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Slaughtering the Fatted Calf: The Gift of Hospitality


This post is an excerpt from The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet by Emily Stimpson Chapman.

 

Get your copy of The Catholic Table today for 30% off this Advent.

 

A few years after I moved to Steubenville, I bought a house of my own: a 1915 Craftsman that needed restoring from top to bottom. Unlike the couples fixing up homes on HGTV, I didn’t have a one hundred thousand dollar restoration fund; I had whatever money was left over from each month’s paycheck. Because of that, the restoration process unfolded slowly, taking years, not weeks or months.

Nevertheless, during that time, I continued hosting the weekly dinner parties my roommates and I started throwing during graduate school.

Every Thursday, without fail, twenty-plus friends descended on my house for dinner. I supplied the main dish, while dessert, salad, bread, and wine were brought in by the masses. People ate wherever they could find a seat: in the living room, on the porch, even on the basement floor. It was a happy exercise in chaos, made even more chaotic by constant construction.

If Pinterest were to be believed, not a single person should have shown up for my parties back then. There were no quail eggs laced with truffle oil. People didn’t dine off china plates that I hand-painted myself. No crafty mason jar chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Mostly, there was just construction dust, and a lot of it.

Yet those twenty-plus people kept coming back week after week. They ate simple soups and pasta dishes cooked on a decades-old stove in a kitchen that the city probably should have condemned. And they loved every minute of it.

I loved every minute of it too. For me, those Thursday night dinners gave me a chance to show my love for my friends through the food I cooked. Those nights also gave food the chance to do what food does best: create community.

 

LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU

One of the reasons I started my blog, “The Catholic Table,” was to encourage people to open up their homes more frequently to friends. These days, people need that encouragement more than ever. Despite tens of thousands of Pinterest boards dedicated to “entertaining” and the entire industry that is Martha Stewart, fewer and fewer Americans invite their friends over for dinner . . . or drinks . . . or any reason at all anymore.

Between 1980 and the early 2000s, the number of Americans who “entertained people in their homes” on a monthly basis dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent. During the same time period, the number of people who left their homes at least five times a year to dine at friends’ homes dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. As of 2000, fewer than 12 percent of American adults ate in friends’ homes at least once a month. More recent data, focused on young adults in their twenties, reports a 40 percent decline over the last decade in the hours they spend socializing in person—as opposed to online—with friends.

Experts have posited any number of theories about the “why” behind America’s increasingly antisocial behavior: busy schedules, working moms, long commutes, families fractured by distance and divorce. All certainly play their part. But the very idea of “entertaining” and how it’s pitched to us doesn’t help.

Not everyone has the opportunity to display courage in battle or to show greatness of soul in holding office; but everyone not owned by another is free to give. Everyone with a home can freely invite others to enjoy his hospitality.”

 

Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature 

 

PINTEREST PERFECT

If you’re contemplating inviting a few friends over for dinner, a few minutes on Pinterest just might convince you otherwise. There, you’ll find photo after photo of perfectly plated meals resting on carefully arranged tables in immaculately clean rooms. Click through to the articles those photos represent, and you’ll discover headlines like “10 Tricks Every Hostess Should Know,” “Last Minute Entertaining Tips That Would Impress Even Martha Stewart,” and “How to Throw a Tuscan Inspired Dinner Party.”

The articles’ purported aim is to help prospective hosts and hostesses. But, in reality, what most of those articles do is simply intimidate them. Today’s busy adults can barely manage to get dinner on the table for their own families, let alone find the time to replicate the experience of dining in a rustic Italian garden for thirty of their closest friends. To large swaths of the population, Pinterest-inspired entertaining doesn’t sound impossible; it sounds delusional.

The language of the entertaining industry only makes the problem worse.

“With this book, you will always end up with something beautiful that will impress friends and family,” promises celebrity chef Sweet Paul’s cookbook Eat and Make.

“Music can make or break a party,” warns Martha Stewart herself in her online “Party Planning Guide.”

From Pinterest to Better Homes and Gardens, entertaining is primarily depicted as a performance, with the host putting on a show and the guests taking their seats as the appreciative audience.

The goal of the performance—whether it’s held in a garden illuminated by fairy lights or a spacious, open-concept kitchen with an island big enough to float in the Pacific—is always to impress. The point is to wow others, to elicit praise and admiration. It is, in short, meant to demonstrate to all who walk through our doors how perfectly fabulous we are.

Following that model, entertaining becomes about the hosts, not the guests. It becomes about what we can do—how tasty we can make the food, how beautifully we can set the table, how seamlessly we can make the evening flow. It hinges not on how much love we lavish on our guests, but rather on how much money, time, attention, and skill we lavish on the party.

That kind of hosting comes with a hefty helping of exhaustion, expense, and anxiety, so it’s hardly a surprise that fewer and fewer people attempt it (or attempt it on a regular basis). Life is stressful enough. Who needs to worry about whether or not our carefully crafted silver fork place card holders will impress a couple dozen casual acquaintances?

