The Rule of Four


Our Daily Correspondent

From the cover of Lee Bailey’s City Food.

Lee Bailey’s books are some of my favorite comfort reads. Bailey, a designer and eighties-era entertaining doyen described in the intro to one book as “a model of style, taste, and invention,” was a famous host with the smart set, and in books like Lee Bailey’s City Food and Lee Bailey’s Country Weekends, he provides a glossy, heavily-styled time capsule of a certain moment in sophistication.

Bailey was famed in his day as a host with the most, both in his sleek Manhattan duplex and in the Hamptons country house where he often entertained such guests as Liz Smith and Helen Gurley Brown. “I think I learned almost everything I know about having people to dinner from Lee Bailey,” Nora Ephron wrote in 2000. She identified Bailey’s secret as something she termed the Rule of Four: 

Most people serve three things for dinner—some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable—but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always something playful and unexpected. A shallow dish filled with tiny baked apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours in brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Grits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Spoon bread! Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always something else on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again. At Lee Bailey’s, you could eat forever. 

Though Bailey’s menus are firmly stuck in their era visually—the table settings are chic and stylized to an occasionally unappetizing fault—they still work today. Well, certain dishes do, anyway. His food was simple and often rooted in his Louisiana childhood. My cookbook club did a Lee Bailey dinner and it was good, albeit less star-studded than he might have wished. I have friends who swear by his dessert cookbook. I make his date torte on the regular. He did “comfort food” before it became a thing, and with tremendous confidence. 

Which, in fact, is what places Lee Bailey in the comfort-read pantheon. He has a quality I particularly love in entertaining books: arbitrary, dictatorial, and slightly peevish. His dicta encompass everything from the egg timers (there’s a glorious glossary of his favorite objects at the end of Good Parties) to the lighting, which can, he says, help to control the volume of guests’ voices. “If you put together a group of guests who don’t know one another very well, turn all the lights up while the group is getting acquainted over cocktails. Bright lights make people more talkative. Then turn the lights down somewhat after the party gets under way. This works; I’ve tried it.” 

(It should be noted here that the one thing everyone says about Lee Bailey’s dinners is that they were served very, very late, and no hors d’oeuvres were served with the cocktails. Which might be a better “secret” than the Rule of Four or tricky light design.)

Often I disagree with his preferences completely: his pairings can be bizarre; I hate the typeface of his books. What keeps menus like “In a Painter’s Loft,” “On a Rooftop Terrace,” “On Moving Day” or—perhaps the only one applicable to most of our lives—“In a Small Living-Room”—from descending into period camp is Bailey’s astringent confidence. Even if you find that plastic flatware dodgy, you can still benefit from this bit of wisdom from Good Parties

On the following pages you will find a very narrow and personal point of view. The reasoning behind such limited focus is to more clearly show the foundation on which my decisions are built. Hopefully, my example will provide some useful insights and a key to the basic selection process. In order to make your own choices you must become aware of and use that germ of consistency lurking in whatever you do and do not like.

“That germ of consistency”: that’s as good an explanation of the cultivation of personal tastes as any I’ve ever heard. It pertains to books, movies, design, clothing—all require the constant process of determining that germ of consistency. And a party, after all, is nothing more than a bit of distilled, heightened, concentrated life, isn’t it? 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.