Southern Stylesetter

La Dolce Vita

Living the sweet life right now

By Cynthia Adams


An officemate neighbor with a small business favors Italian shoes and clothing, and European wines and delectables — la dolce vita. The expression is also the title of a 1960 Fellini comedy-drama, which translates to “the sweet life.” 

When it comes to matters of the table, Cliff is living the sweet life, which means he isn’t stuffing the good things inside a cupboard to molder for a special occasion.

Today is the occasion.

Cliff likes to cook but believes entertaining requires more than good food and wine. Even pre-Covid, he placed posies at each place setting, which were set with his best linens, silver and china. 

His girlfriend and her mom noted the special touches. After hosting them for dinner recently, the mother lavished praise, comparing him to a handsome TV lifestyle guru named Colin Cowie, who grew up in South Africa. Known to consult with luminaries like Oprah, he is a stylish event planner.

But Cliff protested self-consciously. “Can’t you compare me to Brad Pitt?” he complained.

“But it’s true,” he admitted laughing. “I like to make it special. “Make it —” he broke off.

“An occasion?” I offered.

“That’s it!” Cliff smiled. “An occasion.”

Afterward, I rolled his words around:

“An occasion.”

If one thing has become radiantly clear in 2020, then surely it’s the need to make the most of our lives.

It was a wakeup call for me, who grew steadily more like Pizza Rat than Colin Cowie, languishing in a pandemic decay. But the pleasures of sweatpants-living had worn thin. Moreover, when I learned my athletic young nephew had Covid-19, I began to pull out treasures. What was I waiting for? 

Out came my good earrings and favorite capri pants. I vowed to set a proper table and stop eating Nutella from the jar. I would get a grip.

Moment-marking had begun.

The people in my circle said this:

“When I want to feel special, no matter if it’s just me, or me and Clark, my partner,” says Larry, “I get out the nice china.”

“The crystal. The silver. I put at least one flower out. And I light a candle . . . and I think of someone who’s gone.”

This has long been his habit since 1987, when the global HIV/AIDS epidemic struck and Larry lost his close North Carolina school friend, James Franklin Mitchell, who became well-known modeling for Calvin Klein and other fashion houses, later founding the design business J. F. Mitchell & Company. “When he was so sick at Sloan Kettering and I couldn’t go see him,” says Larry, “I would phone him.  He asked me to light a candle and think of him.” 

Ever since, Larry has continued to do this in memory of his friend.

“Now, whatever I do to make my little world beautiful is important to me,” Larry says.

My friend Minta does things Texan style big — hosting big gatherings with endless platters of food, offered up with an artist’s eye for beauty. 

Minta creates occasion, prone to offer a dusting of social magic. The magic is not confined to the table. One wintry night she lit a roaring bonfire following the dinner, and guests moved outside with coffee to gasp at the brilliant stars in a crystal-clear sky. 

In warmer months, the fun sometimes spills outside to the pond and dock behind her historic, comfortable country home. Minta says occasion-making is straightforward: “First the guests (good mix) and conversation is the main ‘course’ of the memorable event,” she reminisces.

“True that the ‘splendid’ table setting and space (perhaps background music) create ambience. Simple preparation or take-out, catered, fresh and attractive food display will allow host and hostess not to be overburdened so can achieve No. 1: ‘food for conversation’ and ‘right relationship.’”

Cowie apparently agrees with Minta on the right mix of relationships, writing on his website that he seeks always to “balance the energy at the table.”

“It’s not the food, it’s the person you have the meal with,” offers Larry. He cites the example of a much-admired client and friend.

He shared a memorable exchange with Mrs. Margaret Brooks, wife of Thornton Brooks, a prominent Greensboro attorney whose sprawling house on the corner of Irving Park’s Sunset Drive and Briarcliff Road was named a Guilford County Landmark late last year. Larry remembers Margaret — who lived to the ripe old age of 103 — as possessing proud carriage and great character. She was a tastemaker.

“She drove this big old blue Cadillac,” Larry recalls, “and she often wore a pale blue suit — and always carried a patent leather pocket book and wore gloves. She came to see me one time after I had just moved into my house, as I was having my first get-together.”

He remembers being rattled when he answered the door of his just acquired Sunset Hills home, which she duly noticed. “She said, ‘Oh, Larry, you seem discombobulated. Is everything OK?’”

He explained he had 25 people coming for dinner.  He wanted it to be perfect.

“She said, ‘Larry, listen to my words. I’m going to tell you something my mother told me that has served me very well. It’s not who’s at the table, but who’s in the seat.’”

Larry said she explained the energy at a gathering mattered far more than anything else, including the food or the setting.

It was a teachable moment for Larry, one who collected imported antiques from Britain and valued beautiful things from childhood.

But Margaret reminded him that in the passage of time, his guests and their happiness would be the reason it would become memorable. 

It changed his view of what makes an occasion meaningful.

Even so, the ceremony of creating an occasion is something he still enjoys. He adds he has learned it isn’t even complicated. My friend Julia agrees.

Julia, who lives in Napa Valley, California, works with wine writers in order to promote the valley’s famous juice. Despite her many experiences of the Golden State’s finest vintages and fabulous food, a favorite occasion wasn’t memorable for either. It was far simpler. 

On her granddaughter Lyla’s fifth birthday late last year, a singular color made the day delightful. The celebrants marked Lyla’s big day in yellow. 

“It’s her favorite color (or was that day!)  We wore yellow clothes, had yellow decorations and ate yellow cake. It was pretty special,” Julia recalls.

As we emerge from long months of social distancing, we seek out ways in which our lives can grow more memorable and meaningful.

In wearing yellow for a little girl, lighting a candle for a departed friend, getting the silver out for a friend’s mother, or placing a flower on the table, we seem to have found it.  h

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