Space City

Holiday Entertaining in the Subtropics

Houston’s yuletide doesn’t resemble a Thomas Kinkade painting—and that’s okay.

Photography by Shannon O'Hara By Sarah Rufca Nielsen November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Elizabeth Swift Copeland sets a colorful scene.

Somewhere between Washington Irving and Thomas Kinkade, America’s vision of the holiday season became a shrunken, calcified hodgepodge of snow scenes, mittens, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. A yuletide vision, that is, of horse-drawn sleighs, gifts of myrrh, and figgy pudding. A vision—utterly irrelevant in modern-day Houston. 

No, Virginia, there will not be a white Christmas this year. Or ever. That instance of meteorological weirdness a decade ago, when Houstonians awoke to a bed of snow on Christmas morning for the first and only time in recorded human history, was a fluke. We must accept that. 

Perfect for cozy dinners: fig salad and vegetable paella

What does acceptance mean? Is it spending $3,000 to dump 20,000 gallons of fake snow on a perfectly fine lawn? Of course not. Acceptance means lighting up the palm trees lining Highland Village and River Oaks Shopping Center. Acceptance means decorating the cattle horns on our SUVs with garland. Acceptance means celebrating our Decembers—outdoors.

That’s the approach taken by Swift + Company’s Elizabeth Swift Copeland, anyway. The catering and events guru got her start nearly 30 years ago when a friend recommended that she cater coffee breaks at a downtown law firm. Copeland—who up till then had been working odd jobs—drove her mother’s van to that first gig, bribing the guards to let her park in the docks. Little did she know then that one day she’d be planning some of Houston’s most elaborate private events, cooking for luminaries like, oh, the Dalai Lama and the last four presidents of the United States.

Copeland has always loved to entertain in the River Oaks home she shares with her husband, Morgan, and their three daughters, but for years she craved a more open party space that wouldn’t leave all her guests cramped in and around the kitchen. 

Custom lights create a festive canopy over the plunge pool.

Working with landscape architect Johnny Steele, Copeland transformed her backyard into a beguiling courtyard featuring an outdoor kitchen, a dining area under an open-air pergola, a plunge pool, and a separate seating area complete with flat-screen television.

“We finished it in January, and right away we were just using it constantly,” she says. “With the heaters on, there’s really never a bad time to be outside here.”

Knowing that Copeland wanted a festive atmosphere, Steele created custom strands of multicolored LED and incandescent Christmas lights in orange, red, and purple, which his client leaves up year-round, strung across the yard, tossed in the olive trees that shade her pool, and wrapped around stalks of bamboo.

“I just love them, so I thought why not?” Copeland says. “Lighting is the most important part of any event space. You want to have lots of sources of light without making the room too bright.”

Grilling oysters in the outdoor pizza oven

Not surprisingly, her menus tend to buck tradition too, if for no other reason than guests quickly tire of the same old cocktail party fare during the über-social holidays. We’re looking at you, shrimp cocktail and beef tenderloin.

“I understand why it’s so popular,” says Copeland. “You don’t want to serve pork, because not everyone eats that. Chicken doesn’t feel special enough, so most people stick with beef. You don’t want a cut that’s going to be tough, so tenderloin is the obvious choice, and it’s always going to be a crowd-pleaser.”

Instead, she recommends regional specialties, a New Orleans–inspired menu of gumbo and jambalaya, say, or tamales and grilled quail. Winter is also the best season to enjoy fresh Gulf seafood. That pizza oven in the backyard? It’s great for grilling oysters, too.

Copeland’s family loves watching movies in the outdoor living area.

On cooler evenings, Copeland doesn’t abandon her al fresco impulses. She just pivots to the warm, comforting, and communal, to her famed venison chili or brightly colored vegetable paella or turkey-and-sausage meatballs. 

As for the table, forget about poinsettias and themed place settings. For Copeland, a mix of anemones, amaryllis, flowering kale, narcissus, and ranunculus in white and frosty pastels strikes just the right balance of wintry and mild. Most importantly, however, a tablescape for a holiday party—or any party, for that matter—should reflect the host’s style. 

“I go overboard for my friends, but who else are you going to do that for? I use my good china, my good silver,” says Copeland. “I always tell my clients that too. If you’ve got four different sets of china, mix and match them. It feels more personal.”

The bottom line? There’s a winter wonderland right outside your door, Houstonia. And you don’t even need to bring a sweater. 

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