by Jesma Reynolds
photograph by Missy Mclamb
It’s not every day that a man in tails and gloves shows up to deliver an elegantly scripted invitation on a silver tray. But that’s exactly what happened to Raleigh resident Nancy Brenneman this past spring:
The pleasure of your company
is requested for
dinner and frivolity
Lady Nancy Reubush Brenneman
On the occasion of
Her sixtieth birthday
Partygoers gathered at the residence of Cecelia and Mike Condrey, a stately Hayes Barton manor whose meandering drive served to transport guests to the period of Downton Abbey, the post-Edwardian BBC drama that has captivated audiences for the past three seasons, and more locally served as inspiration for the themed birthday.
With atmospheric music from the show looping in the background and a white-tie-and-tails butler greeting guests, the 12 couples, all members of a 15-year-old supper club, gathered for cocktails and appetizers (because hors d’oeuvres are for the French, don’t you know?) on the terrace. Special libations such as The Lady Sybil, a combination of Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, basil leaves and champagne, and The Mr. Bates, consisting of Amaro Nonino, Sherry, orange bitters and orange peel, were featured.
Everything had been meticulously researched for the evening. Cecelia Condrey prepared “Daisy’s Rib Roast” and “Dowager’s Dijon Mint Tomatoes” from the Downton Abbey cookbook. Carson Clark brought crumpets and smoked salmon canapés. Wynn Dorsett’s mother, who lives in England, contributed the recipe for Yorkshire Pudding. For dessert, there was Eton Mess (As the menu card noted, “is there any other?”).
Many of the women have been friends since childhood, and solidified bonds through raising children, trips together, and participation in the supper club. Self-professed Anglophiles, they gathered for a “pajama party” to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, staying up the entire night in eager anticipation of the ceremony. Naturally, Downton Abbey has struck a collective chord in their appreciation of finery, tradition and drama.
Morgie Duke, one of the more extroverted of the group, alerted Walter to the stylish party. Festooned in a burgundy velvet gown, long kid gloves and fox stole, she assumed the period persona with enthusiasm. Ann Matteson wore a pale brocade shift dress with an emerald-accented matching jacket that belonged to her mother-in-law, a very modern choice that would have gained approval by Lady Mary. Many of the women wore hair decorations ranging from fascinators to a borrowed prom queen tiara. Monocled Glenn Matteson chose to represent the continent as a war hero, accessorizing with his grandfather’s West Point cap and great grandfather’s cape. Terry Brenneman decorated an otherwise nondescript white jacket with military medals from relatives to represent the Boer Wars. Even David Duke – who confessed to have “never watched” the show – played along gamely.
As the cocktail hour waned, there was a mad rush by the ladies to the kitchen, where upstairs and downstairs collided. Hostesses transformed into cooks, donning aprons to protect their vintage dresses, while frantically warming dishes and carving the roast.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party progressed to the gleaming dinner table where the butler (“Mr. Carson” for the evening) offered Service a la Russe, in which courses are presented sequentially. This style of service “originated in Russia and was popularized in France by the famous chef Urban Dubois in the 1860s,” says Morgie Duke, “and is enjoyed by all who dine at Downton.”
Lively conversation ensued well into the evening. Following supper, brandy and cordials were poured. As guests prepared to make their way home, silverware was divvied up to the respective hostesses who’d brought their settings, and goodbyes exchanged – all to make for a very Downton evening.