It was a “what was I thinking?” kind of moment. Last Saturday, 45 founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance gathered in Birmingham for a reunion–dinner and drinks at Highlands Bar & Grill. I wanted more opportunity to chew the fat with my fellow founders, so invited everyone to lunch at my house. Even for a seasoned party giver, this was an intimidating task!
Not only is this an impressive group of food scholars, writers, cookbook authors, and chefs, but 4 of them have won James Beard awards for Best Chef Southeast. I also invited local SFA members, among them my brand-new boss, Hunter Lewis, former food editor at Bon Appetit.
After some deep breaths, I told myself this was no different from any other party I might throw, though I knew I’d want to bump things up a notch. I wanted the event to be casual and welcoming, every detail to be just right. Since Frank Stitt would be serving us an amazing meal that night, I decided to keep things fairly simple. Here’s the menu and how I got everything done.
SFA Founders Lunch Menu
Tarragon Chicken Salad
Ham Biscuits with Figgy Port Chutney and Blue Cheese Butter
Bing Cherry Salad
Lady Pea Salad
Basic Deviled Eggs
Roasted Sweet Potato-and-Onion Tart
Easy Peach and Blackberry Cobbler
Mrs. Draper’s Pound Cake
Bruce’s Browned-Butter Brownies
Bruce’s Fig Preserves
Gene’s Bread-and-Butter Pickles
Iced Tea, Wine, Prosecco
Timeline: From Invitations to the Party
-Line up help–my housemate, Blair Rumley, a UNC Southern Studies graduate serving a fellowship at myrecipes.com, and my neighbor, Bruce Henry, a terrific cook.
August 29 – Sept. 7
-Count plates, sample big-bottle wines (I had a budget to consider, and this group isn’t shy about drinking).
-Make to-do lists. Re-make to-do lists.
-Ask myself, “whose crazy idea was this?” at least once a day.
Sept. 8 – 9
-Attack the yard. Pull out seedy basil plants; replace with nice new herbs. Dead-head flowers. For a moment of sanity, I stop to refill the hummingbird feeders. Pull weeds and vines. Trim bushes. Place an emergency call to the yard guy for bush trimming, blowing off, and pinestraw.
-Run unused wine glasses and plates through the dishwasher. Tidy the house.
-Hyperventilate (but only once).
-Head to Publix after work to purchase one of their on-sale hams. None available, so get a raincheck. Buy wine. Drink some.
-Final head count–41. Back to Publix, still no hams. Getting steamed. Purchase bulk of groceries.
-Boil 3 dozen eggs.
-Recruit 2 more helpers, Emily Robinson and Katie Strasser, both fellows at Oxmoor House.
-Eye the Xanax bottle longingly.
-Call Publix. Still no hams. Tell the meat manager I HAVE to have one by tomorrow. He clearly senses hysteria in my voice and tells me to come in the morning and they’ll substitute a better ham. Cleansing breaths.
-Pull out all the serving dishes, wash those that haven’t been used in a while.
-Publix has ham waiting for me when I get there with an effusive apology. Finish grocery shopping (or so I think).
-Stop by work to pick up flowers leftover from a photo shoot, and borrow an extra deviled egg plate.
-Start cooking in earnest. Whirl around the house like a mini-cyclone. Make homemade mayonnaise, chicken salad, and lady pea salad. Roast sweet potatoes & onions for tart.
-Blair joins the cooking, makes the chutney. We peel eggs, never an easy task. I send her back to the store for forgotten items. We stop for grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Day of the Event
-6:15 up and moving fast. Put on my field marshal hat. Re-do the to-do as I drink my coffee. Bruce calls around 8, offers to come now; he can go home and change later. He brings divine brownies; I snag one for breakfast.
-Bruce puts together the Sweet Potato Tart, Blair makes biscuits. Oven space an issue. Emily makes deviled eggs; Katie helps me plate food, open wine.
-I leave any remaining chores to the team and mingle with my guests. I catch up with old friends and make new ones. It’s a wonderful day, and people are so thankful for the hospitality.
By 2:15, everyone is out the door, the dishwasher is humming, and the remainder of the dirty dishes are stacked and ready to be washed. The girls head off for games and concerts, and I go down for a well-deserved nap!
Southern Living: Piggybank Dinners to Benefit Southern Foodways Alliance
JBF Award-winning chefs Ben and Karen Barker,
JBF Award-winning chef Louis Osteen