Sheila McCaffery can overwhelm you with her meticulous notes for a dinner party. She wants you to throw one on the same scale that she does but this is a gal who doesn’t believe in doing things by halves. In a time when cookbooks, culinary magazines and TV food shows can be more intimidating than inspiring, Sheila shows you how to become a successful hostess. An accomplished cook who learned by doing, she excels in the ideas department. An important tool to achieve the level of success that she has had is through the keeping of a journal. A chronicle of dinner parties that span four decades, her journals are virtual textbooks for home entertaining.
Sheila recently came to the Greenwich Garden Center to present a slide show of her dinner parties, each of which is meticulously annotated in her journals.
Those jottings would make Julia Child’s protracted recipes seem like a quick read over a cup of coffee. Sheila explains that dinner parties for her are like planning a stage set and that food, although important, is but one part of the event. There’s the guest list, the date, the table setting, the flowers (mostly from the fields and gardens outside her door), the dinnerware whether casual or formal or indoors or under the arbor, the table linens, and most important, the one component that ties everything together, the theme. It could stem from an experience, a work of art, a holiday, a favorite food or dish, a flower, a movie or a place that you visited.
The theme is the producer of the show, a point Sheila emphasized repeatedly during her presentation to some forty women as aromas of creamy pumpkin soup, bouillabaisse and deviled chicken wafted deliciously in the room. To demonstrate her point, three tables had been set up at the back of the room replete with decor and delicious three-course meals keyed to Into the Woods, A French Bistro and A Santa Fe Feast. An exhibition of exuberant flowers by artist Julie Satinover was the perfect backdrop for the culinary opulence on the tables, courtesy of Sheila’s recipes prepared by caterer Andy Burke (the eager audience had to keep hunger pangs at bay for an hour until lunchtime).
Sheila admits that she is an entertaining addict, an extremely apt logo for her blog, but keep in mind this is not the spontaneous “Hey, come over to my house tonight for some steak and salad” type of dinner to-dos. Often she will go to the extent of providing mood-setting props for her guests, such as the masks and capes she borrowed from a costume store for her Halloween’s Venetian Masquerade party. By the time she is finished telling you how she prepares for each dinner party, you are so stunned by the degree of organization she puts into each occasion — her paper presentation boards are almost obsessively filled with minutiae even to what vase to use and what platter works best — that you say to yourself, “Forget it. I’ll take my guests to a restaurant.”
Ah, but hold on. Sheila has set a mission for herself: She is going to show you how to throw astonishing affairs of your own because she has done the legwork for you culled from years of entertaining in different homes (a long-time resident of Greenwich, she and her husband Bill, a former executive inducted into advertising’s hall of fame, now live in a Tuscany-inspired homestead in upstate Woodbury).
Contrary to her swirling pen and ink sketches that adorn the journals, her grid sheets are precise columns from theme to shopping lists and recipes. Most of the journals are the simple hardcover black-and-white composition notebooks of grammar school. If ever rebound for the next generation to peruse, Sheila’s volumes should be gilt-edged for the bookshelves of posterity because they represent a history of culture and food through the years.
Sheila’s 30-year background as creative director in the advertising world with its demanding need for organization and imagination certainly influenced her culinary endeavors. Petite with flowing black hair down her back, she peppers her talks with a good dollop of humor as she recounts working with the likes of Martha Stewart and Sophia Loren (who dished up pasta carbonara for the photography crew) and juggling accounts for Joy perfume, GE Monogram and Cuban cigars, among many other accounts. In one association with the Italian Trade Commission, she drafted ad campaigns to promote Italian food products and a way of life (she threw “Eat the Props” feasts after every shoot).
You almost get the sense that food plays second fiddle to the setting of the environment but of course, it is integral to the dinner. Now an accomplished cook, Sheila wasn’t born with an entertaining gene, she says, nor to a mother who could cook. Her own early attempts wielding a spatula, she admits, were pathetic. “I didn’t know how to pick a vegetable,” she says. “I once boiled lobsters for an hour,” she says laughing at the memory of her picnic attempt in the countryside, never realizing that she had bought already cooked ones. “There was no meat in the claws — all boiled away.”
Her job took her to top restaurants in New York City and, ever inquisitive, if she liked a dish she would ask the chef how to prepare it. As her palate developed, so did her culinary attempts so much so that her accomplishments reaped a bit fame in the pages of Bon Appetit magazine. Shot in April for an October issue, Sheila launched a campaign to find pumpkins to decorate her table. After much frustrated searching, faux ones were discovered from a supply outlet in China.
When the slide show ended, Miriam Landsman took the floor for an anecdote about her friend. She said that she and her husband Donald decided one time to throw a dinner party evocative of their favorite movies: “Out of Africa” and “The Man Who Would be King.” The table had been set up on the “Serengeti” lawn and nearly every guest had arrived in safari hats and clothing when slowly approaching the revelers came properly attired Sheila and Bill McCaffery carrying a pole-suspended leopard (toy one, of course) between them. It created quite a stir with a burst of laughter and applause.
“That’s what a theme does: It invites creativity and brings spice and flair to your party,” concluded Sheila. But first, buy a journal, sharpen your pencil and start scribbling away.