outdoor table setting at Frances Schultz home in home in California’s Santa Ynez Valley

I’m all about high–low, here using melamine plates from Pottery Barn in two patterns, vintage green stemware, heirloom silver goblets, and mercury glass votives. Centerpieces are mostly dahlias and zinnias from our garden, with roses from friends and guests Gracie and Ryan Poulson of Grace Rose Farm in Santa Ynez. I rubber-stamped butterflies on the place cards just because.

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.

portrait of Frances Schultz clipping branches from her trees for a floral arrangement wearing a brimmed hat, neck scarf, and apron

Author, artist, and host, moi, loving our endless supply of olive foliage in the allée beside our house.

a tray of silver salt cellars and pepper grinders

A few pieces of inherited Mexican silver echo our ranch’s history as an early Mexican land grant.

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.

olive tree grove

One of the few formal elements of our landscape is the grove of olive trees created by Los Angeles–based landscape designer Art Luna. Many decorative fabrics come in 54-inch widths, making them easily adapted as tablecloths for rectangular tables, no sewing required.

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.

(Frances dishes on dinner parties. Get her tips.)

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.

floral centerpiece by frances shultz

When you can’t find the perfect container, make one. A wrapping of moss tied with raffia works every time. This arrangement features ranunculus, tulips, yarrow, garden dahlias, zinnias, roses, and olive foliage.

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.

tray of cut watermelon and canteloupe

Watermelon is always a good idea. After the party, a neighbor’s pet cow enjoyed the leftover melons.

summer cocktails

Watermelon-, peach-, and citrus-inspired cocktails do double duty as decorative elements on the bar.

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. . . )

outdoor bar

The bar makes a good focal point, as guests invariably congregate there. In creating a table, I also think in terms of a tableau, composing elements as I might in a still life to paint.

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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outdoor summer party
As guests settle in with their drinks and the sun sets, the golden light sets all aglow.
Frances Schultz and husband Tom Dittmer
Sneaking a smooch with hubby, who is also a brilliant host
bottles of wine in ice in an etched silver bowl
As a gift and homage to my book The Bee Cottage Story, Tom asked our wine-maker friend Andrew Murray to create a Chardonnay from our grapes.
A stack of cocktail napkins bearing a tree motif and the name Rancho La Zaca beside a silver dish of sliced lemons and limes
Signature napkins
garden clippers, cuttings of grapes, leaves, and flowers
Snippets from the vineyard tie the décor to the surroundings, but note that grape leaves wilt in minutes without water.

California Cooking and Southern Style: 100 Great Recipes, Inspired Menus, and Gorgeous Table Settings by Frances Schultz (Skyhorse, 2019)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.

Watch: A Chat with Frances Schultz

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.