Tuesday, November 28, 2017

8 Things I've Learned about Hospitality

It feels so rare, and therefore special, to be invited to people's homes to eat, don't you think? I don't think it should be rare. The funny thing is is that when you start inviting people to eat with you, they'll begin to invite you over too, and before long, you'll find that you're eating with friends quite often, just as it should be, in my opinion. Hosting is an exercise in community building.

My mom has always been an incredible hostess. We have different hosting styles now (yeah, that's definitely a thing), but even as a kid, it was easy to see how grateful and warm everyone felt when they got to be in her home, eating her food, surrounded by the company she invited in. Once you experience that environment, you'll spend your life trying to recreate those evenings.

I've been cooking for a long time, but only recently began making an effort to host, or in situations in which we can't host, coordinate gatherings so that we get to see and eat with new and old friends regularly. Hosting used to feel very daunting to me, but it's become so enjoyable that I wanted to share some of the ways that I make sure that "communal dinners" (lols, how millennial Christian am I rn?!) are a regular part of my life.

(illustration by Donald Chaffin)

1. In the interest of regularity, I keep most gatherings small.  Sometimes I get carried away and want to invite all of my friends and loved ones and liked ones to the same gathering, especially when it's a celebration of some specific event. When I plan that kind of party though, I get very overwhelmed and decide not to do it. Instead of not having a get together at all, I am now trying to have more regular small gatherings and I also keep a list of people I'd like to invite over, and then if I know in advance that I'll have extra food or we don't have a crazy day planned, I'll just invite a person or a couple over to share the meal our family was going to eat any way. It's not always festive, but people will still feel special, and kinda like they're part of your family. If they ask and you agree to let them bring dessert or a bottle of wine, it gets a little like a party anyway!

2. A lot of hosting and organizing is about leadership and assertiveness - suggesting an idea and seeing it through. Being the one to coordinate others getting together and who can bring what, etc. This logistics part is what keeps a lot of people from throwing events, I think. This goes hand in hand with some of the other points, but sometimes just sending out a text saying, "hi friends, let's organize something!" is the difference between a gathering happening or not happening. I also then take the lead in suggesting a list of food or other duties that people can volunteer for (rather than assigning). So, the takeaways: 1) just ask!, and 2) follow up at various stages. Also, I've stopped waiting to "get to know people well enough" to invite them over. Sometimes the invitation is so that we can get to know them.

3. I've also learned that hosting doesn't need to be grand - literally no one else cares as much as I do whether the candles match the theme, or whether there's a theme at all. To be honest, even a dish or two that flops will be overlooked when there's good company. Perfectionism will also get in the way of you getting together with people, so just set it aside and know that you're your own worst critic.

4. Let other people help. I believe in this practice for many reasons. For one thing, help is awesome: I love to delegate items that other people can bring if they offer, like dessert or a drink or a salad. But perhaps even more importantly, I think that letting people help is inclusive. People like to feel useful and appreciated, so use them and appreciate them! And don't say "I've got it covered" if you're actually frantically trying to finish preparing a meal. Have people chop vegetables, wash pots, or set the table. They won't mind, and it gives people a way to express their gratitude for being your guest.

5. I also believe in the power of the phrase "teach me." There are many things I am intimidated by in the kitchen (red meat, fish, bread) and other things that I've never heard of or not easily learned from the internet. Similar to letting people help, I think that genuinely wanting to learn from others and making space for that learning to happen - especially surrounding food - is an experience that can't be bought. It's a good way to get to know your neighbors and other people in your community or spend time with family members that you might not otherwise have a lot in common with. I also believe in "teach me" when it comes to volunteer work (which often involves food, in my experience). Sometimes it can be really humbling to be at the mercy of other people's good will, so I think that believing and treating people as if they have something of value to offer me is a natural way to show dignity and learn a recipe you wouldn't have access to otherwise.

6. Prep ahead and don't experiment with new recipes. I used to cook elaborate meals that I'd never practiced before, and by the time guests arrived, all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and be alone. Choose food that leaves you alive to enjoy time spent with people afterward. I break the "don't make new recipes to serve" rule frequently (and also, here's a shout out to my cousin Mark who is a fantastic host and was the one who gave me that advice), but for gatherings where I want to be as relaxed as possible (or other factors out of my control are making it stressful) I definitely go with tried and true recipes.

7. Provide atmosphere, but don't focus on it. I try not to obsess over the details, because then it becomes not-fun and I will easily talk myself out of a gathering in which I have to guess whether my guests are enjoying themselves. So without stressing over these things too much, I do think it's important/helpful to have appropriate music in the background (I tend to go with Motown if there isn't a specific theme or age to a group, because it's unlikely that anyone will hate it). I also serve alcohol when appropriate (which is all the time, unless your guests have religious or personal reasons for abstaining) because it always makes an otherwise regular meal feel like an occasion. Snacks or an pre-made appetizer before hand always make people happy, as does coffee with or after dessert. Finally, have some games in mind just in case conversation isn't flowing well or your guests don't know each other or there are kids! I do like having kid-free gatherings sometimes, but I also want to have a space where people feel like their whole family is welcome and they don't have to spend the evening babysitting their own kids. Some of our favorite games are Set, Spoons, Cards Against Humanity, or good old fashioned Duck Duck Goose with kids.

8. Clean up tomorrow. I know plenty of people are strongly in the "clean up right away" camp, but I like to relax after I've cooked a meal and have time to talk with my guests instead of cleaning. I try and clean as I go, but I don't worry about the dishes until the next day. Or often times, Jonas does clean up either to be helpful or because he needs a break from entertaining people. ;) Depending on the size of the gathering, sometimes people will insist on helping clean up, and then it can be fun if lots of people are cleaning and chatting, but generally we just skip that altogether. 

I used to think that hosting gatherings was going to be cost prohibitive. It doesn't have to be. I stick to recipes that I know I can do affordably (meat is usually not the main dish), I delegate alcohol, and I don't go crazy decorating (as much as I'd like to...). Hosting meals is almost always cheaper and more intimate (and even better tasting!) than eating out (goodbye, $15 cocktails...), and you'll probably get leftovers out of it.

Finally, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite recipes for gatherings:
1. This chicken with clementines and fennel never fails to impress.
2. A salad full of gross stuff like kale and brussel sprouts that is somehow amazing when all put together.
3. Deconstructed Thai-French food that is both fun and delicious.
4. A hearty (but not heavy) soup with great flavor that is perfect for winter.
5. Another bright flavored soup that is a fresh riff on a classic. 
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