When it comes to dinner parties, you have your low-key, BYOB kind, the elaborate, multi-course sit-downs, and then you have Rancho Pillow—Sheila Youngblood’s 20-acre guesthouse compound in Round Top, Texas, and the location of an hours-long, music and flavor-drenched affair that happens several times yearly. To call the gigantic, family-style dinners “special” doesn’t even begin to do them justice, and that’s precisely Sheila’s intent. For Sheila, a free-spirit who favors flowing caftans, outrageous hats, and oversized specs, her “Feasts in the Field” are a labor of love, marrying her passion for good food, larger-than-life decor, and unbridled color. During our recent trip to Round Top we were lucky enough to experience “Feasts in the Field.” We chatted with Sheila about her inspiring approach to entertaining, and snagged a few tips to help you host a magical dinner party of your own.
How did the idea for “Feasts in the Fields” come about?
Gathering around the dinner table has always been one of my favorite ways to spend time at Rancho. And there’s something especially magical about welcoming happy people who have been treasure-hunting in the fields during Antiques Week to share stories under the stars. When I first opened Rancho to the public in the spring of 2016, I thought it would be a wonderful way to introduce people to the property for the first time—taking tours, telling stories and connecting over a home-cooked meal, as I would with my own family. This year we’ll be having more feasts throughout the year to bring more people into community.
How do you choose your menus for “Feasts in the Field”?
The menu is completely up to the chef. I only ask that at least one part of the meal is prepared over an open fire in the field, whether it be paellas in giant pans, chickens roasting in the wood-fired oven, whole pigs on a spit, vegetables on the grill, or pineapples and legs of lamb hanging on a Frances Mallmann-style cooking dome. Our guests love interacting with the chefs who are doing what they love. Every chef impacts people in meaningful ways, and it is lovely to see.
Each seasonal dinner features a different approach to table decor. Where do you draw your inspiration from each season?
With the treasure trove that is Round Top in my backyard, anything is possible. Sometimes I walk the flea market fields for inspiration. Other times, I create a clear vision using what I already have. Rancho itself is a collection of vintage finds and treasures from global travels, so I mix them together and create something memorable and authentic to this place. At Rancho, we celebrate authenticity, and while the details are a little unexpected, people really enjoy the surprises both on the table and around every corner.
Tell us about the tablescapes you created for this year’s spring feasts.
For the spring feasts, I decided to use all found objects to create the tablescape. Some items are actual containers, others are just interesting objects. I used colorful porcelain, pottery and glassware to plant a few succulents, and nestled them among other objects and curiosities like old spurs, animal skulls set on vintage plates, a Native American doorstop, and Swarovski crystal covered antlers.
Your florals feel casual and breezy. What’s your approach there?
In spring and fall, wildflowers, and wild weeds like coral vine, are abundant in the pasture and along the road. I’ll take a walk, fill a box, and light up a table with finds from nature. Let the vessels and other objects make the statement, so you can save on the actual florals. Just a few succulents, wildflowers, weeds and air plants makes for arrangements that are wild, wonderful, unexpected AND inexpensive.
At Rancho, we celebrate authenticity, and while the details of Rancho are a little unexpected, people really enjoy the surprises on the table and around every corner.
Any secrets for creating an easy-going vibe that invites strangers to mingle?
Be yourself, and create spaces that reflect that unique spirit. Rancho is very much the work of my own heart. By sharing it, I invite our guests to connect to one another in a deeper way. Connecting, sharing, laughing, inspiring and listening deeply, we discover more about each other (and ourselves). Guests here feel liberated to just be themselves, without pretense, formality, image or ego. As a host, if you are laughing and loving and engaging in a real way, (almost) everyone will join you.
What role does music play in “Feasts in the Field”?
At Rancho, I invite people into a moment, not just a dinner party. When you invite people into the present moment, they realize they don’t want to be anywhere else. As guests arrive they are immersed in a series of experiences all at once, including a visual feast of color and light. Musicians like The Heart Collectors, an Aussie folk band, add to the magic by inviting people into the heart of Rancho with their performances. Throughout the night, I try to thoughtfully direct the flow of activity and participation. Placing the band in the center of things creates a space where people feel free to wander, yet they also feel held in the spirit of it all.
Any tips for lighting when it comes to hosting an outdoor affair?
The light of the moon is always the best. While candlelight is wonderful, it doesn’t really work on our windy hill, so we count on the moon most times to set the stage with the most radiant light. String lights combined with old vintage fixtures offer a memorable kind of magic. Supplemental lighting at Rancho is always colorful. Clear lights attract bugs, and I think everything (and everyone) looks more beautiful bathed in soft, colored light.
I invite people into a moment, not just a dinner party. When you invite people into the present moment, they realize they don’t want to be anywhere else.
What’s next for The Rancho Pillow?
Rancho is always becoming. I feel so grateful to be sharing it in new and meaningful ways all the time. More of an experience than a hotel, it has been a magical backdrop for all kinds of retreats, getaways, workshops, photo shoots, movie nights, weddings, music videos, reunions, and birthday parties for 5-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike. We’ve also held two memorial services—something I never expected. Rancho celebrates life. What a profound gift for me to be able to share that. Creating this kind of space for loving, and inviting people into deeper experiences with one another. I’m going to stay committed to that vision and see what happens.
Photos by Sarah Moore