Try this tasteful, rustic autumn look for your own garden gathering

Story by Peggy Hill  Photos by Trace Barnett

Southern summers are brutally hot; all but the sweatiest of us spend them cocooned in our air-conditioned spaces, and when we finally emerge in fall, we are ready to party. For me, throwing a fall party is a breeze – I simply invite my BFF Trace Barnett to co-host, and he does all the work. Trace is like the Energizer Bunny of cooking and decorating; he can do in half an hour what would take me half a day. If you watched him compete on the 2017 season of the television show Food Network Star, you saw his energy and creativity. Now that I think about it, our tablescape and dinner were much like one of the challenges on the show. I came with two items: one to incorporate into the tablescape and one to use for the meal.

For the tablescape, I gave Trace a dozen stems of dried okra. Trace’s eyes got big when he saw them and he said, “These are the coolest things ever! I’m obsessed with the texture and the colors. It’s interesting how some of the pods burst open just enough that you can see the seeds.” I don’t think that Trace is going to give me back the okra stems. He’s already talking about spray painting them silver and reusing them in Christmas decorations. The dried okra was a happy mistake because I was lazy with harvesting and cleaning up the ‘Clemson Spineless’ okra last fall. My final harvest was mid-September and I left the plants in the ground to die and dry naturally.

The thing that makes or breaks a party more than anything else is the attitude in the room. If the host and hostess are stressed when the guests arrive, that dampens the party before it ever has a chance to get started.

Using the okra as a starting point, Trace added more dried items. He says, “I love a fresh bouquet of flowers in spring and summer, but I think dried elements work better in fall. And for an outdoor garden party, it’s nice to pull something from the landscape and incorporate it into the tablescape. Sit at the table and look around until something catches your eye. Here, recently baled hay in nearby fields inspired my runner.” Trace’s farmhouse-chic décor included an old galvanized chicken feeder that he borrowed from his bedside table to use in the centerpiece. Ideally, this would be filled with something from the garden, maybe dried Hydrangea flowers. Whatever you use, Trace suggests keeping it simple by massing one thing instead of mixing different items together. As a finishing touch to the dried elements, he threw in a few gourds, a classic fall decoration.

Trace had an old book with a binding so loose that the pages kept falling out. The weathered pages made perfect placemats. Sticking with the “word” theme, he rolled up pages of an old Reader’s Digest, tied them with a bit of jute, and placed them on the plates. When guests unroll the page, they’ll see that one word was circled. We had a lot of ideas about how to use the words as an icebreaker when the guests at the party don’t know each other very well. You could use the words to play a quick game of charades, or you could ask guests to take turns telling a made-up story featuring their word, or you could ask them to describe their word while others try and guess it. The possibilities are endless.

For cutlery, Trace chose antique silverware with mother of pearl handles. He says, “People reserve their silverware for formal occasions, but when you leave it unpolished, it works great for a casual event. I actually prefer using them this way. In a formal setting with the traditional white tablecloth, the handles blend into the fabric and disappear, but here they pop against the dark table.” Some cutlery was scattered on the table, and some was held in a pewter mug, chosen to blend with both the tarnished silverware and the galvanized chicken feeder.

The plates were vintage pieces purchased at a yard sale. Many people relegate their floral-patterned plates for use in spring and summer, but Trace says that as long as the colors are muted, as they are here, florals work splendidly in the fall. If you can’t find a full set of plates, visit flea markets and thrift stores and don’t be afraid to mix and match patterns. It’s kind of fun when every plate on the table is different. The key to this approach is using a common element to tie them all together, such as a scalloped edge or a unifying color. Alternatively, you can never go wrong with a simple white plate, just add a little splash of color with fall leaves or napkins.

Trace worked quickly to move from preparation to party. About an hour after I walked in his door with the hamburger and okra, the table was set and dinner was ready to go in the oven. As we sipped wine and waited for the guests to arrive, Trace gave me a few final entertaining tips. “The most essential element of a successful party isn’t the food or the decorations. Those things are there to enhance, but they aren’t critical. The thing that makes or breaks a party more than anything else is the attitude in the room. If the host and hostess are stressed when the guests arrive, that dampens the party before it ever has a chance to get started. It’s OK to leave things undone, or ask your guests to help with last minute chores. If someone minds lighting a couple of candles, you probably should have left them off the invitation list.” That’s fabulous advice from Trace, and I’d like to add that if entertaining is stressful for you, do what I do and find someone to co-host the party who will do all the work.



The Co-Host with the Most 

A Few More of Trace’s Tips for a Fall Garden Party
• Unless you’re setting a formal tablescape, if you have a nice table skip the tablecloth. If you’re using folding tables or something else you need to hide, choose a tablecloth that has a uniform color in a neutral, earthy tone. A painter’s drop cloth from a home improvement store is an inexpensive solution.  
• Make your guests comfortable. Use pillows on the seats, and if there’s a chill in the air, be sure to drape a few blankets on the chairs.
• I love the look of hay scattered on the table, but if it seems messy to you, put a wooden runner in the middle of the table and restrict the hay to that area. You could also make placemats out of the same lumber and use those rather than book pages.
• To see more of Trace’s recipes and DIY ideas, visit his website,thebittersocialite.com.




My contribution to the party was the dried okra for the tablescape and ground beef that Trace used to make the perfect dish for a fall garden party – shepherd’s pie. It’s hard to beat the simplicity and convenience of a one-dish meal. To make things even easier, you can assemble everything a day ahead and put it in the refrigerator. Let it return to room temperature before baking per the instructions.

Shepherd’s Pie

For the potatoes:
1½-2 pounds potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon Creole mustard
1 tablespoon parsley or thyme
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

For the filling:
1 pound ground beef 
1 cup onion
1 cup carrots
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup frozen English peas
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh mint, finely chopped
1 teaspoon coarse salt 
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder
½ cup ketchup
½ cup chili sauce
1 cup beef broth
2 tablespoons flour
Pinch of brown sugar

To Make the Potatoes:
Peel and quarter potatoes. Add to a large pot and cover with 1 inch of water. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes. Drain. Transfer potatoes to a bowl and combine with the eight remaining ingredients listed for potatoes. Use a potato masher or a fork to combine.

To Complete the Dish:
Combine butter, onions, and carrots in a large saucepan and sauté over medium-high heat. Cook until onions are translucent and carrots are beginning to get tender, about 5 minutes. Add ground beef and cook until browned, 5-7 minutes. Add herbs, peas, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce. Give it a quick stir.

Add all remaining ingredients. Stir well to combine. Bring filling to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes or until the mixture thickens. Additional flour or broth can be added to adjust to the desired consistency. *To avoid lumps, dissolve the flour in the broth by adding 1 tablespoon at a time and stirring briskly. 

Remove from heat and spoon filling into a large casserole dish. Use a fork to spread the mashed potatoes over the meat filling creating peaks in the process. Bake at 400 F for 25-30 minutes until browned and bubbly. Consider broiling for the last couple of minutes to brown the potatoes adequately.

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