The first time I flipped through Around the Table: Recipes and Inspiration for Gatherings Throughout the Year, the debut cookbook by country-music megastar Martina McBride, a glowing bowl of something whipped and buttery caught my eye. Was that mashed potatoes? Indeed it was, its siren call at peak volume this time of year. I flipped further, finding lots of other yummy-sounding recipes, none too exotic or involved and all of which I wagered my family would find agreeable: Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, Zucchini Frittata, Lemon Coconut Bars, Caprese Salad, Chocolate Dipped Strawberries.
This all sounded promising. Eminently achievable.
But wait: what were these chapter titles? “Fall Supper with Friends,” “Bountiful Tuscan Feast,” “Retro Valentine’s Day Supper Club,” “Bruschetta Bash.” What were these pages of decorating ideas, music playlists, and sections like “Sanity Saver” and “Table Setting 101” and “The Party Pantry for Unexpected Occasions”? What was this “Party Log and Guest Book” at the back of the book?
Then it became clear: Around the Table: Recipes and Inspiration for Gatherings Throughout the Year is like a Martha Stewart magazine feature on steroids—a whole book full of the kind of gorgeous, artfully orchestrated Dining Events the likes of which I’m not exactly predisposed. Food enthusiast I am; polished entertainer I am not. My home is tiny; my kitchen likewise euphemistically cozy. I began to temporize.
And then that feisty little beast within—the one that can’t resist a challenge—spoke up: Come on, Felts; you can do this! You should! You must!
It had indeed been too long since I had my extended family over for a special meal. I could do this—especially with Martina’s gracious handholding to help. This book seems designed to steer even anxious amateur entertainers to success, though it should prove an excellent and approachable resource for dinner-party mavens, too. McBride provides plenty of smart, commonsense reminders for infrequent entertainers, with an emphasis on one central tenet: Do as much as you can ahead of time.
But there are fun theme concepts here, too, like a “Red Wine & Vinyl” shindig, a groovy spin on a wine and cheese gathering. McBride suggests buying cheap old vinyl records, breaking them in half, and writing the invitations in metallic ink right on the record. Her accompanying Sanity Saver: “If you aren’t playing host and DJ too, make it Open Mic Night. No, guests do not have to be prepared to sing, but do ask each person to take the floor to introduce their song choices when their record is up.”
McBride is a reasonable host, anticipating the limited capacities of mortals who don’t have assistants, personal shoppers, and, you know, actual time to throw a full-blown dinner party. She encourages readers to adapt these menus and party plans to their own ideas, recipes, and budget. Her advice: get creative! But how sweetly convenient it is, I found myself thinking, to have some simple decorating suggestions along with the meal plan. In the introduction to the first chapter, “Fall Supper with Friends”—the party I chose to attempt, the one featuring Classic Mashed Potatoes—McBride suggests using small white pumpkins as table décor, and I did incorporate those cute, pale pumpkins (though I didn’t write on them in metallic ink). She also offers the option to simplify by cutting some of the main dishes and serving just the Autumn Chopped Salad with a hearty soup and her cornbread recipe from another section of the book. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted to take the easy route. But no: we were doing this—doing this all the way.
Or were, until I realized how pricey beef short ribs for six would be. After that sad calculation, meatloaf took the place of McBride’s elegant main. (“I love meatloaf,” my mother texted me. Deal sealed.) But I would whip up all the other fall supper dishes, including the salad with Basalmic Poppyseed dressing, Goat Cheese and Honey Crostini, Smoked Paprika Almonds, and a Gingersnap-Pumpkin Cheesecake. (I’d never attempted a cheesecake, so dessert was the biggest deal.)
The more time I spent poring over Around the Table, the more buoyed I felt by the presence of a guide to keep me from becoming a crabby mess at zero hour with a zillion things left undone. Some of McBride’s utterly practical advice made me smile. “I have a secret for cleaning up clutter before people come to my house,” McBride writes. “It’s called a big, deep drawer (and a closet) where I can stuff things and deal with them after the party.” In my cozy abode there is no such drawer or closet, but there was a laundry basket on the floor of my dining room; I had no trouble filling said basket and whisking it off to my daughter’s room when party day came. It was mostly her stuff anyway.
I read—and re-read, and re-read—the Fall Supper “Cooking Game Plan,” which told me what to do in the days before, and morning of, the party. All week I worked valiantly to stay on track per Martina’s timeline. This was stupendously helpful: by 2 p.m. the day of my dinner party, I had almost everything finished or prepped. I should be transparent about one thing: I had handed off the meatloaf-making to my unflappable husband because that is how we roll. Any dinner party thrown around these parts is going to be the work of a duo.
To be brief, the party was a great success. The table looked lovely, the food turned out great (big praise especially for the Autumn Chopped Salad and, duh, the Classic Mashed Potatoes), and Spotify did its good work with the playlist. My first cheesecake did not fail; in fact, it barely cracked. Most importantly, with my party primer at hand I was completely calm and able to truly enjoy the company of my family.
A word to the wise: the recipe for Maple Old-Fashioneds didn’t quite make six servings as promised, so upping the ingredient amounts is a smart move. But that’s the exploratory element of cooking, and when you find it doesn’t stress you out too much anymore, maybe that’s when you know you’ve really earned your kitchen chops. Bring on the parties, I say. Get hungry, family and friends: Martina and I may be in for more adventures. Next time I’m bringing my metallic marker.
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.