I have featured my friend Brian Utz a number of times on this blog. He was one of the first readers of Martha Moments, and one of the first to reach out to me to simply say hello. While I have never met Brian in person, our exchanges over the years have been inspiring. What I discovered is that he is exceedingly good at entertaining, not to mention the consummate host - and certainly always up for a challenge.
One such challenge emerged when he and his mother had planned a harvest dinner for a small group of family and friends to be held this month. The planning stages took place in July when there was a promising drop in COVID-19 numbers in his home state of Pennsylvania. It soon became apparent those numbers would once again climb. Rather than cancel the dinner, Brian opted to reduce the number of guests and to host the dinner outside, even setting up a 'wellness station' where guests could obtain masks, hand sanitizer and a number of other immunity-boosting treats. (More on that below!)
Brian was kind enough to share photos of his Harvest Dinner with us, along with his menu and some of his tips for hosting a responsible gathering outdoors this season. All photographs are by Ashley Shultz. Please be sure to follow Brian on Instagram for many more of his entertaining, cooking and holiday decorating tips: @morbidhomemaker
I hope you enjoy Brian's creativity, imagination and the beautiful execution of all the special details that made this dinner a hit.
I had returned from Texas to my family’s home in Pennsylvania in July, and we were all looking forward to a COVID-free Autumn. My mother, Donna, and I started planning a Harvest Dinner to be held sometime in October at her home for a small group of family and friends. I had a feeling, though, both COVID and social distancing would still be around by then, so the first decision was to plan on having the party outdoors so everyone could socially distance with ease.
First, I focused my efforts on a menu that would be easy enough to execute during a quick weekend trip home.
For the first course, we offered a seasonal charcuterie board and a Harvest Kale Salad. The main course consisted of a Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Lucinda Scalia Quinn’s Spaghetti Bolognese, and Roasted Autumn Vegetables (a Martha Stewart recipe), served with a slow-cooked polenta and sauteed wild mushrooms. For dessert we used Martha’s Apple and Cranberry Crisp from her Slow Cooker book and Greg Lofts’ Five Spice Phyllo Pumpkin Pie (featured in the November, 2019 issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine) and a homemade, no-churn Woodford Reserve ice cream.
We utilized a variety of cooking methods with emphasis on things that could be prepared ahead, such as the gnocchi and the ice cream, or slow cooked items that didn’t need to be monitored while we focused on decor and setting the table.
We are continuously inspired by the garden and its bounty, especially at Autumn. Its last hurrah was on full display, and we wanted to capture it before it was gone. For decorations, I envisioned floral canopies to hang over the tables so our guests could really connect and see each other at eye level. I used over-the-table rods from Terrain, chicken wire, zip ties (and a little faith) to create armatures to hold our arrangements in place. I embellished the canopies with metal fern garlands (from Terrain) and hung copper wire lights from the rods to provide illumination and atmosphere for our guests once the sun went down.
We used thick sanded plywood to construct the tabletops. We stained it a custom gray and sealed it with polyurethane. We rested the ‘tables’ on bales of straw from the farm.
We had the charcuterie, Harvest Salad, and wine in another area with a large canopy of foraged finds hanging over the table. You’ll notice that the canopy has a touch of both navy and peach colored hues. They are actually faux-tropical fronds and some faux fern stems, which we spray painted with Martha’s spray paint line at Michael’s! We consulted a color wheel and chose opposite colors to help break up the overload of Fall tones. I was unsure at first, but in the end it all came together. It was like an Autumn Rainbow!
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly given the context, we installed a Wellness and Sanitation station to help our guests feel safe and at ease. First, we asked that guests self check their temperatures and monitor their health before arriving. Guests who were experiencing any of the COVID symptoms or who were feeling at all unwell were asked not to attend. At the sanitation station, we offered masks and sanitizer. We had a slew of wellness goodies on offer, too, including Elderberry chewables, Vitamin C packets, and even a dissolvable Detox powder to use the next morning to help aid in building a strong immune response. We gave each of our guests a vessel of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar Capsules from Tonik. While I use the capsules for a glowing complexion, the health benefits of apple cider vinegar are prolific. I think back to the old saying, “An apple a day... keeps the doctor away.”
The night felt both magical and ephemeral. It was held on October 3rd. We had perfect weather and a full moon! It was just a passing night in Autumn, but for many of us it was our first gathering since the outbreak so we wanted to make it feel extra special.
In lieu of a blessing before the meal I shared with my family the lessons and takeaways we’ve all learned from COVID. I related it to the garden and its growing season: “An emerging plant in the Spring only thinks about the bright, sunny days ahead. However, that plant withstands days without rain, the heaviest of storms and all the unforeseen challenges a season can bring. In the fall, that plant still stands. That plant, like us, is resilient. We didn’t think we were up for the challenge, but we learned a lot of lessons along the way and have a newfound gratitude for slowing down and savoring the moment.”
I’m so grateful to my partner Stephen, for being so patient, as all I talked about and focused on for a month was this party, traveling back and forth between Dallas and Pennsylvania.
I urge everyone hosting family parties and holiday parties to get outdoors, if possible, even if it’s cold! Have a fire pit going. Make S’mores! Host a gingerbread house decorating party! If nothing else, it will make a memory. No one will ever forget the one time you had Thanksgiving outside!
Entertaining during a pandemic sounds like a potential recipe for disaster, but it can be done well – and safely. As hosts, it’s our foremost responsibility to keep guests both safe and entertained.
For any of the how-tos and projects mentioned above, I have step by step videos posted to my Instagram story highlights @morbidhomemaker
TEN TIPS FOR HOSTING A SAFE GATHERING:
1. Follow the advice of your local public health authorities. Consult your municipality's website for COVID-19 safety guidelines specific to your area.
2. Limit the number of people in attendance to those within your social bubble or to the maximum number of people allowed to gather, according to your public health officials.
3. Host the event outside if possible. This greatly reduces the risk of spread.
4. Do not ask the guests to bring anything. Limiting the number of surfaces being brought from other households is best.
5. Ensure your guests are told that if they are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 or are feeling at all unwell that they should not attend.
6. Provide your guests with the ability to keep a distance. Brian held his gathering outdoors and created areas where people could safely keep apart while still enjoying themselves.
7. Provide your guests with masks, hand sanitizer and other immunity-boosting supplements. This can be a creative endeavor, as Brian demonstrated.
8. Keep indoor spaces off limits except washroom facilities. Ask guests to sanitize their hands before and after leaving the home to use the facilities.
9. Designate one person to serve the food and one to serve the wine. This will ensure that multiple people are not handling the same serving utensils or bottles.
10. Follow up with your guests to make sure everyone is feeling ok after the gathering.