relates to the state dinner tonight: Is it still the rule that couples aren't seated together at a formal dinner (with multiple tables) like that? Are there ever exceptions? I remember mentioning this specific rule of etiquette in conversation to a group of friends once(we are in our early 30s) when the Bushes had the state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, and they were shocked. All of them said they wouldn't attend a sit-down party where they couldn't sit at the same table with their spouse/significant other. I confess it would be odd for me, too, to sit at another table from my husband. My theory is because no one goes out all that much anymore (and no one sits down to eat very often either) they feel more comfortable sitting with an SO when they do attend an event.

So my question is: why does that rule exist, and in what situations -- formal or informal -- is it still used? Thank you.

Sally Quinn: I'm glad you brought up that question and also I'm happy to answer any questions about the state dinner tonight. It is the custom that couples do not sit together. I prefer it that way and never seat couples together. If it's a large party I might put them at the same table but never together. Here's why. It's not as interesting. If you are seated next to your spouse or partner you have an entirely different level of conversation than if you are sitting next to someone else. It always degenerates into conversation about taking the dog to the vet, the children's homework or what you're doing over the weekend. You can see your spouse any time. What happens then, is that you end up as a twosome having a conversation first on your right, then on your left with the person sitting next to either of you. It just makes for an awkward and less scintillating conversation. Frankly, I love sitting at a different table from my husband so we can compare notes after the dinner and tell each other what we've talked about and learned. And I also think it's sexy to flirt with your husband across the table or across the room while you're taking to someone else. It keeps the marriage a lot more intriguing. The whole point of going out is to meet new people, learn something, and have a good time. The idea of refusing to go out if you can't sit next to your spouse seems very narrow minded to me.


Miami, Fla.: What's your suggestion for the most common question a host faces: What can I bring?

I always come back with a suggestion, because: a) it's appreciated and b) people don't like to show up empty-handed, so I'd rather them not bring something that clearly wasn't needed (like a second cheesecake).

Some of my favorite responses: a bottle of wine you might like to drink; an extra bag of ice; or a dessert. I figure you can't have too many desserts (even it is a second cheesecake, come to think of it).

Sally Quinn: I always tell people to bring nothing because I have the menu planned already and I don't want to offend them by not serving what they have brought. Usually if someone brings wine it's a bottle and not enough to go around so I don't serve it because it's not the wine I am having that night. I will tell them I'll save it for my husband and me when we're alone to enjoy it together. Usually it's just a nice gesture anyway. If somebody does show up with grandma's favorite cookies, pass them around by all means. But don't feel obligated. If it's a pot luck dinner where everybody brings something then that's another story. But be sure to assign people things they like that will fit together with the rest of the meal.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Any hints on how to get people to RSVP to invitations in a timely manner?

Sally Quinn: Ha! Anybody who can solve that problem will make a fortune. Sadly, people are in the habit of not responding as quickly as they should or not at all. Often , if it's a large cocktail party you just count on about 20% dropout. But it's hard if you're paying for enough food and wine for a certain number and they don't show up. I have to say I have sometimes, but rarely, been guilty of this sort of thing, especially if it's a large cocktail party. What I do is simply hound them. Call and e-mail until they cry uncle and finally respond. You just have to go into a zen state. If it's a seated dinner then you really have to demand answer and tell them that you're assuming they're not coming and you hope they'll be able to make the next one.


Maryland: If being messy embarrasses you and stops your participation in things you would otherwise enjoy, you need to address it. If you are messy and don't care what folks think, then throw a blanket over it and call it a day. If you are having issues with dirt/germ/sanitation -- do everyone a favor and leave the entertaining to others. I don't care if you house if messy, as long as it doesn't make me sick.

Sally Quinn: Yes, well, clean is certainly better than dirty. I wouldn't entertain if I didn't have a clean house. If you really do want to entertain badly enough, you can straighten up. Or take your friends out to dinner.


Uplifted, affirmed and embraced: Sounds like the party I would like to throw, but I find my parties get out of control. I offer food/wine and stage the setting but my guests seem to take over the evening. Largely through over-indulgence. How do I direct a party that is fun without it being a "bash."

Sally Quinn: I take it you are talking about too much booze. It also sounds like you are throwing big parties. Why not limit the number of guests and have a seated dinner. It's a lot easier to control a party if you are the one who is serving the wine. Or did you have something else in mind when you said out of control?