The problem with that mindset, however, is that we’re throwing out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bathwater, taking a pass not only on Pinterest Perfect entertaining, but also on practicing genuine Christian hospitality.

 

EASY PARTY IDEAS

Practicing hospitality doesn’t have to mean cooking twelve course dinners or hosting black tie affairs. Easy ways to open your home to others include:

• Friday Night Movie Nights: Order pizza and watch a show. Or, alternately, order pizza, throw the kids in front of the television to watch a show, and then hang out in the quiet(ish) living room with the grownups, talking and drinking wine.

• Sunday Brunch: Make scones or an egg casserole the night before. Ask everyone to bring something (make sure to assign Bloody Marys and Mimosas to someone), then serve it buffet style after Mass.

• Backyard Cookouts: You supply the meat, everyone else brings sides, drinks, and dessert. Or vice versa.

• Dessert and Drinks: Skip dinner altogether and go straight for the cookies and martinis. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

• Soup: A pot of soup, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a crowd of friends. All you need is a roaring fire and you’ve got the essential ingredients for a perfect night.

• A bourbon tasting (or wine or beer tasting): Everyone brings a bottle. You supply budget-friendly cheeses, meats, crackers, or olives. And glasses. Lots of glasses.

 

THE ABC’S OF HOSPITALITY

As Christians, we’re not called to “entertain” people or put on a show. But we are expected to practice hospitality.

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling,” instructs 1 Peter 4:9.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” adds Hebrews 13:2.

Later, in 1 Timothy 5:10, Paul warns that no widow is to be honored unless she has “shown hospitality.”

When the biblical writers talk about hospitality, they’re not talking about slaughtering a fatted calf for every person who comes calling . . . or laying out a fancy spread of artisanal cheeses and imported olives. What they’re talking about is simply opening the doors of our homes and inviting others in—giving the lonely, the lost, the weak, the hungry, the struggling, the searching, the stranger, and the friend an opportunity to experience the love of God through the love we show to them.

That type of hospitality doesn’t demand craft cocktails, five star menus, or killer playlists. You can save the party favors for children’s birthdays (if then) and ignore the stains on your couch. All you need to practice hospitality is something to eat, something to drink, and a heart willing to love.

 

SOMETHING TO EAT AND SOMETHING TO DRINK

Food is always a part of hospitality. In Genesis, the first thing Abraham does when strangers come calling is order his servants to prepare food. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter’s mother is too ill to cook for her guests, Jesus heals her right quick so that she can get back to the kitchen.

The importance of food to hospitality is partly practical. God made us to eat, and if we don’t eat, we get weak, tired, and crabby. It’s hard for anyone to be at their best if they’re hungry, so offering food to guests is a way to tend to both their bodies and their souls. It’s a kindness to the whole person. It shows we care about their needs and well-being. It also makes our time with them more enjoyable.

That holds doubly true for drink. If alcoholism runs in your family, you may want to confine your libations to coffee and lemonade. And if you’re inviting a few moms over for coffee at 2:00 in the afternoon, nobody expects you to whip out the whisky (although, many might appreciate it if you do). Sometimes, a simple glass of water proffered to a guest is enough refreshment. But I’ve yet to attend or host a party that wasn’t improved by some kind of fermented beverage.

Wine, as the Bible tells us, is a gift from God, given “to gladden the heart of man” (Ps 104:15). It is “like life to man if you drink it in moderation” and it brings “rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul” (Sir 31:27–28). That applies equally to beer and booze, again drunk in moderation. Adult beverages liven a party, elevate a conversation, soothe the weary, relax the stressed, and can do it all while complementing a meal. It just makes hosting (and being hosted) easier.

“God gave us wine to make us gracious and keep us sane.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

On a deeper level, though, food and drink have a place of honor in Christian hospitality because feeding people is a way of imaging God.

In different times and cultures, good hosts have offered food to their guests as a sign of their generosity. Laying out the best spread possible for whoever came into their home was a way for the host to prove his goodness, wealth, and liberality.

For Christians, feeding guests isn’t about proving our own generosity; it’s a participation in God’s generosity. He gives us good gifts, and we thank him for that by sharing good gifts with others.

Similarly, God shows his love for us by feeding us with his Body and Blood, and we can show our love for others by feeding them with a good risotto and nice Bordeaux. Every meal we serve is an opportunity to show others that they matter, that they are important, that they are worth every minute spent stirring, chopping, and basting.

And ultimately, if all food foreshadows the Eucharist, if what we eat is a natural sign of the supernatural mystery of bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, then feeding others is a form of participation in Christ’s loving sacrifice.

