Al Fresco Entertaining with Southern Style

Ballard Tall

We’re thrilled this week to introduce Nealey Dozier of the food blog, Dixie Caviar. Nealey is always cookin’ up fantastic recipes, and we’re excited to bring you a slew of them this week!

Southerners know, like our ancestors knew, that when in doubt just follow the water. So come July we flee our steaming cities and abandon our small towns to find solace along our many flowing rivers, deep lakes, and emerald-colored oceans. And though the unwavering sun continues to burn and the plump mosquitos continue to pillage, we survive, just like we always have. Because each day we have faith the thunder will roll in, and with the rain, the promise balmy nights, starry skies, and fireflies lay ahead.


To celebrate evening’s sweet relief, we throw our backdoors open and spill into the night. Whether it’s a backyard barbecue, dockside dining, or just cocktails around the pool, Southerners sure do know how to entertain al fresco. Hospitality doesn’t shrink in the heat, and neither does a good party. A good hostess has her secrets, but an even better one shares. Here are some of my best tips to make your next party easy and (almost) effortless!


– Design a menu using recipes that can be made in advance and are best served cold or at room temperature. I’ll usually aim for one warm item, whether it’s hot off the grill or held in the oven. For this gathering, my menu consisted of Easy ‘Picnic Chicken,’ Green Bean Salad with Feta & Mint, and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes.

– Summery desserts shouldn’t be too contrived, so don’t think twice about dressing up something from the store. Grilled pound cake with a tangy Meyer lemon curd or creamy Nutella is always a hit. Or try my spin on an Italian affogato (vanilla ice cream “drowned” in espresso) by pouring double strength coffee over sinfully-sweet salted caramel gelato.

– Instead of setting up a full bar, offer a big-batch signature cocktail instead. I love pulling out a vintage punch bowl and having guests serve themselves. My current rotation includes sparkling peach sangria, old-fashioned planter’s punch, and very own take my grown-up take on “jungle juice.” (Yes, like the infamous drink made using Everclear.)

– Why be predictable (here’s looking at you Pinot) when it comes to wine? Instead introduce your guests to lesser-known yet still delicious varietals that don’t break the bank. I highly recommend pouring Grüner Veltliner, a crisp and smooth Austrian white, alongside a fruity Beaujolais that’s fabulous and refreshing when served chilled.

– Don’t forget to fill a galvanized tub with lots of ice and stock it with a selection of local brews and non-alcoholic drink options! For an impressive way to keep folks hydrated, dress up water with sliced cucumber and mint leaves and display it in a pretty glass dispenser.

Recipe for picnic chicken


– Find a nice shady spot in your backyard to set up a buffet. A large folding table works great, but I’ve been known to drag my dining room table out to create a refined vibe. Smaller side tables for drinks and desserts can be arranged in clusters around the yard. Fill urns and hurricanes with candles (lots and lots of candles!) to mellow the mood.

– Cover the table with something casual and airy: I love repurposing oversized Turkish towels and lightweight blankets and throws. If I’m not in the mood to iron (which is often) I’ll just use an inexpensive drop cloth from the paint store as a table drape. The neutral colored canvas has a fabulous linen-like texture and can easily be dressed up or down for any occasion.

– Look no further than your house and garden for the bulk of your décor needs, and don’t be afraid to give old items new purpose. I’m always scouring my shelves for accents and accessories to pull double duty: delicate drinking glasses serve as votive holders, decorative urns double as luminaries, and lovely lanterns showcase oversized blooms.

– Why spend a fortune on flowers when mother nature is at your fingertips. There’s always something colorful blooming in my yard, and at the very least there is plenty of greenery. And besides, what can be more beautiful (or Southern) than a buffet table strewn with giant magnolias just plucked off the tree. (If all else fails, pick up an abundance of a one specific bloom at the grocery store. Even baby’s breath looks good when in large quantities!)

Recipe for green beans with feta and mint


– Dispose of the disposables. Yes, I am aware they are less of a hassle, but I will never understand why people own pretty plates and fine linens if they hold them hostage in a cabinet. (Do I even need to mention what pesky plastic is doing to our planet?) Celebrating with friends is the perfect time to pull out your finery! But if you do have to use throwaways, please invest in eco-friendly paper goods at the very least.

– As for the drinkware dilemma, I’m going to share with you one of my best-kept Southern secrets, for what is known in my inner circle as “summer crystal.” (Sounds fancy, right?!) As much as I wish I could claim the origin of “summer crystal,” the brilliant idea originated with my mother-in-law, Tina. Tina happens to be a well-established Atlanta designer and a regular on the antique trails. For many years now she’s been snatching up gorgeous vintage goblets (six and twelve at a time) that only look as expensive as the real stuff. So if a glass breaks during an evening of revelry — and one is sure to break — we just knowingly shrug and purr, “Oh, don’t you worry, dear, it’s just the ‘summer crystal.’” Amazing!

So here are some of my hard-earned tips for outdoor entertaining. But my best advice is this: just relax and enjoy each and every moment. Summertime is all about keeping it casual and going with the flow. As long as there’s plenty of cold beer and a bottle of bug spray on hand, nobody should be have time to be complaining. And when in doubt? Just add water!


Nealey received the following Ballard Designs products to use in her post. Her opinions are her own:

Find more of Nealey’s delicious recipes on her blog, Dixie Caviar, or browse more recipe ideas on How to Decorate.

Caroline McDonald

Caroline lives for pairing together patterns, mixing furniture styles, and oogling over our newest furniture pieces. As you can imagine, her little 1920's craftsman is in a constant state of flux. Here on How to Decorate, it's her goal to help you turn your home into your own little slice of paradise.