Washington, D.C.: Happy Thanksgiving! I think from being Italian and always having food around, I am always concerned that I will not have enough food for my guests. I'll spend a few days before cooking up a storm and then I'm exhausted by the time the party starts. I enjoy the cooking and entertaining, don't get me wrong. For people like me, who just want to throw a nice, fun, adult cocktail party, is there away to estimate how much food to have on hand per person? I am not sure that question even makes sense. Maybe I don't need to have so much food a but I would be upset if I found my guests left hungry!

Sally Quinn: I have the same problem. I'm from Savannah and Southerner's can't stand not to have enough food. My husband is a Yankee from Boston. Totally different story. I always have more than we need. So I use it for leftovers or freeze it. But I think you might want to consult a caterer about what a reasonable number of hors d'oeuvres would be per person. It depends on what time the part is and whether they intend to make it dinner or not. But please, never let your guests go hungry. I once lent my house to friends for a wedding at my house for some friends. They ordered the food and we ran out. I got someone to run to a fast food joint and get carry out I was so mortified.


New Haven, Conn.: Does grace have to be spoken to be meaningful? Our family and friends are of all religions and, in some case, no particular religion. Whether we're alone or have friends/family at our table, we begin the meal with a moment of "quiet," where each person can give thanks in his or her own way. I find that this quiet thankfulness, while unique to each individual present, also engenders a kind of communal awareness of God, or the Great Life Force, or whatever you choose to call it, that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Sally Quinn: That sounds like a great thing to do. It respects everyone and gives each person a way to be thankful in his or her own way. I simply chose to do it out loud because of may father, taking off from his grace. But if your guests are happy and comfortable with a moment of silence, they by all means do it. I love the idea.


Washington d.c.: "When you think about it, there is a sacred quality to the sharing of a meal. Just think of Jesus's last supper as an example. . . . There can, however, be more at stake."

More at stake at a dinner party than the Last Supper? Do you have any idea how offensive this preposterous claim is to religious people and how cringe-inducing it is to everybody else?

Sally Quinn: Actually, when you put it that way, it's an unfortunate segue and I apologize. We had another line in there which was a better transition and took it out for other reasons. Of course for those who are Christians there could be nother more important or more at steak than the Last Supper. Thank you for pointing this out to me.


"serve a lot of wine": Not unless the host wants to risk a lawsuit if one of the guests has a traffic accident while under the influence.

Also, not a good idea at parties with a work-related guest list, because someone's liable to say or do something that could have unfortunate repercussions in the workplace. (To the academic's wife who asked you re this, just think of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?").

Far better practice to control the alcohol consumption, e.g., by not allowing guests to pour their own.

Sally Quinn: When I say serve a lot of wine, I mean that people like to celebrate with booze of some kind. And you don't want to run out. If you entertain at all and you don't offer at least wine, unless your religion forbids it, you won't have very successful parties. Certainly you don't want your guests to get drunk and drive. But I think most of us are pretty aware of that now and would offer a ride home to anyone they thought would need it.

If you have decent people at your workplace then should should expect them to behave properly, whether they are drinking or not and if you don't maybe you should forget the office party or change jobs.


Anonymous: If your parties get out of control, you might need to take a second look at the guest list before invitations go out.

Sally Quinn: Good idea.


Danville: Will you be attending the "state dinner" at the WH? Is it okay to wear boots and fur coat since the party is outdoors in 50 degree weather?

Sally Quinn: I will not be there. Secondly, the "tent" is essentially a room which is erected on the ground which will in no way resemble any tent you've seen and it will be heated. You can wear a fur coat but they will check your coat. You won't need it at the dinner. As for boots, you won't need them either. The men certainly won't and the women will probably be wearing long dresses. Unless you have some fabulous evening boots to wear under your dress that would be fine. But most people won't see them.


Fairfax, Val.: I love to entertain, but find it is never reciprocated so I have stopped doing it. I mean, it is not inexpensive to make dinner for 20 people (usually four families we are friendly with in our neighborhood) and it drives me crazy that no one else bothers.

I understand that sometimes people are intimidated to entertain, but I'd be happy with a pizza/drinks get together. I keep telling myself to get over it and keep entertaining if I enjoy it, but it's really frustrating.

When you entertain, do you ever find yourself in the same position and how do you deal with it?

