A Spectacular State Dinner

An intimate gala with Susan Ford Bales

Photos by Jenn Ocken Photography


Louisiana was on the cusp of fall. As the afternoon sun made its daily descent behind the lake, runners took their evening jogs. Passerby eyes peered into the courtyard of the home on East Lakeshore Drive. Cars had lined the street and guests were beginning to arrive.

The lake was calm, the sunset golden, and the air cooler than normal—a trio of circumstance that set the tone for the elegant evening on which guests were about to embark. By 7 p.m., an intimate group had gathered at the enchanting home of John Turner and Jerry Fischer.

The occasion was a gala dinner in honor of Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the late former first lady Betty Ford and the late President Gerald Ford. Bales’ speaking engagement at the next morning’s annual breakfast of the O’Brien House, a local substance abuse and recovery center, had her in town for the evening. Barbara Anne Eaton, chairman of development for the O’Brien House, proposed that a presidential-style dinner would surely be the best way to captivate her guest speaker’s attention. Thus, the theme for the organization’s inaugural black-tie gala on Sept. 24 was set.

“The dinner was a way for us to bring light to the O’Brien House in a different capacity from the breakfast,” Eaton said. “We had the night to entertain her, and we wanted to create a state dinner comparable to those at the White House.”

The invited guests mingled with the woman of the hour and the homeowners as they enjoyed passed appetizers, prepared by chef John Folse. Respecting the mission of the nonprofit, the signature drink named White House punch was non-alcoholic. Background melodies were smooth jazz; musical artist Eric Baskin played the piano and trumpet.

After socializing, attendees were invited to take their seats, either al fresco on the home’s terrace overlooking the lake or indoors alongside Bales. The two rectangular tables were styled by Ashley Thom of Blue Avenue Events with white hydrangeas, Moroccan tea votives, and laser-cut gold candle boxes serving as centerpieces.

The six-course meal was served on white dinner plates that rested atop sponge gold glass chargers. Guests dined on shrimp rémoulade, oysters Rockefeller soup, plantation salad and Louisiana crab cakes before being served the main course of tenderloin of beef short-rib style.

“I wanted to choose a menu indicative of this group of savvy diners,” Folse said as he paused from prepping plates in the kitchen. “Yet I also wanted the meal to be reflective of our cuisine here.”

It was the first time Bales had been to Baton Rouge, and Eaton’s idea to entertain and impress went off without a hitch with help from gala co-chair Bobbie Carey. More important, though, than the elaborate menu, the good conversation or the elegant tablescapes was the heightened awareness brought to the mission of O’Brien House. In 2013 alone, the nonprofit served more than 600 clients.

The morning after the dinner, Bales became emotional as she spoke of her mother’s struggle at the annual breakfast. It was as much her mother’s journey, she said, as it was her family’s. Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It impacts each and every friend, co-worker and family member of its victims—an impact Bales knows too well. As she tearfully recounted the days, months, and years her mother fought, one wonders why she continues to share such painful memories.

“She’s not here to tell the story,” Bales said. “So I am.”

Click here for a recipe from Chef John Folse from the night.