No sacrifice we can make—in the kitchen or elsewhere—can ever compare to the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross. But hospitality is still a sacrifice. Inviting others into our home always costs us time, money, and occasionally sleep (so many late nights doing dishes . . .). It gives us the chance to die to ourselves for the sake of others. It is an opportunity, in the midst of the daily business of life, to imitate Christ.

One more time: the food we cook and the drinks we serve don’t have to be fancy to make love known. They don’t have to measure up to the standards of the judges on Chopped to be a sacrifice or a sign of God’s generosity. Fancy is all well and good, and sometimes, for some of us, it’s an awful lot of fun. I do love the chance to use my silver. But it’s not essential. It’s not even important. When it comes to hospitality, food and drink are a means, not the end. What’s important is that something is offered.

What’s even more important is the attitude of the person doing the offering.

God’s sharing of food, and self-sharing as food, is the source of divine goodness that heals physical and spiritual hungers, but in addition urges us to share with and care for one another.

 

Angel F. Mendez-Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist

 

A HOST WILLING TO LOVE

The secret to my Thursday night dinners’ success was not the food, the booze, or the venue. During the years my house was under construction, I couldn’t put on a show if I wanted to. Artisan cocktails and beautifully set tables were the stuff of someone else’s life. I had neither the time nor the money to pursue either. If I swept up the dry wall dust before everyone arrived, that was me being classy.

And yet people came back every week. They didn’t mind the construction dust. They didn’t mind that nothing I served them would win me a James Beard award. All they cared about was that on Thursday nights I gave them a place to belong. They had a community. They had people who would talk with them, laugh with them, and hear about whatever trials and tribulations they’d endured that day. They had my attention, and they had the attention of the other guests. That was enough.

Most of us know that’s enough. We know this because we’ve experienced it. We experienced it as children when the best house in the neighborhood was the house with the big crazy family and a yard strewn with toys. We experience it still, every time a person opens up their house to us and spends the evening talking with us rather than laboring over the meal and dishes in the kitchen. It’s not the cleanliness of the baseboards or the clever centerpieces that make an evening. It’s a host who looks us in the eye, asks questions, and listens to the answers. It’s a host who loves us in a casual, easy way and treats us like we matter.

As a hostess, it’s easy to forget this. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of entertaining as performance art, fretting over what people will think about our cooking or our housekeeping and worrying that they’ll be overwhelmed by our children, disappointed in dessert, or judgy about our scratched up, wobbly dining room table.

I know it is, because I have to fight that temptation too. I run a Catholic food and hospitality blog, for Pete’s sake. New people showing up at my house come with the impression that I’m Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and Mother Teresa rolled into one. Which I most definitely am not. Knowing that, it’s tempting to succumb to the pressure of meeting unrealistic expectations and worrying

that the reality of me will inevitably disappoint. But if I do that, if I let my hosting become about serving culinary masterpieces in a picture perfect home, I’ll either never let people into my home or I’ll end up neglecting my most important task as a hostess: loving the people who God sends my way.

That’s really what sets hospitality apart from entertaining. A person who is entertaining might serve the same food as someone practicing hospitality. Their house might be just as clean, their booze just as good, and their garden just as lovely under fairy lights. But the person entertaining is focused on impressing people. The person exercising hospitality is focused on loving people. The person entertaining is focused on themselves. The person exercising hospitality is focused on others.

* * *

Right now, each of us has a neighbor, co-worker, or friend eating dinner alone. There’s also a newly-married couple or newly-arrived family in our parish feeling lost and overwhelmed. Or maybe it’s you eating alone, you waiting for the dinner invitation to come.

We need to stop waiting and invite someone over to join us. It doesn’t have to be twenty people. It can be just one. It’s okay to start small. It’s okay to keep it simple.

It also doesn’t matter if walls are covered with little kids’ handprints, if furniture dates back to the Carter Administration, or if the best dinner we can muster up is grilled cheese and tomato soup served on paper plates. That’s okay. What matters is simply you— your love, your attentiveness, your desire to make your guests part of your life, even for just a little while. Hospitality doesn’t require a lot of money or a lot of skill. It just requires a lot of you.

All that being said, there’s nothing wrong with handmade mason jar chandeliers. If you like making that stuff, great. Go for it. If quail eggs in truffle oil are your specialty, that’s fine too. Serve them up. Heck, if it makes you happy, use the silver while you’re at it. It certainly does me.

And yes, it’s good to tidy up the house a bit before guests arrive . . . at least clearing the bills off the dining room table and the laundry off the living room couch. A place for guests to sit helps.

But as we do all that, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking those details are the essence of hospitality. They’re not. The essence is love, kindness, and respect. The essence is simply giving people a space where they can come to know others and be known by others. That’s what makes for a successful dinner party and allows community to grow.

That’s what gives people a foretaste of the supper to which we’re all invited: the marriage supper of the Lamb.

 

Get your copy of The Catholic Table today for 30% off this Advent.

 

This post is an excerpt from The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet by Emily Stimpson Chapman. 


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