For journalist and author Julia Reed, entertaining has always been a way of life. Growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, she watched her mom and her friends play host to a crowd at the drop of a hat. Over the years, Reed has carried that torch as she’s made a career of her dry humor and sharp Southern wit, covering everything from politics to party etiquette in Newsweek, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, and Garden and Gun—and throwing many a soirée along the way. Her latest of several books, Julia Reed’s New Orleans (Rizzoli), stars her flamboyant home city. We asked the party pro to share some of her best hosting advice. Spanning decor tips to when to give up and buy a bucket of fried chicken, her philosophy can be summed up in a few truisms: Don’t sweat the small stuff, be generous, and enjoy the ride.
Julia Reed’s Party Pointers
Embrace the theme
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that her mom threw her a St. Patrick’s Day party (complete with construction paper shamrocks and a green and white cake) as a child, but Reed is a sucker for a theme. It helps guide party planning. And a theme doesn’t always mean coordinating colors and fussy decor. Take a post-celebration brunch, the theme of which is always “the urgency of curing your guests’ hangovers,” she says. “For that, I employ a milk punch cocktail, lots of bloody marys, and rib-sticking fare like ham biscuits and grillades and cheese grits.”
It’s okay to be silly
“My mother is obsessed with Elvis, so for her sixtieth birthday we recreated a Las Vegas nightclub (I told you I love a theme),” she says. “My father wore a white jumpsuit and sang ‘Love Me Tender’ and my friends and I were the ‘Elvettes.’ We sang Elvis songs we’d rewritten to apply to my mother. At one point I was on all fours barking like a dog during ‘Hound Dog.’” Naturally, there was a peanut butter banana pie, “but the fun was more important than the food.”
Because fleeting pleasures—the arrival of summer produce, the first fall chill in the air—is reason enough to celebrate. Springtime in Louisiana, that may mean a celebration of crawfish and strawberries (says Reed: “they’re in season at the same time, and they both have festivals!”); in the summer, “tomatoes and peaches and corn and okra all the time.” Come bone-chilling winter evenings, it’s Provençal daubes and dark-rouxed gumbos on her table.
Make it pretty, but don’t break the bank
Sometimes a party means the best china, silver, and linens and low bouquets of overblown roses and peonies and marching down the table. But it can also mean pulling out different kinds of stops, Reed says. For a seafood boil, string lights and brown butcher paper can be totally chic. “And you don’t have to have the world’s best flower designer on speed dial,” she adds. “I love pots of herbs and bowls of pretty citrus on a table. Or better yet, get out the clippers and cut some magnolia branches.”
“It’s a party, not an experiment in nuclear physics.”
You don’t have to be a good cook
Entertaining can be as straightforward as serving a soul-warming pot of chili or a roast chicken and salad. Afraid even those are past your skill level? There are still endless options, Reed says. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be thrilled with a delicious bucket of Popeye’s, great take-out Chinese, or the best barbecue in town,” she says. “As a corollary to the ‘make it pretty’ advice, decor can go a long way: I serve take-out chicken on silver platters.”
It’s the people, stupid
“The dullest parties I’ve ever been to are populated by too many like-minded guests,” she says. Mix professions, personalities, and, most important, generations. It’s another lesson she learned growing up in Greenville. “When I was a kid, we were invited to parties too. When you’re really little, you’d go upstairs for punch and cookies while the adults were getting smashed. And when you were 12 or so, you’d get let out of the attic,” she laughs. “My parents’ friends are the ones I still have over for dinner when I’m in Mississippi.”
Take a cue from the Crescent City when party planning. “Everything here is over-the-top. New Orleans is about excess of everything,” Reed says. So make too much food, order too much booze, have too much of everything. “Parties should be about abundance and graciousness,” Reed says. “No one wants to be scared their half-glass of wine is their last.”
“It’s a party, not an experiment in nuclear physics,” she says. “I only ever entertain because I want to have fun. No matter what happens—the roast burns to a crisp, an over-served guest falls over in the flowerbed, whatever—grin and carry on. Most mishaps are an excuse for a good story.”