The Guest List

Unless it’s a party for 200, where you can have your Aunt Josie and a prince, you have to have some kind of common denominator. There can be no more than four degrees of separation between guests. —Bob Jones

I like mixing professions and age groups, and I always make sure that every couple knows at least one other couple on the guest list. —Sandy Glover

Women really like parties more than men do. We love to talk and dress up, let our hair down and do something zany. I mean, you usually don’t find yourself saying, “Who am I going to put that talkative man next to?”

That’s why the cocktail parties I’ve given just for women are my favorites. I had a 99 percent turnout for the one when I asked people to come dressed as the person they’d least or most want to be. One lady came as Eleanor Roosevelt, with false teeth and a wig on— I didn’t even recognize her! —Susan Thomas

Baltimore can be incredibly insular. The good hostess is the one who can really mix it up with people, including people she really feels comfortable with— I always like to have a couple of buddies—but also people she doesn’t know that well, or new people that she’s welcoming to the city. I like a mix of everything, people from different aspects of the city, not just the arts crowd, not just educators. —Jonna Lazarus

I always invite all of the neighbors within a two- or three-house radius. That way, nobody calls the cops. —Chuck Nabit

I like dinner parties for 10; if a party gets much bigger, some people never even talk. —Ellen Richardson

The biggest difference between Washington guests and Baltimore guests is that Baltimore guests always arrive on time. Washington guests come 30 minutes late. —Mary Ellen Kaplan

The Invite

I believe in sending wonderful invitations, something beautiful and unusual that describes the evening and will get people excited. It should give your guests an expectation of the evening to come. It sets the entire tone of the event. —Peggy Stansbury

Keep it simple on a good quality paper. You don’t need bells and whistles and confetti falling out all over the floor. —Jonna Lazarus


Fresh flowers make a world of difference. Many times I get flowers from Jackie [Skudrna] at Myland Farms (410-484-5540). And I like candles— if you think six candles look good, go for 60! But never use scented ones with food. —John Yuhanick

One year I covered the dining room floor with sod and then painted branches with flourescent paint and installed black lights for a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” effect. There’s a direct correlation between what you put into the setting and how much people enjoy themselves. It gets their juices going. —Barbara Taylor

Mood is the most important thing, and candles are so important for mood— light them 10 minutes before your guests arrive. And if you have white wicks, shame on you. Always blacken your wicks. I think it’s fine to re-use the same candle: it looks even neater if it’s been burned down the previous night. There should be at least six inches left on a taper to provide 45 minutes of flame.

I know you aren’t supposed to use scented candles around food, but I do like to light a scented candle during the hors d’oeuvres part of the evening. I know I got my husband because of my pine scented candles. Men love them. They are masculine and clean. Men don’t like frou frou floral scents. —Kerry Townsend

“I like garden parties for a couple of reasons. First, they are never the same twice, because the garden is always changing and providing a new setting. And second, the garden is a great icebreaker for people who don’t yet know each other—they can explore the flowers and plants together and start a conversation over them. It’s just easier to talk to someone when they’ve just put their nose in a flower. —Stiles Colwill

Pick one flower and buy a lot of them—my idea of a beautiful flower arrangement is a generous bunch of tulips in a vase. —Susan Thomas

If you have beautiful flowers and a great group of people, you can end up serving crackers and cheese and it will be a great party.—Gay Legg

The food

People like hot hors d’oeuvres; they like things passed rather than feeling like they’re scooping into something all the time. I always make my own, like this shrimp toast.

Shrimp Toast
1 pound chopped cooked shrimp
2/3 cup regular mayonnaise (or enough for spreading consistency)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss cheese
Triscuit crackers
Mix ingredients together, spread on Triscuit crackers and bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes until tops are lightly browned.

I got this onion cheese puff recipe from a caterer in Washington, D.C. he gave it to me in exchange for my shrimp toast recipe.

