Entertaining has always been a big part of my life with Mr. Magpie. We love to cook, we love to be at home, we love to surround ourselves with our friends and show them love through carefully (and sometimes complicatedly) planned meals. When we moved to Bethesda last year, I was ecstatic at the prospect of resuming this cherished pastime of ours with more regularity. It had been challenging to pull off in New York, in part owing to COVID, in part owing to space constraints, and in part owing to the ages of our young children. We still did it, but it felt far more difficult than in years past. But I will never forget a party we threw within the first few months of settling into our new home here in Maryland. I had the worst time at it. I was overwhelmed by the logistics, spent the entire party flitting around without ever really enjoying myself, and found myself on constant errand to refill bowls or fetch drinks or tidy up messes left behind by our littlest guests. I kept trying to clip into conversation, but my mind was skittering elsewhere. The experience startled me. Was I changing? Why hadn’t I enjoyed it as much as I normally do?
Mr. Magpie and I have conducted many post-mortems on this particular event. We’ve concluded that there were too many people there, and it was during a particularly busy time in our lives where we already felt pulled in too many directions. There were also a lot of little children present, which — God love them! — can fray at nerves in even the best of circumstances.
However, in the past few months, we’ve been entertaining more and more again, and I find myself far more comfortable and even joyful when hosting. This is in part because, burned by the aforementioned experience, we’ve been a bit more selective with the guest list, opting for much smaller groups, especially when children included. Somewhere around six or seven children, the numbers start to skew. Three children is three children but somehow seven children at a party feels like seventy-five. But the main difference? In fact, the key to successful entertaining?
I’d always known this — have always been a great anticipator and thoughtful planner — but recently, I’ve approached events from the standpoint of better time budgeting, and specifically have learned to “round up” rather than “round down” when estimating how much time to set aside for any given task. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’ve learned in the last few years that a key to moving through my life with calm is “rounding up,” in nearly every matter. Go up a size if in question — who wants too-tight clothes? Put more money in the meter than you anticipate needing — I hate feeling rushed by the meter! Assume a doctor’s appointment will take two hours rather than the optimistic thirty minutes. Double the recipe and freeze whatever’s left over. In so many ways, I used to cut things too close, and why? I was generating artificial stress and constraint for myself.
For Mr. Magpie’s fortieth birthday, we had seven or eight couples come by for dinner, and the evening went off without a hitch only because I had written every single task that needed to happen in advance, down to “slicing lemons for the cocktail station” and not only “setting the playlist” but “auditing the playlist,” and then organized them according to calendar date for the weeks prior. I’d return to the document every few days to see what needed to be done, what was next, etc. This sounds overly-rigid to the point of insane, but I swear the approach transformed the entire experience for me in a positive way. I found myself looking forward to each step, approaching each task with love and attentiveness. I wrote last week about the mindset of “making everything you are doing the most important thing,” and I applied that frame of mind to the preparations for this party. I remember one of the items on the list was sourcing place cards. Rather than doing it in a hurried huff, or settling for something at checkout at the local plant shop, I had a designated afternoon to poke around online to track down a set that sparked joy and would be delivered on time. So too with preparing the table linens. I mean, if you’re going to be ironing table linens for a crowd, at least light a candle, pour a cup of tea, and tune into an audiobook, and do it on a night where you have nothing else going on and don’t feel that angsty hurry you might if you’re trying to get it done just under the buzzer the morning of the party.
I learned, too, to take care of things at the earliest possible date. Some things must be done the day-of (e.g., procure fresh baguette, light candles, etc), but there are often elements of meals that can be handled well in advance. You can often take care of mise en place the night before and keep in airtight containers in the fridge, so “party day” is more about assembly than prep. This has also entered our calculus when menu-planning. We defer to items — especially desserts — that can be made a day or two ahead of time. For a recent party, I made chocolate cremeux from scratch (followed the recipe in my baking Bible, Bravetart) in large part because pudding keeps for up to a week in the fridge, and I could take care of that early on, enjoy the baking experience, and then clear my plate for day-of.
Overall, it’s about cadence, doing a little each day, so that these undertakings feel more like the treat they are than a slog.
Of course you probably know where I’m heading with this?
That this, in fact, is applicable to so much in life outside of entertaining?
That the more I declutter my day, the easier it is to breathe into what’s in front of me?
Pay attention to what you pay attention to. I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot and while I think the general thrust is more about clipping the extraneous, I find it galvanizing from the standpoint of: “Be present in what you’re doing. Pay attention. Make what you’re doing the most important thing.” This dovetails with a beautiful quote from a lovely interview with Danica Murphy, in which she stated: “You look where your eyes go.” She was sharing that her father used to get on her case when she’d turn around to see what other racers were doing behind her while go-karting, and that she realized, later in life, that the phrase offered a philosophy for living. If you’re looking at the wall, that’s where you’re headed. If you’re looking at negative thoughts, you’re never going to build a happy life. So, too, with moving through my days. I do not want to fritter away my life in an unfocused haze, the finical bird looking this way and that. I want to point myself in a direction, an archerfish by design.
