Entertaining marks passing of time, in a less formal way

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 24, 2012 

Life is like a tray of hors d'oeuvres.

Its nicest nibbles keep getting passed around and around and around.

Bess' Delicatessen and Catering Specialists on Hilton Head Island celebrated its 30th anniversary last week -- with Bess Soper passing trays of hors d'oeuvres and baskets of ham biscuits.

She came to Bluffton as a new bride to teach kindergarten but instead has learned by heart the rhythmic ingredients of life: weddings, christenings, graduations, weddings, christenings, holiday celebrations, golden anniversaries, funerals ...

Not many businesses have operated that long with the original owner in the original location, Fountain Center near Sea Pines Circle. She sometimes runs into Signe Gardo -- whose Signe's Heaven Bound Bakery & Cafe turns 40 this year -- as they push flat-bed buggies through Sam's Club at 7 a.m.

When she started, the island was ruled by neighborhood cocktail parties called 6-to-8ers. Bess would arrive at 5 p.m. By 6 p.m. guests were literally lined up at the door, and by 8:05 p.m., the last ashtray was being cleaned in an empty house.

People are looser today, coming later and staying later.

Gone with the wind are the fully seated dinner parties once so common, with hosts like A.P. Hall, or Libby and Ray Ellis pulling out all the gorgeous silver, china, crystal, linen napkins and fresh flowers.

"The stories you heard at the dinner parties were unbelievable," Bess said.

People are entertaining more than ever, she said, but they're busier than ever and more likely to do things spontaneously.

Vacationers might book a caterer for three of the seven nights they're here.

During the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, Bess arrived at work at 4 a.m. and left after 11 p.m. For the 25th year, she catered the main guest house and skybox for the Fluor global construction firm, which rang the bell this week at the New York Stock Exchange to mark its 100th anniversary. That meant breakfast for 39 from 6:30 to 10 a.m., in addition to catering two other skyboxes, two hospitality tents and a home used by an Atlanta company to host cocktail hour and full dinner each night.

Local people with other jobs dress in black and white to serve the food. The self-taught chef from Elkmont, Ala., population 557, characterizes her menus as "Southern, traditional Lowcountry cuisine."

Bess and Mike Soper's son, Gray, who will graduate Friday from the University of South Carolina Beaufort with a hospitality management degree, has joined his mother's small business.

Life is like a tray of hors d'oeuvres.

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