'The Deans' of Charleston, S.C., are partiers of the funnest order
For many of us, entertaining is a hornet's nest. Normally competent people, wondering what to serve and where to seat the guests, fall to pieces.
It's time to seek inspiration and encouragement, and, for that, we need merely to look south — to a place known for its effortless hospitality.
At 6 o'clock in Charleston, S.C., they say, one need only pour a cocktail and go for a walk to find a gathering. The city needs no excuse for a party, and two women, in particular, are well-known for their contributions to the entertaining arts.
At their Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits, Suzanne Pollak and Lee Manigault — they call themselves “the Deans” — offer classes replete with their blend of acerbic, hilarious and completely practical advice for hosting a cocktail party, business lunch, bridal shower or dinner party.
For instance, the Deans have no problem with wearing jeans to greet dinner guests. “Put a drink in their hands, introduce everyone, then go up and change!”
With great charm and grace, the two women blithely hand down advice, referring to themselves only in the third person; each statement is a proclamation.
The Deans say, “Never stop the party to do the dishes.” (It kills the atmosphere.) Invite seven people to a dinner party. (It livens things up.) Not six. (Three couples are so boring.) Not eight. (It's impossible to have one conversation.) The Deans are utterly certain about absolutely everything. (When asked their ages for this article, they replied, “The Deans are old enough to know it's rude to ask a lady her age.”)
Manigault, descended from John Jacob Astor, was born in Millbrook, N.Y., where her well-placed family frequently hosted large parties. As a teen, she fell in love with entertaining, throwing full-blown dinner parties of her own. She married into a prominent Charleston family (she has since divorced) and began a life of meticulously restoring the family's 18th-century home and hosting social events. Hers is one of a handful of Charleston homes to sport a ballroom, put to frequent use for fundraisers, lectures, formal dinners and family gatherings.
Pollak, a child of diplomats, grew up “all over Africa” and remembers nightly parties in the compounds where other expats lived. “When you move frequently, you have to make a friend in five minutes, so we used our house to meet people,” she says. “There were parties every night, sometimes two or three.”
Spend any time at all with the Deans and you get the sense they could pull together a cocktail party for 50 people in 45 minutes. Asked to impart some advice to those of us less blessed with the entertaining gene, Manigault had plenty. “Our main ethos: We love to use nice china, sure, but if it's going to keep you from having people over, use a paper plate,” she said. “Just have people over.”
“The point is to get together, not to show off your china,” Pollak says. “We have all been there with the chipped plates, and those are some of the best times. Reflect your personality, not a magazine.”
Less Margaret Mitchell and more Fannie Flagg, with a modicum of little black dress, the two seem separated at birth. They met in 2010 and bonded over their love of proper entertaining, mouthwatering (and no-fuss) foods and a nagging worry that no one knows the rules anymore. A few months later, the women gave the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits a test run, and they haven't stopped since.
Pollak hadn't expected it would be fun; she'd expected distraction. At the time, with two sons in Afghanistan and a third very ill, she decided that “entertaining was just as important as discovering the cure for cancer. To be able to put people together and feed them: It's not frivolous. It's important.” (Her son has since made a complete recovery, and the other two have returned home safely.)
For Manigault, at the time recently divorced and dutifully cooking dinners for two school-age daughters uninterested in gourmet meals, founding the Academy gave an enormous boost of confidence. “I never thought I could do it,” she said. “I was a homemaker, and I got fired. I didn't know what I would do. My kids were growing up. I was sort of desperate.”
When their students gather, they have one frequent lament: “My house isn't put together.” The Deans proclaim that no one is paying attention. “The guests are much more worried about themselves,” says Manigault, with a throaty laugh.
They insist that entertaining should be relaxed. Enough with the contrived centerpieces. Instead, select herbs from the farmers market or leaves and flowers from your yard and plop them in unconventional vessels such as pitchers, julep cups and other precious containers.
They encourage inviting guests across all age ranges and professions and mixing up single and married people; it energizes the party. Have at least one person you can't wait to see. “If it's all hosting for payback, it's just not fun,” says Manigault. The Deans say that entertaining should be worry-free.
“Find cool people doing cool things,” Pollak says, “and you're guaranteed a great time,” Pollak says.
Cathy Barrow, a Washington food writer, is working on her first book, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry” (Norton, 2014).
Start with fruit that's already peeled and cored, in the refrigerated section of the produce department. The puree used here is delicious but temperamental. Do not make it too far in advance; it can oxidize and turn brown unless it is stored with as little air as possible.
Make ahead: Refrigerate for a day or two, or freeze for longer storage, in a zip-top bag with as much air pressed out as possible.
