Recently I’ve been thinking about hospitality and how few people seem to actually practice it. Excuses abound and I’ve been guilty of some of them myself. I’ve wondered if maybe the perfectionist culture of magazines like Martha Stewart Living had something to do with it. What if the roast burns or the souffle falls? Letting others see our humanness can be pretty daunting.
Then I thought about Pinterest and all my recipe boards. Maybe pinning 500 recipes is missing the point; the point is pinning down a date to actually have people over!
Don’t get me wrong; there’s certainly nothing wrong with setting a gorgeous table or whipping up a gourmet feast if that’s something you’re good at. I did a pretty good Martha Stewart imitation myself back in the day.
But I’ve learned something over the years:
there’s way more to hospitality than setting a nice table or being a good cook. I was a good cook long before I knew anything about hospitality. First I had to learn that there’s a difference between practicing hospitality and entertaining.
Back in those days, I had a routine that worked pretty well: I prepared the food, people ate the food, people loved it, and people loved me! Hooray for me! I was a great entertainer. Makes sense. I come from a family of entertainers; they played instruments – I played with food.
But as Marlena Di Biase says: “With hospitality the emphasis isn’t what’s on the table.” (Or who cooked the food.)
It’s who’s sitting on the chairs.
So what exactly is hospitality?
Well if you did a Google search you’d come to one of two conclusions:
1. It’s about the hotel and restaurant industry
2. It’s about entertaining friends and family in cozy settings.
But here’s the thing; hospitality didn’t begin with Holiday Inns or Martha Stewart. In the old days, hospitality was a way to protect travelers; there weren’t any Holiday Inns and traveling was dangerous. It wasn’t about comfort and entertainment – it was about saving lives.
The original word was philo-xenos; it meant something along the lines of ‘loving strangers’. Notice – not a word about gourmet food, or fancy napkin folding. It was about paying attention, having an open door, and an open heart.
It was about being available.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re actually missing the mark when we make Martha Stewart the poster child for hospitality: there’s a better role model for us:
Let me tell you about my grandmas: one was an Italian immigrant; she was a fantastic cook, but she was gruff and frankly, most of us were a little afraid of her. That was Grandma Marini. We went to her house and ate polenta.
Then there was Grandma Broughton or as we called her, Mom Minnie. We went to her house and ate grits. She was a fantastic cook, too but when we sat down at her table, we feasted on more than the food – we feasted on the fellowship.
Mom Minnie had four grown boys with families of their own, but every single weekday those ‘boys’ showed up for dinner and by dinner I’m referring to the substantial noon meal: fresh-caught fried trout, smoky collards, biscuits so light you had to smother ‘em with butter and homemade peach preserves to keep them from floatin’ off the table.
It was about the food, obviously, but more than that?
It was a noon respite, a time for sharing the news, laughing at jokes and enjoying life. I have a wrinkly old photograph of one of those meals. Even though the table is littered with plates waiting to be cleared and washed, Mom Minnie is right there with them, a big ol’ smile on her face, her eyes shining, delighted to be doting on her “boys”. She was relaxed and in the moment. She knew the dishes would be there but time at the table with loved ones was more important.
So I started thinking about all the things Grandma knew about hospitality that we’ve forgotten and came up with a baker’s dozen for you…
1. Grandma Was Ready And She Was Available.
There’s a quote that says, “When it’s about keeping everything perfect, the house is never ready.” Grandma didn’t freak out if people dropped by. She kept an orderly home but she wasn’t a slave to it. Her house was ready; but more importantly, her heart was ready.
Today people pay big bucks to go to therapists and talk about their problems. In the past they would just swing by grandma’s; she always had a pot of coffee brewing in her kitchen. “People knew they could stop by, talk, and leave feeling a lot better. And the wise woman simply gave them a cup of coffee.”
2. Grandma Kept Things Simple
Spent three weeks poring over cookbooks or Pinterest looking for a brand new recipe for company. Unlike me, she didn’t keep a notebook recording all the people she’d had over and what she’d served, because God forbid, she’d repeat a recipe. People loved her pot roast, so more often than not, that’s what she made.
