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Then everyone goes home with a clean plate and the host isn't left with a dirty kitchen. "It won't take long, but everybody wins," Johns says.
Then everyone goes home with a clean plate and the host isn't left with a dirty kitchen. "It won't take long, but everybody wins," Johns says. (Dreamstime)

Ronda Carman, an entertaining and etiquette expert and author of “Entertaining at Home,” joined Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius last week for an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

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Q: Do you still use holiday tablecloths for formal meals, and do they have to be white?

A: I don't use tablecloths. I love to layer with place mats and dishes. I was just playing with setting my table recently and did think about using a tablecloth. Maybe I will at Christmas. White is classic, but I say have fun with texture and color.

Q: Should you carve the turkey at the Thanksgiving table or in the kitchen? Should you serve gravy hot or at room temperature?

A: I love the idea and image of the turkey being carved at the table, but in reality, I always do it in the kitchen because it can get messy. As for gravy, though I prefer it hot, I'll take it any way any day - it's my favorite part of the meal.

Q: If you have 10 guests for Christmas dinner, should you do a buffet or a sit-down meal?

A: I think it is a personal preference and either works. For Thanksgiving, we are having 14, and I am doing a hybrid. I have the table set for everyone, but I am setting up a buffet in the kitchen and breakfast room.

Q: The D.C. area takes some decorating ideas from the South and Williamsburg. What are some Texas traditions that we might try here?

A: I love anything Williamsburg. As for decor, I love natural objects. At our ranch in South Texas, I use antlers that have been shed for tabletop decoration mixed with blue and white pottery and wheat for flowers. As for food, tamales are a fun addition.

Q: What could you serve in a punch bowl besides punch that would be different and festive?

A: Popcorn, chips, pretzels or a trifle would be great. When you're not using the punch bowl, fill it with wine corks in the kitchen.

Q: I'm hosting my company's holiday party for about 35 guests. I plan to serve beer, wine and soft drinks with the help of a bartender. I would like to offer one other holiday cocktail. Any suggestions that would appeal to a large group and is fairly easy to mix or prepare in a batch?

A: One of the recipes in my book is for a Pimm's Cup. It's a fun and festive drink and serves a crowd. You can make up several pitchers in advance.

Q: I see many lovely table settings where the dishware is stacked - charger, dinner plate, salad plate, bowl. While this looks great, it doesn't seem helpful for eating the meal. I would worry that what's in the bowl would get spilled on plates yet to be used, for example. How do you balance serving and eating with a great-looking table?

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A: I do love a layered look, but I only use dishes that I will need and in the order I need them. For example, if I am not doing a salad, I won't use a salad plate. Once you are done with a dish, you can take it away.

Q: Do you have suggestions for brining a turkey?

A: I just started brining a few years ago, and it does make a big difference. I have always done a wet brine, but this year I am trying a dry brine I found on the Williams Sonoma website.

Q: What is your favorite wild game to serve for dinner?

A: My husband is the wild game chef in the family. He loves to hunt quail. Roasted quail is great, and so is bacon-wrapped quail.

Q: What is your favorite holiday and why?

A: I adore Christmas, but more and more, Thanksgiving ranks right up there. I love that it is all about the food, family and thankfulness. Not to mention I love setting the table.

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