1⁄2 peeled, cored fresh pineapple (about 12 ounces)
1⁄2 cup peeled, chopped fresh gingerroot
Leaves from 8 sprigs mint, plus small sprigs for garnish
8 ounces light rum
Cut the pineapple into chunks and place in a blender along with the ginger and mint. (You might need to do this in batches.) Puree for several minutes, until entirely smooth. The yield is about 1 1⁄4 cups.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the rum and 3⁄4 cup of the pineapple-mint puree. Shake well, then strain into ice-filled highball glasses. Top with soda water and stir.
Garnish with the mint sprigs.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition per serving: 140 calories, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 0 protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 0 dietary fiber, 0 sodium
The Only Ribs You Need to Know
The title may sound hyperbolic, but it's not. These ribs are delicious hot, cold, at room temperature or any way you can get your hands on them.
Make ahead: The ribs can be boiled, sauced and refrigerated several hours in advance. Bring to room temperature before roasting.
3 racks (7 to 8 pounds total) baby back pork ribs, preferably at room temperature
16 ounces light-brown sugar
20 ounces (2 1⁄2 cups) Dijon-style mustard
1⁄4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
3⁄4 cup bourbon
Bring one large (at least 12-cup) pot of water to a brisk boil over high heat.
Add the racks of ribs to the boiling water; you might need to cut the racks in half to make them fit in the pot. Once the water returns to a boil, cook for about 15 minutes; the meat will not be cooked through.
Use tongs to transfer the racks to a cutting board. Let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then use a large, sharp knife to cut between the bones, separating the individual ribs.
While the ribs are resting, make the sauce: Wipe out the pot you used to boil the ribs, then add the sugar, mustard, soy sauce and bourbon. Place over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Cook for 5 minutes to thicken the sauce. Remove from the heat. Return the ribs to the pot and toss to coat evenly.
At this point, the ribs can be cooled and refrigerated for several hours.
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; heat to 400 degrees.
Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
Divide the ribs between the baking sheets; if there's any sauce left in the pot, use it for basting. Roast for about 10 minutes, then rotate the baking sheets top to bottom and front to back. Baste with any remaining sauce or with sauce that has pooled on the baking sheet. Roast until the ribs are crisped on the edges and well browned, for 8 to 10 minutes.
Transfer to a platter. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition per serving (with half the sauce): 1,220 calories, 78 grams fat (29 grams saturated), 310 milligrams cholesterol, 64 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 0 dietary fiber, 1,660 milligrams sodium
Spicy Ruby Slaw
The key to success here is shaving the cabbage as thinly as you can and adding as much ginger as you can handle.
Make ahead: The slaw needs to sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving.
1⁄2 head red cabbage (about 12 ounces)
6 green onions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices
2 tablespoons peeled minced or grated gingerroot
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon plain rice wine vinegar
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Core the cabbage, then finely shred it, placing it in a large mixing bowl. The yield is about 8 cups. Add the green onions, gingerroot, oil, soy sauce and vinegar to the bowl and season with salt and pepper. Toss well; let sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 70 calories, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 0 cholesterol, 1 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 105 milligrams sodium
Rum Pound Cake
Rich and buttery, with a whisper of rum, this pound cake takes well to any fruit topping, as well as to ice cream. Serve grilled slices of cake for a summer treat topped with grilled peaches. It tastes just as good toasted the next day.
Make ahead: The cake needs an hour to cool. It can be made a day in advance.
For the cake:
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
3 1⁄2 cups flour, plus more for the pan
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄4 cup rum
Scrapings from 1 vanilla bean
3 cups sugar
8 large eggs
1 cup regular or low-fat sour cream (do not use nonfat)
For the fruit:
1 pound strawberries
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
To prepare the cake: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 10-inch tube pan with a little butter, then dust it with flour, shaking out any excess.
Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl.
Stir together the rum and vanilla bean scrapings in a small bowl.
Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed until lightened and smooth.
Increase the speed to medium-high; gradually add the sugar, mixing to form a light and fluffy mixture; this will take about 8 minutes. Stop a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Reduce the speed to medium. Add the eggs one at a time, beating just until the yellow of the yolk is well incorporated.
Reduce the speed to low. Add the rum and vanilla mixture to the batter in two parts, alternating with the flour mixture, beating just to incorporate.
Remove the bowl from the mixer; stir in the sour cream by hand, then spoon the batter into the pan. Bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes; a toothpick inserted into the cake should come out clean. Transfer (in the pan) to a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before cutting.
To prepare the fruit: Meanwhile, hull and rinse the strawberries, then cut them into halves or quarters and place in a mixing bowl. Add the vinegar, sugar and several grinds of pepper, then stir to incorporate.
Serve slices of the cake with some of the macerated strawberries.
Makes one 10-inch tube-pan cake of 12 servings.
Nutrition per serving (with fruit, using low-fat sour cream): 660 calories, 30 grams fat (17 grams saturated), 210 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams protein, 84 grams carbohydrates, 180 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber,