While Padraic and I were visiting family in Chicago for the holidays, we made a stop at the house of one of Padraic’s childhood friends, Paul. Paul’s mom, Karen, looked at me and said, “I made some spaghetti and meatballs for lunch — would you like some?” Paul said, “Tell us what you want — we have everything!” removing several types of dips from the refrigerator, three or four large tins of Christmas cookies from the garage, along with a random cheese ball. After Karen had served me the hot plate of pasta, she stood at the counter and drizzled melted butter over a tray of homemade cheddar biscuits. “How bout a cheddar biscuit?” she asked Padraic, who already held a generous glass of whiskey (Paul had insisted he have “just one drink.”)
We regularly visit Paul’s house when we’re in town, and it’s always like this. He and his mom always have an abundance of food on hand and they always whip it out as if it was waiting just for us.
This last visit got me thinking about hospitality, and the notion that it’s something of a spiritual gift — some people seem to have a special knack for it, and others don’t. I’m not talking about “hosting,” be it a dinner party or a weekend gathering, which involves a prescribed amount of shopping and planning and cleaning and thoughtful preparation. I’m talking about people that keep homemade cookie dough in their freezer in case the neighbors drop by, people that regularly resupply their pantry so they can prepare a homemade meal for unexpected guests, people that shop and cook and manage their households in the anticipation of company and impromptu gatherings.
I’m a good enough host, and an enthusiastic enough home cook, but my admiration for the gift of hospitality derives in part because it takes me by surprise — it is a way of living and being in the world that doesn’t come naturally to me. I pride myself on an economy and thriftiness that rather directly opposes the largesse and exuberance of those that possess this special gift, and their sweet-smelling homes with wide open doors.
My routine is to carefully plan menus and grocery lists to ensure that everything purchased will get eaten by me and my husband and nothing extra will gather mold or slime or wrinkles. (Hah! You should see the inside of my fridge right now). I suppose there are many benefits to this (intended) pragmatic approach to cooking, but wasn’t it so much more fun to spend the weekend preceding Christmas Day baking far too many cookies than I could ever eat, knowing that they would be eaten by somebody, even if I didn’t know who?
It seems that the holiday season brings out a spirit of hospitality in some of us, if only for a few weeks. We try it on for size, baking cookies, bottling eggnog… Then January hits, and most of us return to our pragmatism.
Sometimes I justify my strict, survival-mode approach to meal-planning and cooking by telling myself that I am striving for a sort of minimalism so that I can make as much space as possible for writing and reading, and pursue my MFA and my job with a singularity of purpose. And then today as I was writing this I remembered that Anton Chekhov himself was known for his constant entertaining. No excuses there… the writing life has plenty of room for serving guests 🙂
Writer or not, wouldn’t the world be a more festive, friendly place if we didn’t rely on the holiday calendar to justify spontaneous, exuberant cooking… if, come January, we approached the new year by renewing our spirit of hospitality along with our gym membership?