Sally Quinn: All the time. I love to entertain. I find nothing gives me more pleasure than having friends over and enjoying a meal with them. I certainly don't expect people to entertain as much as I do , especially if it makes them uncomfortable or intimidate them. I do have some friends who don't do it much. Sometimes I know they feel intimidated. But there are times I wish someone would say ask if they could take us out to dinner to reciprocate. There does come a moment, though, if I've had somebody over a lot and never been asked back, that I just stop asking. Do you have other friends you can ask over? Or why don't you suggest that you all get together and have everybody bring something. Then you get to have fun, see your friends and you don't have to do all the work.


Reciprocate: To the messy couple, non-gourmet couple, rather drink tea than cocktails couple ... singles, too!: Please reciprocate in a manner that makes you happy and comfortable. My husband and I throw parties of all shapes and sizes because we love our families and friends. However, we've noticed more and more friends/family not reciprocating. Why? If you can clean a toilet, put flowers in a vase, run the vacuum, and offer dips and chips, that's a party. It's all about the spirit of friendship; not who makes the tastiest canapés. I get that people become overwhelmed but it is just a party. Oh, and I think if more people entertained, more people would learn that canapés is quite necessary.

Sally Quinn: You're singing my song. I think the important thing is to simply stop thinking in terms of "entertaining" which sounds really scary and just think in terms of asking some people over to watch a movie and have dips and chips. That's a good way to get your feet wet. And, as this wise person just said, it's just a party.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I don't know whether etiquette has changed for my generation (30s) or if this practice is common in the U.S.: I have hosted a number of dinner parties over the past 8-10 years. But only ONE couple has reciprocated by inviting me over to a dinner party they're hosting. And that couple is from France/U.K. Have any other folks out there had this experience?

Sally Quinn: Do you know if these people entertain a lot and are just not asking you. That might be a sign that they're not interested inbeing your friends. Do they always come to your parties when you invite them? If they do come and seem to have a good time and they don't entertain, you may just have to swallow hard and decide that you will continue entertaining anyway. Or maybe try to meet some new friends.


Virginia: Sally, I have to disagree about separating spouses at parties. My husband works long hours, we have three small children, and we don't get to spend enough time together as it is. If we were invited to a party where I knew we could not sit together, I doubt we would go.

Not to mention that some people are very shy, and being at a party without the comfort of a S.O. nearby would take all the fun out of the evening.

Sally Quinn: It sounds as if you don't see each other a lot. Maybe, at this time in your life, you ought not to go out to parties and just have date nights. The point of going to parties is to meet people and interact with them. If you'd rather be alone with each other that's fine too. And if you feel uncomfortable, why put yourself in that position. Stay home or go out and enjoy each other. If you aren't having a good time then the host and hostess will feel bad.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question. Our family custom is to say grace before dinner, and we tend to do that when friends or neighbors (regardless of faith or level of observance) join us for an informal family dinner. We wouldn't do it at a party or big gathering. Do you think people accept this as a just another part of a family's dinner procedure, or would they see it as unwelcome, awkward ritual?

Sally Quinn: It depends on who your guests are and what they know about your faith. If you're a minister or a regular church or temple goer then they should expect you to say Grace. On the other hand, if you have new Jewish guest and say grace with in "in the name of Christ our Lord" it might make them feel uncomfortable. Or if you know that somebody may feel out of place then perhaps it would be best not to invite them. The whole idea is not to shove your faith down somebody's throat. I know this is hard for those who have a tradition. The question you need to ask yourself is, in terms of what is the appropriate thing to do, what will please my guest. The person is a guest in your home.


If you entertain at all and you don't offer at least wine, unless your religion forbids it, you won't have very successful parties: Please address the issue of pushy hosts who refuse to take "No" for an answer when a guest politely declines alcohol. There are lots of compelling reasons to decline, from religious ban to pregnancy to medication conflict to alcoholism, and none of them is any of the host's darn business!

Sally Quinn: I agree. It's hard and I know that some people feel that if their guests aren't drinking that they won't enjoy the evening. I would simply say with a laugh, "I'm off the sauce tonight." That makes you sound jolly and fun loving without seeming like a party pooper.


Sally Quinn: Thank you all for joining me today. I loved your questions and you really made the think about a lot of things. I hope you'll join me again. Sally Q


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