Onion Cheese Puffs
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4-1/2 cup minced onions, scallions or chives
1/2-1 cup mayonnaise (enough for spreading)
1 French baguette, sliced into rounds
Mix ingredients together, spread on baguette rounds. Bake at 350 degrees, 10-15 minutes until lightly browned.
—Mary Ellen Kaplan

For serious functions, when I want to pair exceptionally good wine and food, I call Innovative Gourmet (410-363-1317). The owner and chef, Barry Fleischmann, really knows wine and has the ability to marry very interesting ingredients; he creates a culinary experience. —Chuck Nabit

I’m a cheese freak. One appetizer that’s kind of a cheat, but great: I microwave chutney and pour it over a wheel of brie, which melts a bit. Then I surround it with dried cranberries and walnuts and serve it with all different kinds of crackers or sliced French bread. Typically I serve a lighter appetizer, though, and save the cheese course to serve after dessert. Everyone says, “no, none for me. But if you bring it out, they will eat it. —Heather Lustig

I like to give cocktail parties where all the food can be prepared ahead and I can be with the guests and mingle. My favorite caterer? Casey Pina of Everyday Living (410-377-4977). She’s very young, but extremely capable; she can do anything. She’ll prepare meals for busy executives, as well as cater parties.

If I have to entertain unexpectedly, I bop into Cross Street Market: there’s Nick’s Inner Harbour Seafood (410-685-2020) for shrimp and crabmeat; The Cross Street Cheese Co. (410-837-2110), where you can find beautiful patés and cheeses; and The Kitchen (410-468-4477), where you can pick up incredible soups and wraps and flowers too! —Peggy Stansbury

The food is the most important thing. I love to cook, and I plan each menu for a dinner party individually.

I have a couple of side dishes that work with everything, from beef tenderloin and lamb to shrimp and grits. One is tomato pudding, and it always gets raves.

Tomato Pudding
12 slices bacon
2-3 bell peppers, green or red, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
3 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix
Sauté bacon until browned and remove from pan. Crumble and set aside. In 2-3 tablespoons of the bacon fat, sauté peppers and onion until soft. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper; cook very slowly until thick and dark in color, several hours. Add bacon and brown sugar; stir; place in casserole dish. Top with stuffing. Reheat at 350 degrees about 30 minutes. Can be made several days ahead. —Ellen Richardson

For dessert, I usually do a fresh fruit tart with apples, peaches or berries, depending on the season. It looks like you went to great effort, but you didn’t. I use this simple crust from my sister-in-law; it’s for an 8- to 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

Take a cup of flour, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of vinegar (such as blueberry, raspberry or cider vinegar) and a stick of butter, cut into pieces. Put everything in the Cuisinart. Pulse until it comes together in ball— but don’t kill it; you want to handle it as little as possible to keep it tender. With flour on your fingers, just pat it into the pan.

I pre-bake it at 350 degrees until golden brown, or fill it and bake the whole thing for 20 to 25 minutes. —Jonna Lazarus

The Bonaparte Bakery (410-880-0858) in Savage Mill makes a lemon tart that is better than my homemade one. If I need a fancy dessert and I don’t have time to make one, I’ll go there. —Heather Sampson Lustig

A party on Saturday gives me dessert time. I make an individual molten chocolate soufflé from a great book, “Classic Home Dessert.” You can freeze them ahead of time and then pop them in the oven right before serving. They’re as easy as pie, but they’re so good that when you serve them, people think you’re God!

“Thomas Keller’s Molten Chocolate”
4 ounces best-quality imported semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Vanilla ice cream or vanilla-flavored whipped cream, for serving.

Lightly butter six one-cup ramekins or custard cups; set aside. Place the semisweet and unsweetened chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set over a saucepan of hot water over low heat (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). Stir occasionally until the chocolate melts; remove from heat.

When the chocolate is smooth, stir in the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs, flour, baking powder and cocoa. Beat with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until the mixture is pale and has a thick, mousse-like consistency, about 5 minutes.

Fill the ramekins half full, cover each with plastic wrap. Freeze for at least 3 hours. (The ramekins can be filled and frozen up to 3 days in advance.)

