For friends lucky enough to be invited to Merrily Jackson’s house, good times are in store, thanks to the famed hostess’ relaxed approach to entertaining that employs fun over fuss every time.
She writes all about it in “Essential Entertaining,” her column that appears in Kansas City Spaces magazine, a Grand Communications publication, owned by The Kansas City Star. In it, she dishes on everything from party etiquette (“Know that you will incur the wrath of everyone if you show up late for a party where you are bringing the aperitif!”) to her love for Ina Garten (the “best recipe developer in America”).
Whether in person or in her writing, Jackson’s conspiratorial tone suggests she’s telling you all her secrets, that you might even be her new best friend (email her, she says, and her tried-and-true recipes are yours for the asking).
This laid-back approach is how Jackson is redefining the dinner party, at once appealing to veteran hostesses and aspiring but anxious wannabes, for hers are not your grandmother’s 10-course shindigs. Jackson is what the Barefoot Contessa might be, dialed down a bit, plus colorful language, minus legions of minions to prep, chop and clean for her.
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Jackson seems intent on convincing the rest of us that we, too, can throw a roaring good dinner party even if we need to paint our kitchens, because “a good dinner party isn’t about the food, honey.”
Whether she’s serving take-out Chinese on fancy platters or her legendary Crock-Pot spaghetti and meatballs, for Jackson dinner will always and forever be about the people sitting around her table.
What’s the most common issue you hear from people when it comes to entertaining?
A lot of people are embarrassed of their house, and come up all the time talking to me like a psychologist because I write this column.
Husbands will come up to me and say, “Every time we have people over, my wife feels as if she needs to paint the kitchen, and all I want to do is throw steaks on the grill.”
When people come over, they are worried about their own deportment, and being clever and sparkling and funny. They aren’t taking their white glove and looking for dust. They’re so grateful to be invited to your house because it doesn’t happen very often.
Nowadays, people meet at restaurants or bars; there’s something so tragic about that. There’s magic that happens in a dining room: you sit down to break bread with a group and candlelight and a couple bottles of wine. People bond in a way they never could in a restaurant — you can tell off-color jokes and laugh too loud.
So what do you tell the anxious wannabe hostess?
Nobody cares what your house looks like. If you have really good ambiance, you don’t need a fabulous house. Don’t feel like you can’t have people over because your my furniture is outdated or my house is shabby.
Low lighting covers a multitude of sins. Turn off your overhead lights. Put little 15-watt bulbs in your lamps and light some candles. Play music and keep the booze flowing.
If you have good cocktails, music, even carry-in food, nobody cares about what kind of stuff you have. They are just thrilled to have hospitality extended to them.
What do you keep in mind when creating a guest list?
I love to mix up people from varied circles who don’t know each other but are dying to meet. I really like to be the catalyst for that.
If you can have a party where people establish meaningful relationships that will last the rest of their lives.… I get choked up talking about it, because it’s such an important thing to do. To have that happen under my roof … it can mean so much to make a difference in people’s lives.
Is there an ideal number of guests?
If I have a dinner party, I usually have nine or 10 at my table. I try to make it so that everybody knows at least one person, and not one person, so I have a fresh group of people, although I also have a crowd of the usual suspects, the regulars.
How do you get your parties started?
I like to have a signature drink like a Negroni, which is a trendy cocktail right now. I set up a drink station and have the ingredients there. I either make a big pitcher of it or leave the instructions out for people to make their own.
Can you settle the great debate: What’s the best shape for a dining room table?
A round table is the best for conversation. I would not trade my round table for anything. But I’ve had really good times at tables of other shapes. I’m not saying everyone needs to run out and buy a round table, or not have a dinner party because they don’t have a round table. I like eight guests because it’s the best for conversation, but I usually end up squeezing 10 around my table.
What goes into deciding the perfect menu?
A good party is not about the food at all. There’s way too much attention focused on the food. You can get carry-in, you can get lasagna from Costco, it really doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s about good conversation and good times.
If I go to a party where I’m expected to rave about the food for more than 2 minutes, I think, “How boring!” I have my trusted go-to recipes that I use, and if I have a big group over, I serve a big pot of something, something idiotproof.
I like to do smoked salmon lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs in the Crock-Pot (easy but everyone loves it), beef Bourguignon, which is kind of a pain but so good. I just can’t do a filet with three side courses for 10 people.
How do you (tactfully) get rid of guests that won’t leave?
Bottled waters. I have bottled water in the fridge and just start handing them out for the road. Just set them out. People get it.
Have you picked up any tips from other hostesses you admire?
I have a good friend who, when she has a dinner party, she goes around the table and says exactly one thing about how that person is special to her, and why they are so welcome at her table. She does it quickly but it’s very meaningful when she does that, and everyone feels welcome.
MERRILY’S SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS FOR A CROWD
Pork ribs add amazing depth of flavor to store-bought marinara sauce.
Serves 10 generously, with leftovers
3 26-ounce jars inexpensive marinara Sauce (I use Scimeca’s)
25 to 30 cooked meatballs from your grocer’s butcher case (again, I use Scimeca’s)
1 package country-style pork ribs, approximately 2 pounds
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, medium dice
2 pounds spaghetti noodles
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
On the morning of your party, pour into large Crock-Pot all marinara sauce, add diced onion. Into a large skillet, pour olive oil and heat over medium high heat. Add pork ribs and saute them quickly, until they are brown on all sides. Add to marinara mixture. Turn slow cooker on low setting and let marinara/pork mixture simmer all day.
After about 8 hours, pork should fall off bones and you can remove bones from mixture. Use a large spoon to separate pork into tender chunks. Sauce can continue to cook. About two hours before you plan to serve, add meatballs to sauce mixture.
Twenty minutes or so before serving, cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain. Arrange a generous pile of noodles on each plate, top with marinara/pork sauce and two or three meatballs. Sprinkle liberally with Parmesan cheese, drizzle a little olive oil over all and serve.