Coming to the table

Cuisine People

November 4, 2019



DeeDee Dalrymple literally wrote the book on entertaining. In the process, a revelation led to a new friendship — and a new perspective on diversity.

by Cathy Martin   •   Photographs by Ashley Sellner

As guests trickle in to this midweek dinner party, they greet each other like old friends. Hugs, laughter and lively conversation — How’s so-and-so doing? How are the kids? — fill the room. DeeDee, the hostess, somehow manages to greet most, if not all, of her 32 guests personally while her husband, Ed, makes sure everyone has a drink in their hand as soon as they step through the door — he stays loyal to this task throughout the evening, topping off wine glasses as he moves among the crowd.  

Despite the familial atmosphere, many members of this good-natured group met for the first time less than a year ago. That was about a year after DeeDee Dalrymple launched Effortless Entertaining, a startup centered around a nearly 400-page guide to hosting that’s jam-packed with tips, recipes, menus and more, at the urging of close friend and local entrepreneur Bill Whitley. 

The guide, actually a useful binder, is full of practical advice, including extensive recommendations for cookware and tabletop essentials, plus where to buy them. It also answers questions related to etiquette, like whether it’s acceptable to ask guests to BYOB (the answer is yes!) and how to handle awkward silences and uninvited guests. Along with these pragmatic instructions, the book includes inspirational chapters such as “Dinner is not a performance. It’s a gift of friendship.”

DeeDee Dalrymple and Sonja Nichols

For the author, hosting big groups comes naturally. “I come from a background where entertaining is truly about gathering, not ‘putting on the dog,’” says DeeDee, a Fayetteville native whose parents were both first-generation Americans. “My mother’s family is from Lebanon, my father’s from Russia — an unlikely union. I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family — the Lebanese version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A lot of big meals with extended family and everyone talking at once.” 

But for many people, the idea of having guests over for dinner — whether formal or informal — generates great anxiety. 

“I think people get caught up in ‘performing’ and ‘conforming’ to what they think others’ expectations are,” DeeDee says. “When the focus is on ourselves — the impression we will make … we create stress for ourselves.”

Since Effortless Entertaining was published in late 2017, DeeDee has traveled from Maryland to Texas giving presentations to book clubs, garden clubs, civic organizations and other groups, teaching and inspiring others to create gatherings that are enjoyable, not stressful. By the end of this year, she will have spoken to more than 2,000 people, mostly women. Her weekly e-newsletters provide additional recipes and tips.

But back in early 2017, when DeeDee was putting the finishing touches on the guide, her editors approached her with a concern. The book, which DeeDee spent two years carefully writing and producing, was filled with photos of beautiful tablescapes and dishes, many in the context of intimate gatherings of DeeDee’s close family and friends. Yet in the entire guide, there wasn’t a single photo of a person of color. 

“I told [my editors] that I had already realized what they were saying, and that it pointed to something that was lacking in our lives,” DeeDee says. All her life, she had experienced diversity in her community life, from her post-college career working in sales and human resources at Jefferson-Pilot Communications through years of volunteer work at Communities in Schools and other educational, civic and religious organizations. 

“Despite this, [Ed and I] had not experienced that same diversity around our table,” she says. Nevertheless, DeeDee thought it would be disingenuous to “manufacture” a dinner party that could be photographed to make the book more diverse. So she published the guide without making any changes. But that uneasy feeling didn’t go away. 

Flowers from The Blossom Shop

A year or so later, DeeDee was attending a women’s dinner at Christ Episcopal Church, where Sonja Nichols was the guest speaker. Nichols is the founder of Nicholant Enterprises, a security-services firm staffed by veterans and an active civic leader, including serving as president of the annual Good Friends Charlotte fundraising luncheon. 

“The thread of her talk was the Ruth and Naomi story from the Old Testament,” DeeDee recalls. In the story, Naomi declares devotion to Ruth, her mother-in-law, choosing to stay by her side instead of going back to her own mother following the death of her husband. At one point during her speech, Sonja, a black woman, posed a question to the all-white crowd.

“At the end of her talk, she asked if anyone had a Ruth and Naomi story of their own,” DeeDee says.

Sonja grins as she tells her account of that evening. “I gave the speech,” Sonja says, “and I asked the group: What is it about your god that makes me want to follow you? The next thing I know — there are over 300 women in this room — and I see this little hand go up,” she says.