Just before serving time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees, with a rack at the center. Bake the cold desserts until the outer edges of the tops are set, but the centers are still moist and shiny, usually 10 to 11 minutes. Serve directly from the ramekins or invert each portion onto a serving plate and serve warm, with a small scoop of the vanilla ice cream or a spoonful of vanilla-flavored whipped cream.—-Heather Sampson Lustig

For hors d’oeuvres, I’ll do a huge platter of tapas, including olives, cooked shrimp, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts—anything you can buy in a jar. —Susan Thomas

You don’t want to over-complicate the food. And it’s always good to throw in a ham. —Bob Jones

Much to the cynics’ dismay, Martha Stewart is fabulous. A lot of what she suggests is really simple. —Susan Thomas


For small parties, I put on a slew of CDs and let them go, everything from Frank Sinatra and soundtracks from Out of Africa, Les Miserables and New York musicals to big band music for after dinner or top for dancing. —Sandy Glover

Live music brings a house alive. I like to give musicians exposure and gainful employment. For the holidays, I’ll hire a pianist and French horn player. For July Fourth, I might have a barbershop quartet. In March, an Irish singer. My children take music lessons, so I ask their teachers for referrals or call the Peabody Institute (410-659-8138). —Peggy Stansbury

You have to have music in the background so people don’t walk into a dead environment. It can be a crackling fire or the sound of the ocean—anything that sounds like life. —Barbara Taylor

Marty sets the pace

You’ve gone to some expense; you’ve worked hard. So as the party nears, you don’t want to fumble the ball at the goal line with the wrong music. Instead, program the music to go with the party. For a dinner party, that means no vocals: vocals fight with people trying to have a conversation. Go for jazz. I like the saxophone because it’s versatile. I might start with some Everett Harp or Joshua Redman to take us through cocktails. Then for dinner, I’ll slow it down a bit with Brian Bromberg— you know, that smooth, creamy jazz. After dinner, I’ll pick the tempo back up with someone like Sonny Clark —that “beat city” jazz from the ‘60s. Then I might put on Art Porter’s “Straight to the Point.” Then, to mellow the evening out, I go for the great gun, Oscar Peterson. There is no other jazz pianist in his league.

For a cocktail party, the mix is different. The din of the room is going to overwhelm the music unless you put on something strong—something like the blues. I wouldn’t use deep Chicago blues; I’d go for Delta blues- something smoky, such as the women’s blues group Saffire with a beat and rhythm, or Keb- Mo, or Koko Taylor’s “Forces of Nature.” To come off of her, I might put on Robert Cray and then Muddy Waters. —Marty Bass

Table settings

I’m a firm believer in using my good silver, my best plates, my best linen napkins tied with a bow, and my good crystal— at least three glasses at each place. I also like lots of candles on the table, the sideboard and the mantelpiece.

I have all kinds of collections that work into the table settings: miniature ceramic fruits or vegetables; little silver reindeer napkin rings at Christmas; miniature nutcrackers, chairs and music boxes; a whole collection of place card holders. And I have an enormous inventory of linens to choose from because of my business— everything from colorful chintz to ornate damask, with all kinds of accessories like ribbons and tassels.—Dulany Noble

Before I moved to Baltimore, I lived in my home state of Washington, where a friend and I had a catering business, Every Whim. We were constantly practicing table design and floral arranging.

There was a time when I thought everything had to match perfectly. Now, I’m just the opposite. I love to mix contemporary and antique patterns. For my last three parties, I’ve gone back to Paula Dobbe-Maher of Dutch Connection (410-467-7882) for my flowers. She uses lots of fruits and greenery and unusual flowers. She doesn’t do anything typical. —Dina Napoli

I never use paper goods. In fact, I want even the cocktail napkins to be cloth. But then, I am a customer of Mrs. Wing [of TC Wing Chinese Hand Laundry]. If Wing’s goes out of business, I might reconsider that. —John Yuhanick

You have to either edit, or be extravagant. Somewhere in the middle is where people get into trouble. —Bob Jones