And she never ever forgot to serve a course of the meal she’d prepared because there was only one course – DINNER!
3. Grandma Was Cool, Calm and Collected
She didn’t lose a bit of sleep obsessing over how the meal went and what she could have done differently. Grandma didn’t take Ambien – she worked hard and slept hard.
4. Grandma Didn’t Make Excuses
She never said, “My house is too small” (it was) or “too old” (it was). And she didn’t fret that her dining room table was too small, because she didn’t have a dining room table, because she didn’t have a dining room. We ate at the kitchen table and on card tables or wherever we could find a spot to sit down and we loved every minute of it!
5. Grandma Practiced Hospitality.
Hospitality is a practice that takes practice and she practiced it daily; it was a routine part of her lifestyle.
She didn’t have the stress of throwing an annual open house – her house was open year round.
6. Grandma Was Practical
She’d never dream of spending $20 on out of season fruit to make a cantaloupe mousse in January. And yes, I did that. She picked her cantaloupes right out of the garden, in season, heavy and ripe, sliced and sprinkled with a little salt and her guests had a little taste of heaven!
7. Grandma’s Home Was A Haven
We think of a haven as a place to escape – to block the world out, but a haven actually means a harbor or port. More than a place of refuge, it’s a place of great activity! She made her home a place for family to rest and recuperate, but it was also a place that welcomed the world in.
8. Grandma Was Open-Handed
She trusted there would always be enough so she was generous with what she had. She fed her family and she fed the poor and you never left her house without a container of leftovers.
9. Grandma Had A Hospitable Spirit
Grandma knew there was more to hospitality than having an open door. Sometimes you have to walk out that door and meet some strangers! She loved on everyone she came into contact with, including the grumpy grocery store clerk. Grandma never met a stranger.
10. Grandma Was Sensitive To the Needs of Others
She reached out and offered invitations to the lonely mother who never gets out of the house, visited the widow down the street, reached out to the homesick college student, and loved on the child whose home was in chaos.
11. Grandma Had Discernment
We get a little nervous around strangers, but Grandma reached out to them, to the homeless and the wayward, even when the wayward were her own, “Oughtta’ know better adult children,” but that didn’t mean she was careless about the safety of her home and her family. She had boundaries and showed wisdom as to how best to ‘love the stranger.’
12. Grandma Didn’t Mind Interruptions
She was a busy lady but she handled interruptions with grace: her husband wanting her to sit down and watch a TV show with him, a grandchild wandering in and asking for a cookie, a knock at the door. She knew interruptions were the good stuff.
13. Grandma Paid Her Dues
Hospitality comes at a price and she was willing to pay it. It cost her something: time, money, energy, talent, but the return was priceless: friendship, stories, laughter, contentment.
All in all, Grandma was a pretty amazing woman! But here’s the thing: I don’t think she had any idea she was amazing. I don’t believe she spent a lot of time thinking about any of this. She just did it because she knew it was right.
Because people matter.
And the little acts of kindness she did on a daily basis added up.
I’ve spent my adult life searching for the essence of hospitality. I learned to make a 12 layer dobosh torte but didn’t find it there; I remodeled my kitchen and dining room to better facilitate my guests, but it wasn’t there either. What was that elusive ‘something’ I used to feel sitting around my grandma’s table? I finally figured it out. That feeling was acceptance.
If we could just look at hospitality as a way of showing people we accept them into our lives as they are– as we are, what a precious gift we’d give them, and give ourselves in the process.
Now I like to say that one of the best measurements of hospitality is making someone feel so comfortable they fall asleep on my sofa!
Going back to that original purpose of hospitality, of saving lives – whose life could we save if we could become a little more welcoming, a better listener, a bit less preoccupied, more relaxed, or more accepting? If we could maybe just make a good cup of coffee?
It’s said that hospitality is not something you do, as much as it is someone you become.
Someone like Grandma