“In that moment, I had a very strong sense of the Holy Spirit prompting me to tell my story,” DeeDee says. “I was reluctant, but the prompting was certain. So, I raised my hand.”

When Sonja acknowledged her, DeeDee explained the awareness that had occurred in writing her book. “And I asked her if she would help me write a new story of friendship,” she says. “[Sonja] was incredible in that moment. She, in her own very sassy way, smiled a big smile and said, ‘So, you want me to be your black friend?’ When I said something like, ‘That’s pretty much it,’ she threw her arms around me in a big hug.” 

Richard and Sonja Nichols and DeeDee and Ed Dalrymple

At first, they met over coffee. “We, of course, discovered so much common ground — faith, family, devotion to community,” DeeDee says. Coffees led to lunches, until one day DeeDee suggested they should plan a dinner together. Each would invite a group of their own friends to gather for a meal at DeeDee’s SouthPark home.

“The number of people that showed up, we were just pleasantly surprised,” Sonja says of that first gathering, adding that, for her, being the only black woman in a roomful of white women is not an unfamiliar experience. 

“But this was different than when you go to the gala, the sit-down fundraiser. That one, you just go — the company bought the table — and then you leave. Whereas this was intentional.”

Since that first dinner of about 40 guests, the group — which is half-black, half-white — now convenes for a meal every three to four months. 

“I love to entertain,” Sonja says. “But I’m not on DeeDee’s level. … When you come over [to my house], you can sit everywhere, and you can eat on anything. I want you to have the freedom to go anywhere in my house. 

“You don’t have to do what DeeDee does,” she says. “Just open up your home.” At a recent dinner, Sonja served a simple meal of gumbo, with bread pudding and banana pudding for dessert. “This is down home,” she told her guests. “This is how the sisters do it.”

Hosting a party doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all, DeeDee agrees, and that’s a point she emphasizes in her book and presentations. “There are ways to get around anything you don’t like to do,” she says. Don’t like to cook? Order in, or have the meal catered. If arranging flowers isn’t your thing, place an interesting piece of art on the coffee table instead. Look for your “sweet spot” to entertain in a way that reflects your personal style.

On this night, the menu is a simple-but-delicious one-plate meal of short ribs over polenta with a green salad and fresh-baked sour cream muffins. Guests pitch in to help serve and clear dishes at tables that are set with a mix of $3 plates from Pier One Imports and $300 plates from John Dabbs Ltd. “And everything in-between,” DeeDee says. After all, “Who’s around the table is more important than what’s on the table,” she says.

Near the end of the meal, Molly Shaw, president and CEO of Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, stands to address the group, which ranges from 30-somethings to a few in their 80s. Late this afternoon, the CLT 2019 Unity Letter had been posted online. Molly was among the initial organizers of the letter, which was crafted in response to a spate of racist hate mail that was sent to local black leaders. In just a few short hours, hundreds had signed on, denouncing racism and bigotry. Shaw is optimistic that many more will sign it. [As of mid-October, more than 5,000 had.] Many of the guests here tonight are among the initial signers.

Another member of this group is working on a research-based social justice project, Sonja tells me. Several guests here have branched off to help with that effort.

Kitty Garner, Nina Jackson and Christie Long

But while some members of this group are involved in community efforts to improve race relations, the main focus of these get-togethers is simpler. 

“We recognize that we are diverse in our community work, our boards, our schools, and for some, our churches,” DeeDee says. “But we have not been diverse around our tables and in our homes. That’s where friends come together and where friendships deepen. I can see that happening for our group. Our conversations have a different and deeper quality than when we started.

“We want the people in our group doing what friends do — i.e. meeting for Tuesday night half-price steak burgers at Reid’s,” DeeDee says. “We also hope that others, upon hearing what we’re doing, will form groups like this to have dinners in their own homes.” 

Tonight, despite the formal table setting, the vibe is relaxed, reminiscent of a large family get-together, probably not unlike the ones DeeDee experienced growing up in eastern North Carolina. 

“Friends are honored when invited to our homes for dinner. They are not coming to judge our homes or culinary skills. They are excited to be together,” she says.

“As I say when I speak, we are not staging a Broadway musical — we are inviting friends for dinner. It’s so wonderful to gather in our homes, and we can each do that in a way that suits us best.” SP

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