Energy flow

What I think of when I’m putting together a dinner party is how feng shui plays into the seating arrangements. You want to put the most boisterous person with his back to the door, and a more quiet person in the power position at the head of the table facing the door. I always put my husband, Jay, with his back to the door, so everyone else gets to kick up their heels a little bit. Jay doesn’t mind going along with it. —Betsy Dugan

If dinner party conversation needs an icebreaker, I like to organize a game at the table. For one, I place post-its and pens at each person’s place, then ask everyone to write down a famous person’s name and stick it on the forehead of the person to his or her right. You ask questions to guess whose name is on your forehead. —Jill Becker

Theme parties

I love to have theme parties, especially family parties on summer afternoons. We have a pool and can cook out. There’s something for everyone. I might rent a moon bouncer and have pony rides (Good Time Amusements 410-437-7881).

Once we had a lady bug picnic with swimming, pony rides, and a picnic “down in the meadow.” The kids made the invitation, and I had it color-copied. Everything was around the bug theme, including napkins, paper plates and the ladybug cake.

Another one of my favorite parties was a gingerbread house-making party for parents and children. I paid a few teen-agers to help me. We pre-made the gingerbread walls using graham crackers and royal icing. Then I bought as much cheap candy as I could, like Necco wafers, gum drops, tiny candy canes, and lollipops for the kids to decorate the houses. In the kids’ room, I had a big punch bowl garnished with gummy worms and served deviled eggs, ants on a log, and pigs-in-blankets. I had Sascha cater (410-539-6103) the adult party in another room. But I still couldn’t keep the adults out of the kid room— they wanted to eat the junk, too. —Fredye Gross

Whenever we come home from a trip, we base a party around our travels. Last spring, we gave a party based on a recent trip through Greece and Turkey. We served all Greek food; the table settings were blue and white, the colors of Greece. All of the arrangements were based on gods and goddesses and accompanied by a quote from mythology. The guests, who I asked to come dressed as their favorite mythological hero, had to guess which god or goddess their table honored. —Annie Rienhoff

All the right elements

The invitation sets expectations. For a casual party I hosted the Friday night before Preakness, I found blank stock that already had a picture of racehorses. and printed the message “Come Baby Come!”— a blatant ripoff of the National Thoroughbred Association advertising catch phrase. “Go baby, go.”

I also let people know that the food would be from Andy Nelson’s Southern Pit Barbecue (410-527-0708 or 410-527-1226). He’s terrific. You just tell him how many people, and he shows up with his portable cooking rig and all the side dishes.

For music, I hired Pinfold (1-410-489-5030), an alternative rock band I came across in Jimmy Buffet’s bar in Key West. It turned out they are from Columbia, Md. So I booked ‘em, just for something a little different. Otherwise, I probably would have called Mambo Combo (410-889-4228), the island band. They’re always fun.

I use a great floral designer named Ory Webster (410-528-0580). For this party, instead of the predictable black-eyed Susans, he used 200 sunflowers and arranged them with yellow roses in small black kettles.

Now I had the basics. I needed the pizzazz, the dazzle. I wanted to make it outrageous, just short of tacky.

So I called Fandango Special Events (410-539-7236) and asked what horsey stuff they had. They faxed over a rental list, and I picked some Preakness-related visuals, like a 13-foot inflated hot air balloon for the front yard, and a 9-foot tall horseshoe to go over the front door. A wooden barn façade was a backdrop for the band. And I set up a mock winner’s circle with white fencing and a fiberglass horse with a black-eyed Susan wreath that people could have their picture taken with.

After I ordered the stuff, I thought, am I nuts? But they were visual cues to relax and enjoy yourself. —Chuck Nabit


We have two major parties a year. One is the day of the Hunt Cup, when we host a noon picnic on our terrace, then caravan to the Green Spring Hounds and walk over the hill to the race. The most important thing to me is that children are always included. We’ve taken a group photo every year for 25 years now, and you can see the children becoming adults in the photos.

