A few weeks ago, we wrote a review of Handmade Gatherings by Ashley English (and also picked Ashley’s brain for her best tips on communal entertaining).

As The Factory continues to grow and host events, we openly welcome her simple approaches to creating an experience through collective, potluck meals. Now, we want to share those inspirations and insights with one of our lucky readers.

For a chance to win a copy of Ashley’s newest book, leave a comment with your most famous (or infamous) tip for entertaining.

We will put the best stories in a hat, draw a name randomly, and announce a winner this Wednesday, July 23.

*No previous winners, employees, friends, and family of Alabama Chanin are eligible for this giveaway.

Handmade Gatherings: Recipes & Crafts for Seasonal Celebrations & Potluck Parties, by Ashley English, is published by Roost Books, Boston.

**Thanks to everyone who shared tips for entertaining.

And the winner – from the draw of a hat – is Rhea.

Congratulations, Rhea, on winning our extra copy of Handmade Gatherings.

We hope you all find the tips and stories below as compelling as we did. Happy reading (and entertaining)!


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Click to read 35 comments
  1. Angela Combest

    Lesson learned from one dinner party mistake: guests want to see you, not hear you toiling away in the kitchen. Make a plan, and if it means constant trips to the stove, scale back.

  2. Melissa

    When I have parties I throw all the clutter in a room and shut the door! It gives the illusion of neatness and organization. Sure, I have to deal with it later, but I love all the clean spaces in the meantime and I’m sure it makes my guests will more welcome.

  3. Kim

    This works best for a small-ish party. Make recipes that make large amounts so you don’t have to keep refilling serving dishes constantly. Also, have containers on hand to send leftovers home with guests–they’ll love having lunch the next day and remember you fondly for it.

  4. mindy

    many, many years ago, a friend and I were faced with a surfeit of freshly picked strawberries. what else could we do but host a strawberry daiquiri party? alas, we had never made this drink before, so we spent the better part of the afternoon preceding the wing-ding testing and tasting different recipes. by the time we had found the perfect one, we were several thousand sheets to the wind, a state in which I do not recommend welcoming guests! but it did take away that pre-party anxiety…

  5. Mary

    Clean up after right after the last guest leaves—wash dishes, put chairs and tables back, get the last nibbles in the fridge, generally tidy up. The next morning you’ll wake to a clean space, not tables with glasses on them or dirty plates. It really kills the fun of a party to spend the next day doing dishes.

  6. vicki

    There is a “just right” amount of effort that makes people feel special, welcome and comfortable yet allows the host to enjoy the party, too. Getting to “just right” sometimes means leaving some things left undone.

  7. Cynthia Sinclair

    If it’s potluck at my home, several things are important to me.
    1. Atmosphere welcoming. This means all public areas are clean and sparkle. My home smells good, flowers or herbal displays, etc. Comfortable and arranged to be inclusive.
    2. Potlucks often are a repeating group of friends. I like to rotate with guests and let one of them decide a theme, ie., “let’s do local from the Saturday market,” or “I’m for something Caribbean,” etc. That means over time, we enjoy a wide variety of foods and, again, inclusive.
    3. Time for chat and winding down after. Quiet, peaceful departures and a sense of another special time with special people.

  8. Kathryn Vai

    Ooooo, what a lovely book! Thank you for sponsoring such a drool-worthy give-a-way!

    Okay, my crazy entertainment tips….

    One time I hosted a family dinner gathering of 50+ people. It was a potluck and I was supplying the meat with everyone else supplying side dishes. In my little house! Ack! How was I going to feed all these people in a semi-sane and affordable manner? I went to Costco and told the butcher how many people I needed to feed and asked him what they had that could possibly work. He disappears in the back and comes out with a MASSIVE slab of meat, still in the heavy-duty shrink wrap from THEIR supplier. He marked it (no kidding) $1.99 per pound. It was some kind of rear cow part and weighted about 30#. I took THAT to a local smokehouse (Edelweiss Sausage and Deli) and they smoked, sliced and rewrapped it for $0.50 a pound. I picked it up the day before the event and stored it in the fridge. the day of the party, I sanitized my stainless steel kitchen sink and filled it 2/3 full with ice. The smoked meat went into a turkey roaster and THAT got imbedded in the ice in the sink. (Hot foods hot and cold foods cold.) That dinosaur-sized smoked roast was a HUGE success. And it made my life so much easier. And yes, props to Costco. lol

  9. Emily Lowrey

    I create a Facebook event page for my parties so guests can get to know each other beforehand, and collaborate/coordinate on dishes if it’s a potluck event. That way, no one forgets when the event is or feels any anxiety about what to wear or what to bring.

  10. Eva

    I often find that the best little gatherings we had in the past were the spontaneous ones: a single friend/neighbor coming home from work late and tired in need of a meal, a friend stopping by just to say hello and then lingering into dinnertime. Even when I am not prepared for guests, I do find something to cook quickly, in fact, one of the little pleasures I find in the kitchen is to know how to cook dinner when the fridge is seemingly empty…With a few simple ingredients always on hand, one can always provide a homecooked meal, however simple it is. I have to admit though, this act is played with more ease during farmers market season indeed!

