Reese Witherspoon Showed Us How to Throw a Classic Southern Party
On the patio is the smoking gun: a cauldron of hot-popping fat. A deep fryer must be grounds for a citation here in the land of sea vegetables and hemp milk. Either the apocalypse has come or there's a Southerner in the house.
Fortunately, it's the latter. In this case, the Southern girl is Reese Witherspoon, born in New Orleans and raised in Nashville. The actress and producer loves to throw a party, and today there's a good excuse: She's celebrating the first anniversary of Draper James, her line of fashion, housewares, and other little touches essential for gracious living. It's a uniquely Southern combination of tradition (a monogrammed mint julep cup modeled after vintage barware) and humor (a tote bag that says TOTES Y'ALL, which is so popular, it's sold out twice). "I wanted to make the kinds of things I grew up with and things that would make people happy," she says. "Southerners don't take themselves so seriously, and at Draper James, we didn't want to take ourselves too seriously, either."
Reese herself is a blend of tradition and humor, with the look of a pretty and proper debutante and the laugh of a good-time girl. Her lemon-print Draper James dress matches her lemon-print Draper James plates. It's an Elle Woods move, coordinating one's outfit with the tablescape. In fact, a lot of the women Reese has played—from Elle, the frilly Harvard Law student in Legally Blonde, to Wild author Cheryl Strayed, who white-knuckled it along the Pacific Crest Trail—share the belief that if you're going to do something, you should do it all the way. The philosophy is very Southern. If California entertaining says, "Hey, babe, it's casual," a Southern-style party says, "You're worth the trouble, darlin'!"
The Nashvillian learned everything she knows about Southern hospitality from her company's namesakes: her grandparents Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon. Dorothea, who drove white Cadillacs and always wore pearls, was a renowned entertainer. "She'd cook big Sunday dinners and send everybody home with leftovers," Reese says. "And my grandfather would get up at 5 A.M. to pick vegetables from his garden and leave them for the neighbors."
On today's guest list are several Southern transplants—including, if your definition of Southern is loose enough, O editor at large Gayle King. "I was born in Chattanooga!" she tells guest Mary Alice Haney, who grew up there, too. Never mind that Gayle lived there only 18 months—as far as Mary Alice is concerned, they're compatriots. When Gayle admires her gold-and-pearl chandelier-style pendant, Mary Alice takes it right off her neck and hands it over, saying, "It's okay, I know the owner!" The necklace is Draper James, of course. Each guest has turned out in the spring line: flirty dresses, tops, and shorts in fun stripes and cheerful prints, all inspired by vintage issues of Vogue, Southern Living, and House & Garden.
On the buffet are Dorothea's biscuits, corn salad, and famous fried chicken. Lest anyone feel guilty about the home-cooked sinfulness, the wings and drumsticks are piled on a Draper James tea towel reassuringly embroidered with "Honey, You've Never Looked Better." "Fried chicken is so simple, but it's such a luxury to have it at home," says caterer Annie Campbell, who often cooks for Reese. "This is a typical menu when she entertains, and people love it." Apparently, you can take the girl out of the Gravy Belt, but you can't take the Gravy Belt out of the girl: Another guest, Louisiana native Sarah Moritz, says she makes her gumbo with chicken instead of sausage, but she'll never forsake bacon grease. (A Southern grandmother would keep it in a coffee can. Sarah's is in a discreet little bowl in the fridge.)
Actress Molly Sims takes a turn at the buffet.
At the table Gayle announces, "I saved most of my Weight Watchers Points for this." In the ritual behavior of women everywhere who gather over fried food, the guests begin discussing workout routines. The subject is happily abandoned when the grapefruit gimlets arrive to a round of applause. Mary Alice asks Gayle what she thinks about the presidential election, and that's when things get lively: Think Steel Magnolias meets Crossfire. But the conversation stays convivial, maybe because everything is so delicious. It's the kind of food you'd bring to a family reunion or a friend in need.
"Reese sent me a huge bowl of this corn salad when my son was born. I always say he's practically made of it," says Heather Rosenfield, director of design development for stores and fixtures at Draper James and one of Reese's oldest friends. They met at 19 as across-the-hall neighbors. "We were both new to L.A., and neither of us knew anybody," Heather says. "One day she knocked on my door, introduced herself, and said, 'I noticed you don't have any friends, and I don't either!' We went to Color Me Mine, the paint-your-own-pot place. I loved that she did that. It was so Southern."
The two of them wanted to give the Draper James store in Nashville that "do drop in" feeling, so they offer customers sweet iced tea—an idea met with skepticism by some colleagues north of the Mason-Dixon Line. "They said, 'Who will make it? What if it spills? Can't we do bottled water?' " says Heather. "But we told them, 'It has to be sweet tea!' We just give people lids." They try to extend that neighborly spirit behind the scenes, too: More than half of Draper James's products are made in the U.S., including many in the South, like jeans from Blue Ridge, Georgia.
When it's time for dessert, out comes the pièce-de-resistance-is-futile: Dorothea's coconut layer cake. "Is this on Weight Watchers, Gayle?" Reese asks as she dishes up a slice as big as Tennessee. "It's only 39 points!" says Gayle, who admits that's nine more than her daily limit. But she digs in. As a certain Southern lady once said, tomorrow is another day.
Reese asks if she should send Oprah a slice, but Gayle reluctantly says no, figuring she'll spare her friend the temptation. The hostess isn't letting anyone go home empty-handed, though—as the guests kiss her goodbye, she hands each a present. It's a Draper James candle called Orange Blossom Special, named for the song Johnny Cash famously covered. Which calls to mind another of Reese's strong women: country singer June Carter (Johnny's second wife) in Walk the Line. Reese got an Oscar for that one. Soon the actress will go back to work, transforming herself into somebody else. But for now she's just Dorothea Draper's granddaughter, the role she was born to play.