The other is one at the holidays, when we stand around and sing Christmas carols. When I was very young, my family was invited to an annual Christmas carol party the Sunday before Christmas, and I looked forward to that so much. I can still see the women in their velvet dresses, and I wanted to carry on the tradition. Last year, a set of twins worked up a saxophone piece, and another child learned some songs for the piano. I know these kids are going to remember it. —Dulany Noble

Every year we have an Oktoberfest party, where Francis and I honor our German heritage. I have great recipes for sauerbraten and red cabbage, or kassler ribchen, a German pork chop dish so tender it falls off the bone.

Kassler Ribchen
Serves 6
12 pork chops or smoked pork chops
1 package Kisslings sauerkraut in plastic bag, drained
6 strips thick bacon, cut into small pieces
1 very large onion, sliced
A few drops of Tabasco sauce
1 bottle dark beer
In a heavy kettle, sauté bacon pieces until done. Remove with slotted spoon. Brown pork chops in bacon fat. Remove.

Sauté onion until tender.

In a large casserole, put a layer of sauerkraut, then all of the onions and bacon bits, then all of the pork chops, overlapping edges if necessary, then the rest of the sauerkraut. Add Tabasco to beer and pour over all. Cook in 325-degree oven for 2 1/2 hours. Serve with potatoes or potato pancakes.

We also host Thanksgiving at our family farm, Marshy Point. We put up a tent with see-through sides so we can see down to the fields and the water. Last year, there were 49 of us, everyone from babies to 90-year-olds. My cousins bring the hors d’oeuvres, my sister-in-law brings the pumpkin pies, and I make the dinner, including two turkeys, a ham, cornbread dressing oyster and wild rice dressing, candied yams and mashed potatoes.

I always make the mashed potatoes a month ahead of time, adding some cream cheese, and freeze them. (Something about the cream cheese keeps the potatoes from breaking down and becoming watery.) Otherwise, they’re always the killer on Thanksgiving Day. And I always make the table arrangements, using hollowed out gourds as vases, and filling them with rushes and cattails from the roadside and things from my garden. Each family takes home an arrangement. —Annie Rienhoff

And another thing…

I hate it when people bring flowers. I’m usually in the kitchen cooking, and I can’t deal with a vase. —Heather Lustig

The one thing that has left me speechless in 20-something years of hosting parties is the time someone came downstairs wearing a pair of sunglasses that I knew I had just that morning placed in a bottom drawer in my bedroom. I knew they’d snooped in every drawer. —Stiles Colwill

I don’t like someone not to show up without letting me know; it is really rude not to call. Also, if someone needs directions, call ahead of time; don’t wait until the party starts. At other people’s parties, I don’t like it when the hostess waits too long to serve the meal. And I hate going to a seated dinner party and having an empty chair next to me if someone doesn’t show up. Little things: if the candles are not lit, or there’s no fire in the fireplace during winter; and not having any mixers or nonalcoholic beer for people who don’t drink. —Fredye Gross

When the cliques are too tight, it’s truly the case that all some people talk about are the private schools. You’ve got to get beyond that! —John Yuhanick

If I’m giving the party, I cannot have a glass of wine before dinner; if I did, we might never eat. —Ellen Richardson

I hate it when a hosts and hostess don’t introduce their guests. It’s rude. A simple “Jim, do you know Sally?” and “Sally, do you know Jim ?” will do. —Bob Jones

The most boring thing in the world is to go to a party where everybody already knows everybody else, and they see each other every week. —B.J. Cowie

Five rules for staying cool

Don’t get too complicated.
Do as much cooking ahead of time as you can.
Hire someone to help you during the party.
Invite an interesting mix of people, with plenty of extroverts.
Take a nap the day of the party.
—Susan Thomas

Giving thanks

Good hostess gifts are things that someone who entertains would use, like a beautiful bottle of olive oil or linen cocktail napkins. —Heather Lustig

A consumable item is definitely the best, like a wonderful bottle of wine, a lovely bar of soap. My husband does a lot of preserving, jams and pickles, and I do vinegars, and we take those a lot. But I think people get carried away. When you go to a holiday party, and you get all these little things lined up, jars of potpourri and such, it’s just too much. We’ve tipped the scale a little too far. —Jonna Lazarus

