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Welcome to Party Trick, a monthly column where top tastemakers invite us inside their unforgettable gatherings and share their signature hosting rituals, plus a trusted item they’d never entertain without.
Gracious party-giving comes naturally to Keith Smythe Meacham, a Mississippi native who grew up surrounded by lineages of consummate hostesses. “I learned a lot from my grandmother, whose Christmas Eve party still provides some of my favorite memories, and my mother, whose laissez-faire attitude about hosting is still something I envy,” Meacham says. “But most of all, I learned from my darling friend Julia Reed, who taught me what her mother had taught her: Serve food that tastes good; invite a mix of people who don’t know each other; do your own flowers; pour copious amounts of booze; have live music wherever possible.”
The owner of Reed Smythe & Company, the artisanal home and garden goods shop she co-founded with the late Reed, Meacham has amalgamated all that advice into her own self-described “fly by night” style.
“I entertain a lot, and to some degree, I have the drill down. I know my house, love my caterer, and am good at arranging flowers at the last minute. Still, anyone who knows me would describe me as slightly manic on the day of a party,” Meacham says. “The pressure of a deadline is a big motivator for me. I’m usually running down the stairs five minutes before people walk in the door with one of my daughters racing to keep up while she zips my dress!”
But you’d never catch on to an ounce of Meacham’s stress. She’s honed her hosting skills from New York City to her current home of Nashville, from casual get-togethers to fancy dinners. As for her favorite parties to throw, she takes a cue from The Great Gatsby: “I love that line when Jordan Baker opines, ‘And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy,’” she says. “I love it when people break off into smaller groups and head to our boxwood garden to smoke a forbidden cigarette, or wind up in a corner continuing a particularly lively conversation. Every time I have a big party, people call me the next day to tell me they connected with so many new people. The greatest compliment is when someone makes a new friend at a party you’ve given.”
Meacham’s guest lists bring together people from lots of different worlds—“the music business, academia, design”—a tenet practiced often by Reed. “It’s fun to get dressed up and to see people you’re really close to, but it’s way more fun to arrive somewhere to find an eclectic crowd of people, some of whom you’ve known since childhood and some of whom you’ve just met,” Meacham says.
How else would a southerner bring together a bunch of strangers than over food? Whether she’s hosting a big bash or an intimate gathering, Meacham’s party trick is to serve four favorite southern hors d’oeuvres passed around on her grandmother’s silver trays. “People go wild for bite-size biscuits with Virginia ham, cheese dreams (decadent cheese covered stacks of Pepperidge Farm thin sandwich bread toasted to perfection), bacon-wrapped dates, and hot cheese olives,” she says.
The recipes have come her mother and grandmother, along with tattered cookbooks like Gourmet of the Delta, published by the Garden Club of Leland, Mississippi, or Southern Sideboards, a favorite from the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. “Other recipes I got from Julia, who, as far as I know, never gave a party without serving bacon-wrapped watermelon pickles,” she adds.
Meacham began dispatching her silver trays at her annual holiday soirees in New York City, where the old southern standby recipes delighted the guests who hadn’t grown up in the region. “The affirmation of some of the grandest New York hostesses gave me the confidence to serve these delicacies at all my parties. It never fails,” she adds.
At home in Nashville, as conversation flows between guests over hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, the ever-prepared Meacham has another no-fail trick up her sleeve for conjuring an atmosphere that’s simultaneously comfortable and chic: Reed Smythe & Company’s Kasbah Table, a Moorish-inspired occasional table for plopping down drinks or doubling as a stool. “I have one or two in each of the main entertaining rooms in my house and they come in handy when someone wants to join a conversation where the couches and chairs are already occupied,” she says.
The secret ingredient in Meacham’s recipe for party success, however, may be another Mississippi-born trick—not from the cookbooks, but from her mother’s unruffled attitude. “I think people appreciate a little imperfection. It makes the house seem warmer, the atmosphere a little more unexpected, and–if we could just ease up on ourselves a little bit–a more relaxed and attentive hostess,” she says.
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