ASK Martha Stewart about the best way to prepare the house for a party, and she may offer lessons in dusting (try a paintbrush on the pleats of a lampshade), scrubbing (circular motion, light pressure) and organization (keep essential toiletries, not medications, in the medicine cabinet).
Comic actor and writer Amy Sedaris takes a different approach: Start by putting marbles in the medicine cabinet. (“Nothing announces a nosy guest better,” she says. “Plus you’ll know which guest is a junkie whore.”) For post-party cleanup? “On the off chance that you have children, don’t clean up at all. As children, my brothers and sisters and I loved waking up early and playing cocktail party with the leftover debris.”
As we head into prime party season, we posed the same set of questions to Stewart and Sedaris, who wrote back with their insights on the finer points of entertaining. Some sage and subversive advice from the authors of “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook” and “I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence”:
We all have different ideas of what makes a home welcoming and warm. What three words would you choose to describe the perfect ambience, and why?
Martha: Comfortable, functional and pretty. If you have those elements, you can live well and entertain graciously.
Amy: Lighting, rabbits and baking. Lighting sets the tone. It can project whatever feeling you are going for. A rabbit hopping about is joyful and amazing to watch. The smell of something baking in the oven will provide comfort.
Proper preparation is essential to being a good host and housekeeper. If we were to peek in your pantry, what stock items would we see that we might not find in most kitchens? What are your special ingredients?
Martha: You would find imported sardines, 20 different kinds of salt and 13 varieties of olive oil, and a drawer full of many types of tea. You’ll also find four large shelves filled with cat and dog food.
Amy: I don’t have a pantry, and I can’t stock a lot of items because of the cockroach problem I have and the lack of space. I keep a lot in my refrigerator and freezer. I always have vodka, Nat Sherman party cigarettes, frozen beer mugs (people love frozen mugs for their beer), plenty of ice, and a cherry Popsicle so I can pre-stain my lips before applying lipstick. In my refrigerator I always have salted and unsalted butter, eggs, milk, Lillet, wine, Champagne, cherries, condiments and a variety of greens and vegetables for my rabbit. I also have pine nuts, a box of spaghetti, cheese, vitamins and eye gel. Also beer and non-alcoholic beer.
What piece of equipment or gadget have you found to be surprisingly useful?
Martha: In my new kitchen, I particularly love having under-counter freezer and refrigerator drawers. They keep things I reach for most often at my fingertips.
Amy: I find that keeping my beater and bowl in the freezer is a great idea because they whip cream faster. I am also a huge fan of the bean frencher -- it’s a gadget that will French your beans in seconds. You place the whole green bean in one end, and it comes out shredded on the other side. I have used it since I was about 11.
The day of a dinner party has suddenly arrived, and we’re worried that we won’t have enough time to clean the whole house. Where do we start?
Martha: Get rid of clutter and do a thorough dusting and vacuuming in the entryway and rooms you’ll be using for the party. Make sure the powder room is pristine, and have a tidy place ready for your guests’ coats and bags. If you don’t get to other rooms, just close the doors -- good guests shouldn’t snoop.
Amy: The bathroom.
We’re hosting the Thanksgiving family gathering, and children will be present. How can we make sure everyone has a good time?
Martha: For any party, invite only people you like, and who like each other. But you can always be strategic with assigned seats at the table to keep people happy and entertained. Whenever kids are in attendance, give them a place to play and their own table.
Amy: Take something in pill form. If you have a difficult time swallowing and you can’t stand needles, then offer it up to the children -- 9 out of 10 will take it without asking what it is or was.
Aunt Muriel got a little too happy and spilled half a glass of Pinot on our new sofa. What to do?
Martha: Never give Aunt Muriel a glass of Pinot. Try a white instead.
Amy: Take a snapshot. It will lighten the moment and put everyone at ease. Then I would send her a copy of that snapshot and remind her of that for the rest of her life. Attach a caption like, “I’m still whining about your last visit.” Of course, after she leaves you can boil the entire sofa in boiling beets and turn the whole thing a dark shade of pink.
With December around the corner, how do you make the home feel special during the holiday season?
Martha: Decorate, decorate, decorate!
Amy: I put up my tabletop silver tree with felt ornaments. I twist lights and garland together and decorate the framing of my windows. I have little things I place around the apartment. And I put a Christmas stocking up for me, Dusty (my rabbit) and one that says Ricky, for my imaginary boyfriend. I always have the Charlie Brown Christmas CD on a loop.
What’s your secret weapon for complete domestic bliss?
Martha: A cage full of canaries.
Amy: The five-fingered plant.
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Martha Stewart will be appearing from noon to 2 p.m. Friday in Borders bookstore at the Westfield Century City shopping center. She will sign copies of her new book, “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook,” an encyclopedic guide to furnishings, organizing and maintaining every inch of one’s home. Space will be limited to the first 300 customers.
Amy Sedaris’ “I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence,” a pharmaceutically enhanced and gleefully inappropriate new guide to decorating, cooking and otherwise welcoming guests into the home, is available in hardcover.
-- Craig Nakano