Hospitality is powerful. It makes friends of strangers and family of friends. Our so-called civilization sometimes feels impersonal and harsh. Hosts can carve out a safe harbor, a modest shelter against the vicissitudes and voids of our frantic or lonely lives. Yet hosting does not come naturally to many of my peers, even those with the best intentions. I’ve seen deeply generous hosts on the verge of nervous breakdowns at their parties. I’ve seen guests hanging around uncomfortably in the shadowy corners of cheerful rooms. I’ve also been both those types. More often than either, I’ve been a stale, solitary couch potato. The goal of this essay is to make hosting new friends easier and more enjoyable.
All of the following advice is based on my own experience and opinions, with only selective reference to experts and absolutely no quantitative data. (Refer to Mark Twain RE: lies, damn lies, and statistics.) In a word, this is wholly subjective. So sue me. Those with sociological expertise are encouraged to critique.
If you consider yourself a renaissance-man or visionary committed to the revival of lost arts like refined etiquette, if you eulogize nostalgic customs through a cloud of cigar smoke, over a snifter of brandy, while wearing your smoking jacket, you just might be disappointed. Again. Sorry.
Likewise, if your goal is to impress your guests, please cease to read this essay and refer instead to a Dos Equis commercial. Hospitality means sharing what you have in order to make others comfortable. It’s not about showing off. On the other hand, if you have casual acquaintances whom you’d like to know better, neighbors whose names you can’t recall, or newcomers in your community, then please read on! Likewise, if you are ever embarrassed to open your disheveled home, if you are ever lonely or haunted by social anxiety, then this essay may be helpful. Here are the lessons I learned by first doing it all wrong, and still messing up more than I care to admit.
- Make invitations personal.
This doesn’t mean that you must meet face-to-face or mail something on fancy stationary. Just make sure that each individual knows you would appreciate the pleasure of her particular company. The idea is to let your invitees feel valued, not to fill a room so you can feel popular. If it’s a facebook event to which you invite all one-thousand two hundred and fifty-seven of your “friends,” then nobody will sense that their presence is important. Chances are that the vast majority won’t even consider attending. This is a relief, since you honestly didn’t want them all anyway. If you truly want someone to show up, then reach out to him individually, by name, using whatever medium is the most practical in the circumstances: e-mail, phone call, text, card, carrier pigeon, etc.
2. Keep it simple.
If you have never cooked coq au vin before, the moment to try it is not an hour before half a dozen hungry professional colleagues show up at your door. Besides, no friend worth his salt will mind if you serve rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I’m as fond as the next person of creative seasonal decor and decadent dishes. My recent combination of black figs and goat cheese may be the subject of an essay–or rather, a love poem–but some other time. When hosting someone new, I try to rein in my extravagant impulses. Use tried-and-true recipes or store-bought favorites which fit the time available. Speaking of time, quantities can really trip you up. If a recipe takes thirty minutes and serves four, then assume that it will take at least an hour to double it for eight people. So, when I decided as a teenager to prepare Chianti chicken and a dessert of panna cotta with fresh berries for twelve people, dinner didn’t reach the table until sometime around 10:00 pm.
On the other hand, I dropped in on a friend yesterday and the lunch of grilled cheese and Campbell’s soup which she offered me was perfect. Plus, it was quick, leaving us plenty of time for a lingering chat over our hot cider afterwards.
Just remember that you don’t need to be Ina Garten to practice hospitality. Unless your guests follow you fanatically on pinterest or you made some over-detailed promises, nobody actually expects that dreamy dangling centerpiece of live greens and votive candles. You can let it go.
3. Embrace imperfection.
The unfussiness doesn’t just apply to food and decor. Perhaps I am unusual here, but I find a pristine residence vaguely unsettling. I think: Can I really put my drink down on this gleaming glass coffee table? Dare I step on that plush, snow-white rug? Will my infinitesimal morsels of water cracker be the first indignity ever suffered by this Victorian velvet sofa? Does anyone even live in this museum?
A normal, imperfect home, on the other hand, sets me at ease. It offers wordless permission to show up as my imperfect self.
One house in which I am unfailingly comfortable often has children’s toys strewn about the living room, the newspaper dissected across the dining table, and an antiquated microwave with no door handle. Instead, it’s opened by the claw end of a hammer which obligingly resides beside the stove for that sole purpose. The lord and lady of this unsung castle are so genuinely warm, generous and engaging that guests feel instantly at home. I want to be that kind of friend.
When it comes to the lived-in nature of your abode, just balance out the blemishes. Maybe you don’t want your unfolded laundry monopolizing the sofa, or allergenic pet hair on every surface, but don’t panic about a few dust specks, dirty counters or even a bit of clutter.
In conclusion, if you would like to have friends over but are convinced that your house isn’t ready or your cooking skills aren’t up to snuff, get over it. Plenty of things about adulthood are hard, but hospitality needn’t be one of them. You are ready. People don’t need caviar. They need kindness.
That covers the preparation principles. Next week I’ll look at the marvelous moment when your guests arrive. There are three attributes which make your company worth keeping.