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Last month, I attended the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation’s gala at the Ritz-Carlton. In terms of lavish entertaining, the hospital gala reigns. The event attracted 700 people (tickets were $700 apiece), all dressed in glittering gowns and tuxes. The Ritz staff managed to squeeze between tables to serve a three-course meal in a seamless fashion while pouring an endless supply of good champagne.

Susan Burns

Image: Lori Sax

It’s easy to view these formal galas as indulgent events for the town’s elite. But there’s more to the story than that. Those guests knew they’d be called upon to donate. They rose to the occasion, contributing $1 million in 20 minutes to buy equipment for the hospital’s cardiac services. Heart disease is a leading cause of death, so thousands of people in our community will benefit.

On the way home, I ruefully reflected that my own entertaining style falls at the opposite end of the spectrum. While galas require a team of event planners, I don’t have the time—or, let’s be honest, the skills—to pull off a perfectly orchestrated event. And since I don’t cook, and my husband does—magnificently, I must make sure to say—I leave the heavy lifting to him. So when our son called late one afternoon the weekend before the hospital gala to say some friends were in town from Finland and would we like to have dinner with him, we invited them over. “Be here at 6:30,” I said.

I was at the office, finishing up some editing, but my husband figured out the menu and went shopping. I told him I’d pick up some dessert, be home by 5 p.m. to clean the house, set the table, put out some hors d’oeuvres and then jump in the shower, since I’d been to the gym earlier that day.

Our Finnish guests arrived before 6 p.m., disrupting my minute-by-minute pre-party schedule. My hair was in a ponytail and I was still wearing my workout clothes, and the couches were bristling with the dog hair I hadn’t had time to vacuum off. And yet, it turned out to be one of the most delightful evenings I’ve had this year.

No one noticed my hair (or the dogs’) as we began to talk over glasses of wine, standing in the kitchen, watching my husband whip up a dinner of grilled swordfish steaks and asparagus, an arugula salad and coconut rice. The party included nine well-traveled and engaging people, ranging in age from 22 to 66, and the dinner conversation jumped from the virtues and failings of democratic socialism to cats. We passed around good chocolate and headed outside to a fire under twinkling lights hanging on our oak tree and talked for a few hours more. The dishes were happy to sit in the sink.

You’ll read more about parties, including expert tips on throwing the perfect one, in this issue. And we’d like to invite you to a special celebration, Sarasota Magazine’s annual Unity Awards luncheon on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 11:30 a.m. at Michael’s On East. We’re honoring nine people who have worked to unite us in divisive times. Our winners have helped students go to college, attracted new audiences to our arts and given a public face to the LGBTQ community. Their influence reaches beyond Sarasota: One winner helped 1.6 million ex-felons in Florida win the right to vote. Journalists are supposed to be cynical and skeptical, but I never leave this event without being moved to tears and applause. I promise you will have the same reaction. Please join us. For tickets and info, click here.

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