You’re Cordially Invited
inner parties are fun. They involve all of our favorite things in life; food that always tastes amazing, cocktails that seem never to run out, music that inevitably provides an aetherial experience, and most importantly, your best friends. Add some poetry paired with an intimate atmosphere, and you’ve more or less created a poetry-foodie salon.
Whether you’re a vetted dinner party patron amongst all your circles of friends, or you’re interested in jazzing up your after-hours scene by trying something new, this interview with Susan MacTavish Best, Founder of Living MacTavish, is a great resource to aid you in ironing out all of the details. Susan is well versed in hosting intimate dinner parties at her home for several note-worthy attendees. Having thrown hundreds of salon gatherings with varying themes, Susan is an expert on the topic of hosting a dinner party.
Plan the Menu
Q: When planning the menu, how do you decide what to serve?
Susan MacTavish Best: I do a mix of what’s easy … in other words, recipes I can make for large groups with my eyes closed … and a few new recipes.
Q: Do you factor in the season?
SMB: Yes. I do not serve acorn squash soup in May! But I’m not obsessive about seasonal food. I’m practical.
Q: Do you aim towards simpler dishes so that they are easier to execute for a crowd?
SMB: They are simple to me but perhaps less so for a more novice cook. (All of the recipes up at Living MacTavish are ones I use for a crowd). My recipes tend to be quite forgiving; this is why you won’t find me writing baking recipes very often. They require too much perfection and I find perfection is just an unbearably high bar when a crowd of friends is coming over. Or anytime.
Q: What factors contribute to selecting a theme for the party? And how is that conveyed in the menu? What came first — the dinner party or the theme?
SMB: Most of my large gatherings tend to be salons. I like to think of it as an evening for all the senses, and I am providing entertainment. An evening where you’re both learning something as well as having a chance to unwind from your day and meet new, interesting people and reconnect with friends. One part of the evening will typically be a fireside chat with me and a guest speaker. Or other times we may do a film screening (such as with the PSA) and then a conversation with the directors and poets. And then the latter half of the evening will be live music. I choose the topics based on what I’m interested in as well as what I consider to be the current zeitgeist. Guests only have so much capacity to listen. I always bear that in mind. I’d rather end the talking part of the evening too soon, leaving my friends wanting more.
Q: How do you prepare the ingredients?
SMB: Depends on the recipe but my rule of thumb is whatever is going to take the least amount of work. I do almost all of the prep myself. I’m not sure I’d recommend this. .. if you can rope in someone else to help, do!
Q: Do you get everything ready a couple of days before, or do you knock it all out the day of? What are some tips for time management?
SMB: I get some of the juice squeezing for cocktails done in advance, but mostly I do everything on the day of. I really enjoy the pressure; I find it quite relaxing. But I plan the menu in advance, and I do the shopping in advance.
Q: How much alcohol should you buy/provide for the party? And what details go into this decision?
SMB: Know your crowd. I only invite folks whom I know over, so that makes it easy. In SF people drink and eat far less than they drink and eat in NYC. In NYC, people are hungry for life and probably going to wake up at a reasonable hour, thus, stay longer. In SF, in part due to the time difference (they get up early) but also due to lifestyle, people leave earlier, eat less and drink less.
Q: Batch cocktails – yay or nay?
SMB: I only make large batches of cocktails … I can’t shake cocktails for 100 people, talk to them all, cook for them all as well as do the interview. The presentation is everything, however, and the cocktails are served in glass bottles and big jars. And “glasses” are either chemistry beakers or sterling silver goblets and some Moroccan colored glasses. And candles. A lot of candles. And hand written labels. (You can get a sense of what the events look like at the photos at https://livingmactavish.smugmug.com ). Honestly, who wants to wait for long for a cocktail on a Monday night … just get me the drink and let’s relax!
Q: How important is the table setting for you?
SMB: Well, for huge groups, of course, we don’t have a seated dinner. That said, I think how things are presented is so important.
Q: Can you give us some examples of atmosphere varying from one salon to the next? Do people sit on the floor, do they have assigned seats? Does this detail really matter in the context of a poetry foodie salon?
SMB: Very few people have seating for the size of the crowds I tend to have come over (over 30 … more often 60). Thus, folks always have to sit on the floor, and some will stand. I think between the sturdy cocktails, the homemade food, the eclectic audience, and the content of the evening; I’m able to squeak away with this. There is a lot of moving around throughout the night. The atmosphere tends to be the same wherever I am which is eclectic cozy. There is a lot of visual stimulation.
Q: How would you frame poetry and music at your salon in such a way that rather than competing, they provide a dialogue with one another?
SMB: I don’t think about it that hard! People love music; people love words.
Q: How do you decide who to invite? And how do you do it?
SMB: I invite my friends. It’s a straightforward process!
Q: Do you send invites via mail, or do you see more of a digital presence in promoting the party?
SMB: US Mail? No, I do not have time to send out paper invitations. Also, it can take me weeks to open up my own mail due to travel. I email people. It’s crucial to ensure your invites don’t end up in spam. So just a standard personal email or bcc works best. And I use Facebook too, and I create an event. The reason for this is that I can use it to post articles relevant to the event. But I would never only create an FB invite. Far too impersonal.
Q: In an SF Chronicle article, you mention that it’s good to have a little frisson amongst the guests, to promote engaging conversation. Can you provide an example of the diversity as it relates to trying to foster conversation about poetry?
SMB: Sure, my friends are from all worlds; Doctors, Investors, Artists, Film Makers and Scientists.
What to Wear
Q: What to wear; is this determined by what’s clean in the closet, or is there a little more forethought that goes into this?
SMB: A mix! I don’t tend to think about what I’m going to wear until the day-of. But I certainly put in some effort to look put together or at least festive. I spend a great deal of time in running clothes, so I enjoy scrubbing up and putting on a frock.
Q: What are some things to consider when trying to dress the part?
SMB: Most importantly, be comfortable. Can you bbq in heels or a tie? If you’re comfortable doing that and want to do that, go for it. I get really hot in the kitchen, and I know I’ll always still be doing some cooking while the guests are there, so I always take that into consideration. Will there be a professional photographer? Wear something that will ensure you can still have a good belly laugh and have that caught on camera.
Q: What are some top faux pas to avoid as a guest at one of these soirees?
SMB: To not RSVP. To not say thank you. To be unfriendly to the other guests. To not be curious.
Q: What’s the purpose (for you) in combining poetry and food in the same space?
SMB: Poetry makes us pause, it prompts us to slow down momentarily. What a great way to end a day, to unwind with some friends, over food, drink and words. I do think most of the general public have only so much capacity for poetry after a long day, (or any type of readings, frankly), so I do think when combining an event with poetry and food, think about your audience. You’re not trying to drill poetry into them; you’re creating a beautiful, memorable experience.
Q: What are some key things to avoid when trying to have your party be a success?
SMB: As the host, it’s best to avoid aiming for perfection. As long as you toss that ideal aside, you’ll truly enjoy yourself as will your guests. I tend to have a bit of a schedule to the evenings I put on, and I let my guests know that upfront. But my salons have a tendency to unfold unexpectedly at times, and it’s important to both be able to read the guests vibe as well as go with the flow. We are here to enjoy ourselves!
There are a variety of ways one can incorporate poetry into their event. You could create custom napkins with poems printed on them, you can frame poems and place them around the room, provide books of poetry on conversation tables, or host a reading and invite your favorite poets to come read some of their work. If you’re looking to immerse yourself further into the world of poetry, check out Poetry Society of America for more information.