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Holiday Entertaining

by Laura Foti Cohen

 Ebell members are experts in many subjects, both in and out of the home. The members included here juggle careers, family and charitable obligations, but all are also known for their prowess as hostesses.

More than a decade ago, Gina Riberi and her husband David moved into a new home over Thanksgiving weekend. The couple stunned their new neighbors by throwing an open house the second week of December, opening both downstairs and up. Since then Gina has dazzled friends, family and total strangers with the warmth and attention to detail of her gatherings.

How does she do it? “My inspiration is Martha Stewart, my salvation is Real Simple,” Gina confides. “Keeping it simple really is key. You want to be able to enjoy your guests.” Her holiday entertaining advice:

•Truly open your home and make every room involving, with “vignettes” that encourage conversation.
•Use your outdoor space.
•Take advantage of a caterer or prepared foods, but always serve a homemade dish – and share the recipe.
•Decorate with candles and fresh greens.
•If the budget allows, have live music, whether carolers or an acoustic guitar.
•Offer a specialty cocktail.
•Keep milk thistle on hand: it’s a terrific hangover cure.

Gina says, “There’s always a level of vulnerability when you entertain. You have your wish list: the perfect favors, centerpieces, flowers, menu…just remind yourself that if you get 85% of it done, nobody will ever know about the other 15%.”

Patty Hill, the Society columnist for The Larchmont Chronicle, has been to many memorable holiday parties. The most successful, she believes, combine an eclectic mix of people – “family, neighbors, friends, social contacts, business contacts” – in a way that gets everybody interacting.

“You need one element that’s a shared experience to break the ice,” Patty advises. “An example is music: it serves as something people can talk about. You can go to all the trouble in the world with food and décor, but you still need to get people to talk to each other – that’s what makes a successful party.”

One she remembers well was thrown by Norwood Young, owner of the “House of Davids” at Muirfield Road and Third Street. Patty says, “His Christmas party started at 11:30 because many of his friends were playing concerts that night. Music definitely served as an icebreaker – and it helps when you can have your buddy Natalie Cole lead a holiday sing-along! He had family, neighbors, hairdressers and A-List stars. How did he get everyone to have a wonderful time and open up to talk to each other? It was the music!”

Lifetime Ebell member Sandy Boeck is known for organizing progressive parties in her neighborhood of Brookside. “It started more than 30 years ago with annual summer parties when we went to different homes for appetizers, cocktails and dinner, followed by cocktails and conversation for adults in the Brookledge Theater [the historic building over Brookside’s stream on the property where the founders of the Magic Castle grew up and honed their magic skills]. When you move around, you mix it up a little bit. It helps you digest your food, get some exercise and change the dynamics.” Later, the progressive concept moved to the holidays, although as Sandy points out that was “BR – Before the Recession.”

Fluff McLean, president of the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society (and past president of the Ebell), is known for her organizational and entertaining skills. She is a firm believer in breaking down a large, potentially overwhelming project into a series of doable tasks.

“Everything I do stems from the fact that my father was an engineer,” Fluff says. “He taught me to take things apart and put them back together. So whether raising funds, planning an event or entertaining at home, I approach everything by determining the starting point, where I want to be and then the steps to get there.

“For the holidays I love to create an environment that looks like your hosts were expecting you, on many levels,” she adds. For Fluff, this includes designing thematic place settings for her numerous children’s tables, set with children’s dishes and table linens she makes herself. She also decorates her house with multiple Christmas trees, including two trees in the living room, one an 11-footer that requires a ladder to decorate. The eight-foot tree has an “airborne” theme: angels, butterflies, birds, snowflakes, feathers, snowballs. A tree in the family room is decorated only with rabbits and is encircled by an electric train.

“With holidays,” Fluff advises, “you want to make everyone feel they’re walking into something that’s you. Make it really personal. Your passion and love of sharing it will shine through.”

The personal touch works for large parties or smaller family events. Ebell president Shirlee Taylor Haizlip offers this creative suggestion for a family dinner. “If you have lots of pictures of family members at different stages of their lives, photo montage place cards are great fun. You buy a place card decorated in one corner with a holiday graphic like a Christmas tree, and cover the rest of the card with cut-out photos. Your family members will hold on to them as keepsakes and legacy items. Mine sit on my bookcase at home.”

Suz Landay is known for entertaining on a large scale. Besides throwing a holiday open house for three decades, she prepares food for hundreds at the Garden Tour and Homes Tour sponsored by the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society – and always keeps smiling.

One relatively recent addition to her holiday party is requesting donations to charity instead of gifts. “Christmas is about giving,” Suz says. And her guests certainly have the spirit, raising $1,500-2,000 for such worthy organizations as LA’s Best.

The key to entertaining a crowd is having a plan of attack, Suz says. “A month ahead of time I know who’s coming, what the house will look like, what I’ll serve, how the food will be displayed. Then I start finding the recipes and working things out. The secret to cooking for 100 or more people is easy.” Suz’s secrets:

•Pick recipes that primarily involve assembly. Keep labor to a minimum.
•Evaluate recipes with an eye to improving them: drizzle with balsamic vinegar, decorate with parsley.
•Use the highest quality ingredients.
•Never have more than two things to do at the last minute, like slicing the meat.
•Consider special dietary needs and offer two vegetarian items.
•Make sure each dish has unique ingredients and textures.
•Think about texture and color, not just taste.

Suz says, “My party is more fun for me than anyone because I’ve been enjoying it for a month by then. It’s a creative act. I’m entertaining, creating an illusion. I love the whole process.”

In other words, a happy hostess is a successful hostess.

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