Our best party was on the houseboat at Gibson Island last summer. We had a band and everyone had on swimsuits and didn’t care if their cellulite was showing. One of the guests took an entire roll of film and gave it to me as a gift. It was a wonderful way to say thank you. —Ruth Anne Boykin

A lot of times a half -hour before a party starts, I say, “I’m never doing this again!” That’s why I adore the thank-you note; it makes it all worthwhile. —Peggy Stansbury

For hostess gifts, candles and soap are the best. They’ll always get used up. —Kerry Townsend

For the record

I keep a diary of what I serve people, especially at the beach house. I started keeping track after one guest said, “I just love this meal; it’s the same one you served me last time.” —Mary Ellen Kaplan

For big parties, I keep a folder with everything in it, including the receipts from the liquor store, the menu, how much was eaten, photos, invitations and thank you notes. —Susan Thomas

Team building

I always work with the same caterer, Linwood (410-356-3030), the same florist, Jackie Skudrna of Myland Farms (410-484-5540) and the same DJ, Shaun Callahan (410-367-4167). It’s important to have a crew you can count on. —Jill Becker

Calling it a night

I think in Baltimore, people leave far too early. When one couple leaves, everyone else leaves. I start to beg, “Don’t leave, don’t leave, we’re really having such a good time.” When we entertained in Washington—- of course, we were much younger then— people stayed later and enjoyed themselves. —Jonna Lazarus

When it’s families with kids, I let people know ahead of time, I don’t care when they come, but they have to leave at 8:30 p.m. My kids need their sleep. —Fredye Gross

The joke used to be that when Marty wanted people to go home, he put on the country music. But now that so many people like country music, that doesn’t work anymore. Now he just yawns loudly. —Sharon Bass

The most important part of hosting a dinner party is to make people feel very comfortable and very welcome in your home, no matter how grand or simple the surroundings may be. When Chuck and I entertain, I push myself to move around and mingle, to make sure everyone is meeting each other. These days, when everyone is so busy, I think being able to entertain friends in your home, or getting invited into someone else’s home for dinner, is a real treat. I like seated dinners because they enable people to have a good conversation, not just cocktail chat. I try to focus on the people and seat them next to people I think they’ll especially enjoy. I want people to leave at the end of the evening with a good feeling. —Amy Newhall

Your hosts

Marty Bass, co-host of The Early Morning Show, WJZ-TV; weather reporter for WPOC Radio.
Sharon Bass, wife of Marty; co-owner of Ms. Bags, custom corporate gift bags.
Jill Becker, community volunteer; board member, Maryland Public Television.
Ruth Anne Boykin, community volunteer; board member, Turnaround.
Stiles Colwill, interior designer, and antiques consultant.
B.J. Cowie, board member, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Port Discovery.
Betsy Dugan, buyer and co-owner of Octavia fashion boutique.
Sandy Glover, interior designer.
Fredye Gross, community volunteer, mother of Perry, 7, and Kyle, 5.
Bob Jones, owner, Jones Lighting Specialist
Mary Ellen Kaplan, community volunteer, co-chair, Art Blooms at the Walters 2000.
Jonna Lazarus, landscape architect.
Gay Legg, floral designer and community volunteer
Heather Sampson Lustig, marketing manager, Life Technologies.
Chuck Nabit, CEO of Southport Financial.
Dina Napoli, anchorwoman, WBAL-TV.
Ellen Richardson, community volunteer, co-chair, Art Blooms at the Walters 2000.
Dulany Noble, owner of Gala Cloths by Dulany.
Annie Reinhoff, community volunteer and mother of three.
Peggy Stansbury, community volunteer; chair, Baltimore Conservatory Association.
Barbara Taylor, floral designer.
Susan Thomas, retired therapist, active community volunteer.
Kerry Whitaker Townsend, Lifestyle Expert on air, Home Shopping Network; “Food Bite Lady,” TV Food Network.
John Yuhanick, president, public relations division, John Marks Associates.
Amy Newhall, community volunteer; board member, Odyssey School.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here