As I write this, our country and much of our world has been under coronavirus lockdown, a stark and increasingly poignant reminder of what a privilege it is to gather and how deep is our longing for human connection. As I wrote in my book California Cooking and Southern Style, to gather friends at the table is to hold a sacred space in which we nourish our bodies and feed our souls. This resonates now more than ever as I witness, and play a small part in, the volunteer hunger-relief program in our area. My hope is that we are all committed to holding this sacred space in our hearts and at home, as we wait to hold space and one another once again in a larger context—Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.
As a North Carolinian transplanted to Southern California by way of New York City, my Southern hospitality gene has if anything grown stronger. Being lucky to land in the middle of the postcard-pretty Santa Ynez Valley, a stone’s hurtle north of Santa Barbara, we live on a ranch seemingly designed for entertaining.
And entertain we have. From improvised opera nights and ersatz cabarets to rootin’ tootin’ rodeos and storybook weddings, our Rancho La Zaca has seen it all. And my husband, Tom Dittmer, and I have loved it all, but at the end of the day, nothing beats just having a few friends to dinner. When weather permits, our cathedral-like allée of olive trees is the most romantic spot for an intimate soirée, where the day’s last light filters through the branches and the sunset floats in an endless sky.
As much fun as it is to decide to have a party, however, there invariably arrives that tiny spasm between delight and dread—and yes we all experience it—when one must figure out exactly what and how one will arrange it all, and how to make it memorable.
With our dinner planned when our region’s always-bountiful harvest is at its peak, the farmers market is as inspiring as the flower shop. Given that our guests on this night included local rose growers, wine makers, fourth-generation farmers, and an interior designer, I wanted the table to speak to our guests symbolically (albeit with the hope that the trombone player in the group would feel magnanimous). I’m all for themes per se when appropriate, but sometimes they create more pressure or contrivance than they’re worth. Sometimes it’s OK for the “theme” to be a subtle suggestion and for the table just to be pretty.
As an amateur artist, I also love thinking in terms not just of floral centerpieces but of quasi–still life scenes that are dynamic and varied in terms of subject, color, and texture. In the world of paintable fruits, melons are right up there, and nothing says summer like watermelon: sweet, juicy, thirst-quenching happiness. Green grapes from our vineyard on a runner of sheet moss emphasized the red-and-green complement of the melons, and the flowers carried through in softer shades of coral, pink, and orange, with olive foliage clipped from the canopy of trees above.
Faux bees and butterflies often figure in my arrangements, adding movement and a touch of whimsy to take the starch out of the scheme. The napkins, however, do have starch. These are vintage French banquet-size napkins, and each could cover half a football field. If you are wielding one of these babies and still manage to spill something on your dress, there is pretty much no hope for you! The tablecloth is a few yards of fun print from a discount fabric shop, unsewn and unironed. If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness is its wacky aunt, and I love her dearly.
High–low is my modus operandi, and I embrace the mix, believing wholeheartedly in using one’s silver and pretty things even—or maybe especially—if they diverge profoundly in provenance.
Because what are you saving it for, dear one? And don’t say your grandchildren because what if they don’t want it? (I know. . . )
Which brings us full circle. If we’ve learned anything these last few months, it is that the life, the people, and, yes, the beautiful things we love are precious. Don’t wait to enjoy them. The only time we have is now.
And yet, if we are quarantined and longing to have a real-life dinner party, the time may not be now—but perhaps soon. Meanwhile, there are menus to plan, recipes to try, imaginary tables to scape, and souls to feed from afar and then, when we can, face-to-face.
More Scenes from the Party
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By Frances Schultz | Photography by Shelly Strazis
Follow Frances on Instagram @francesschultz and at francesschultz.com. Her latest book, California Cooking and Southern Style, with recipes by Stephanie Valentine, and her previous The Bee Cottage Story are available wherever books are sold and at francesschultz.com.
Kick back for a fun chat with the always entertaining Frances Schultz in the latest episode of Margot’s Fresh Picks, hosted by Flower magazine Editor-in-Chief Margot Shaw. Plus, get recipes from Frances’s latest book, California Cooking and Southern Style. See more.