  11. Jennifer

    It’s all about the people for my parties. I have several circles of friends who don’t all know each other. I’m not great with the food so I either buy it or have little tapas sitting out. Then I make certain that everyone is meeting everyone else.

  12. Kimberley

    I love to use glavinized trays of succulent plants interspersed with clear glass votive holders filled with little battery powered tea light votives as table center pieces. Looks expensive and natural but actually very easy and inexpensive to arrange. Kimberley

  13. Lisa P.

    One of my best and favorite meals involved three slow-cookers, which made everything so easy! I hosted “Southern Food Night” for some friends and we had barbecued pork in one slow cooker, greens in another, and black-eyed peas in a third. I made corn bread and pecan pie (and of course sweet tea) ahead of time. We ate together and then cried our eyes out watching “Steel Magnolias”. I haven’t lived in the South since I was much younger, so maybe those of you real Southerners would choose to do it differently, but however you make it, Southern food served in a bevy of slow cookers with a good movie makes for a really fun night.

  14. Flynn

    I like to do some sort of theme…nothing too ridiculous unless it’s a backyard party in which case I last made my friends dress in mix and matched clothing. It puts people at ease.

  15. Adriane

    I like to quiz my guests beforehand and find out what kinds of foods they absolutely adore and then try to incorporate as many as I can in my offerings, especially if the gathering is small. Preparing ahead and making things less fussy for the day of the gathering leaves more time to mingle and enjoy visiting with friends. I like scouring the local markets for fresh, seasonal and regional items. Coordinating linens and/or decor for the occasion doesn’t make the food taste any better or worse but I find it lends to the ambiance in a good way. I don’t entertain nearly as much as I’d like to.

  16. Susie H.

    I’ve often found that the mood of the host sets the mood of the party. So my best tip is to be present in the moment and relaxed. Really what could go wrong, you’re among friends!

  17. Sheryl Purcell

    When I have sit down dinners for four to six people, I like to make handmade place cards for each person. Using inked stamps such as leaves, fleur-de-lis, Eiffel Tower, birds, I’ll cut around the stamped design to give it a dimensional effect so it stands above the handlettered name. It’s fun for me and is a little souvenir of our dinner.

  18. Christelle

    Have a potluck! It gives folks a chance to share their special dishes, which leads to great conversation and takes the pressure off the host. We often have parties where we smoke brisket & pulled pork and have our guests bring side dishes or desserts. It always works out well.

  19. Erika Hagstrom

    Thanks to all who have shared great ideas. My birthday is on Veterans Day and my 49th birthday fell on 11-11-11!!! The heck with a big 50th! We celebrated my 49th as the event to honor this wonderful date too! Because it was a large gathering, we made name tags for everyone ahead of time and included how many years of friendship the guest had with me or their relation to the birthday girl… It was a great conversation starter for the guests and made my guests feel part of the bigger circle …

    Thank you for your continued creativity and contribution to the greater good!

  20. erin

    never refuse offers of others to help clean up! it makes your life easier and it’s a guests way of saying thank you!

  21. Michelle Lawrence

    What a nice thing to do – and a lovely book!

    When I plan a gathering, I also make a list of a few small, easy tasks that I can give to any guests who ask “can I help?” Having a bit of social anxiety myself (although you would “never” know it until I told you), I know how painful it can be to try and fit in to random conversations. Some of the most interesting people are painfully shy on the surface, but once you get them to open up – they can be the most fascinating people at a party!

    With this in mind, I leave some easy tasks for these guests; opening wine bottles, filling ice buckets, pouring drinks, taking trays of nibbles around the room, adding sprinkles of cheese or ? to a completed dish. There are all kinds of little things like this that will make a difference in the atmosphere of the party.

    I have other tricks too, but this is my favorite way to make each gathering a “success.” It’s all about the people 😮 )

    Miki Lawrence
    Ventura, California

  22. micki

    We love to host our neighborhood families. We love to just spontaneously invite over a few families and look what is available in the garden and start creating. We eat outside under the trees while the kids go crazy outside having fun. No pressure about the house inside. One of our neighbors just built a barrel oven in their back yard and loves to cook with it outdoors, even better, awesome pizza parties where everyone brings some toppings and she makes the sourdough bread dough ( Everyone loves to have a hand in the creation of the dinner feast 🙂 and what better way for everyone to get to know their neighbors!
    What a wonderful book, thank you for the chance to receive a copy! i might have to just order the book anyways 🙂

  23. Meredith

    Welcome your guests into your kitchen – it is a place where everyone feels relaxed and comfortable (and then there are normally lots of people around to help)!