*”Archerfish are remarkably accurate in their shooting; an adult fish almost always hits the target on the first shot. They can bring down insects and other prey up to 3 m (10 ft) above the water’s surface. This is partially due to their good eyesight, but also to their ability to compensate for the refraction of light as it passes through the air-water interface when aiming at their prey.” Via.
+On the phrase “onward” as a philosophy of life.
+Making peace and plans with myself.
+Lessons learned from entertaining.
+I wanted to share a few elements from the dinner party we recently hosted at my home, a snapshot of which is seen above. We served gildas (the original Basque pintxo — highest quality ingredients imperative; drizzle heavily with exceptional olive oil), serrano ham, and brandade (whipped salted cod + potato dish) on baguette from Bread Furst during cocktail hour. The menu was obviously slightly advanced (any anchovy-forward appetizer is a gamble with most crowds) but we knew all of our guests were big food people and they ate happily. I served these pintoxs with the gin-and-aperol-based Billingsley Punch from the Death + Co cocktail book. Punches are just the BEST way to serve cocktails to a crowd. You can prep in advance and I love that they are self-serve and guests can refill without waiting to be invited to another glass. Plus, I love the mild throwback of a punch bowl as a centerpiece. We inherited a beautiful one made of Waterford crystal that sparks major joy for me. For entree, Mr. Magpie served a paella with rabbit, chicken, chanterelles, and special Spanish white bean. He did this the traditional way, over a grill, and then served it the non-traditional way, with dollops of homemade aioli on top. We borrowed the aioli secret from Jose Andres — he serves his with aioli, too. I supplemented the paella centerpiece with a frisee-marcona almond-and blood orange salad dressed in a garlic spiked blood-orange-and-sherry-vinegar vinaigrette. We served a white rioja and a red rioja — both delicious and sourced from our favorite wine shop, Flatiron Wines, up in NYC. We have cases shipped down to us regularly. For dessert, I served up the aforementioned chocolate cremeux, topped with my own whipped cream, and a bit of shaved Mast chocolate on top. We complemented with the most delicious sherry we’d found at Nido in DC (chocolate/espresso notes) and espresso shortbread we’d bought from Bread Furst. We were all very full and happy.
+For the tablescape, I used this very inexpensive gingham tablecloth. I’m so glad I did, too, because the paella pan had a lot of soot from the grill that got all over the table and, even after laundering, it won’t be suitable for reuse in our dining room. Will save for outdoor events / stuff with the kids. I loved the taupe color and used these woven chargers beneath our rustic-looking Haand dinner plates. I offset with chocolate brown napkins (similar here), twist taper candles, and the cheekiest superlative place cards from Marrant Paper (generously gifted), propped up in these ultra-sleek Crate and Barrel card holders. The latter were so fun to assign to my guests and made for amusing pre-dining conversation. I used family silver with the name “Jennie” engraved on it — a great-great aunt! — and I love that she chose a nickname rather than monogram. So unusual. All of the cut flowers were from Trader Joe’s! I actually stopped at a nicer florist in Bethesda but, honestly, the flowers there on Friday morning were all droopy looking and I found the staff kind of pushy, so I left and went to Trader Joe’s instead. I always have fun seeing what’s fresh/eye-catching and arranging into small posies. I’ve learned over time that a few small bouquets are preferable, to my taste, to a big centerpiece because they do not inhibit conversation and make it easy to talk to someone even catty corner from you.
+I usually wear a dress when entertaining but this crowd was a fun one and I wore the feather top seen here with Agolde Pinch Waist jeans because we were all feeling festive. I had a lot of questions about sizing on the top and will say it is pretty cropped, and I’m 5’0 (short short). I feel most comfortable wearing this with high rise jeans that don’t show any belly. If in question, I would size up in that top. I took an XS and it fit me fine but I do think this is the type of style that is meant to look boxy on and you don’t want it feeling too tight — the silk/scarf-like fabric has no give. I styled with my new Hunter Blake earrings (c/o — thank you!) and two Jane Win necklaces — this one and this one (also c/o — thank you!). I have been really into layering heavy gold necklaces lately — so fun. They make my uniform of turtlenecks and jeans come alive!
+Just the prettiest forest green colored dress. I love this one because you could pair with burgundy/taupe/navy for a fall moment and then style with red for the holidays.
+Speaking of SEA, this navy ditty is on sale for $100!!! Run! (Check out the entire SEA sale section at Saks, too — do I need this wild patchwork denim vest? this ribbed floral mockneck? this bold patterned top?)
+And speaking of forest green, this green tiered mini is $70 and so adorable! I would layer with a turtleneck beneath and unbutton the front an extra couple of buttons to show off a tangle of gold jewelry.
+You know I love this sherpa funnel collar situation — under $40.
+Eyeing these for my bar.
+I am on the hunt for a big fabric pinboard from my office. I found this inexpensive one on Amazon and this latticed style on Etsy but does anyone have a rec? Maybe even one that uses fun patterned fabrics? I have all of these cards, clippings, notes from brands, menus, place cards, etc that I’d love to showcase in one place (e.g., not jammed in my desk drawer).
+I need this little cowhide stool for my son’s mildly Western-themed room.
+Talbots with the hits! Loving these boots!
+Perfect gift for any dude.