  24. Krista

    I love hosting dinners and parties! My Mum was a great teacher in all things hostess-y! So good that I followed some of her recipes exactly as they were written…whether in my Grandmum’s text or my Mum’s! One particular recipe from my Great Grandmum, was her ” Peach Bavarian”. The title alone sounded so good, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time noticing odd little discrepancies in the title , ( which had been crossed out and re written..) and I didn’t really read through the whole thing . As I was adding in eggs and flour, I found the recipe called for no peach anything and in fact seemed more like a chocolate cake recipe?!? I was able to reach my Mum and after some discussion of what recipe it was and from whom, my Mum died laughing. Turns out my Great Grandmum had received the recipe from her Mother-in-law, and it had been written out incorrectly, so my Gr.Grandma re-titled it Peach Bavarian, as that was a dessert she had never had much luck at. It apparently was an on going joke when ever a dish didn’t turn out, that we were having “Peach Bavarian”! Lesson learned!
    Note to self: read through the whole recipe, allow time to make something else if it doesn’t turn out…or have a back up plan! And yes, if it’s an old passed down recipe, double check the story behind it! It made for great dinner conversation, and kept us giggling as we ate out vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce…which we now call Peach Bavarian!

  25. Maggie

    I have found one of the easiest ways to have desserts prepared and served is to bake my favorite cookie recipes as bar cookies. Chocolate chip, oatmeal, sandies, coconut crisp; any and all can be baked this way, then I cut them into fudge-size pieces and cover plates or platters. Voila! Simple and Sweet and oh so easy. I started doing this when I had a gallery and had a deadline to present everything on time and completed refreshments, as well.

  26. Sonja Sokol

    What I do isn’t a new idea…I plan out the menu so I can prepare as any things as possible ahead of time. The most important thing to me is to be able to enjoy my friends and family while they are here. Therefore, I do the cleaning up and loading the dishwasher after everyone leaves.

  27. Rhea

    A friend once had us over for a Thanksgiving meal AND sauerkraut making – the traditional way with an old slicer, big barrels for the sliced cabbage, salt, and a giant wooden “pounder”. In advance I wondered how she could possible pull off a Thanksgiving meal in the midst of teaching us newbies how to make sauerkraut. It turned out she had crock pots in every size, and laid out on a long table in the crocks was every typical Thanksgiving dish you could think of, all hot and ready at any time that someone wanted to take a break from the work and eat. It was one of the most enjoyable Thanksgiving meals I’ve ever been to.

    To sum it up as a tip I would say, feel free to take what is typically a sit down meal and make it more relaxed and fun, and use those crockpots as the perfect little means to keep food warm. I’d only thought of mine as something to cook in before that experience.

  28. ann

    we always have parties on Sundays and start them mid/late afternoon. Our greatest fear is the guest(s) who will not leave, and since we have instituted this timeframe we have never had malingering party-goers – people naturally leave by around 8 or 9pm in preparation of their week ahead leaving us plenty of time to clean up and get to bed at a decent hour. It’s such a great time to have an event – later on a Sunday as the weekend is winding down. Friday or Saturday night is so expected, I feel people really enjoy the Sunday soiree!

  29. Carol Richard

    Clayton and I have enjoyed entertaining family and friends in our home for many years. Once the date is set the adventure begins. We revisit our favorite cookbooks and recipe collections and assemble ideas separately. After discussing together, we agree on a menu. Keeping things simple, asking guests to prepare a recipe and prepping ahead provides time for everyone to enjoy time together. Clayton preps and handles the cooking.
    I take care of creating the ambiance with fresh cuttings from the garden, mixing and matching the table setting and giving the house a once over making sure our guests will be comfortable. I appreciate allowing a few minutes before friends arrive, to walk the house and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells awaiting.

  30. Katie

    As someone on a tight budget, I always want to be hospitable in quality and quantity of food served without being wasteful. Thence this advice:

    1) Serve a range if dishes, but never anything you don’t like because
    2)you should make twice what you think you need and freeze/fridge leftovers. It’s horrid to run out of food, and if it will keep after a party, hors d’ouvres and munchies make great workweek lunches.

  31. Susan Fleming

    My husband and I are both artists, and we like to surround our guests with our latest creations…in our dining space, which is the center of our open floor plan home. We do this not to be pretentious, but, because it is the most intimate way to share ourselves with those we love. And, we always involve our friends and family in the process and preparation of the food. Preparation is an act of creativity, and involves gestures of love and sharing. Our kitchen is designed with a large island in the middle of an intimate space, where touching is mandatory when moving from one place to another…beverage, appetizer, salad. The time together is an intimate experience which touches the human on many levels.

    Thank you for asking…

  32. britt

    i don’t know about famous. we live in the country with a woods and a pond. we like to gather in the weekends at night around a big stone fire pit in our backyard and cook over the fire. we cook deer meat with a barbeque and hot pepper butter mix on a grate directly over the fire. we soak ears of corn (with leaves still on) in a cooler and then cook them on the grate over the fire as well. everything just tastes better over a direct fire with good wood. then we just hang out and drink and talk and laugh into the wee hours of the night (or morning).