This past weekend my family was invited over for fondue at the home of a Swiss family. Unless you’re lactose intolerant or maybe even if you are, that’s the kind of dinner invitation not to be refused. Never having had traditional Swiss fondue, our hosts did more than just prepare the caquelon to receive its cheesy calling, they also treated us to a memorable first experience.
We taste-tested the four cheeses, each one’s age specially selected for the newbie experience. We learned how the consistency of the fondue depends on the ratio of each cheese, how the kirsch is added to the white wine for depth of flavor and the cornstarch to prevent separation. We were even given unrestricted access into their family’s special seasonings. My husband got the job of stirring the fondue – constantly and in the path of an eight – while I got to cut cubes of crusty bread. By the time we sat down to the table to enjoy our communal meal, we were even more expectant than we have been when we walked in the door.
It is obvious when you’ve been invited as a dinner guest, and when you have been invited to be a stage actor in a dinner performance. Entertainers create carefully crafted but impersonal epicurean events and do gorgeous table settings, but when everything is so perfect – it kind of makes you want to send your second fork flying across the table. When someone has you over to share a meal, when the flow of the conversation takes precedence over serving the right amuse-bouche, that’s when you feel like a guest. We say “Wow” when we are entertained; we say “Ahh” when we are generously received.
I have a friend who has mastered make-ahead dishes so she can be available when her guests arrive to deliver her signature “Welcome friends!” reception. I have another friend who’s a proclaimed lousy cook but gracious host. She showers her guests with her unmatched witticism and later sends them home by having her entire family sit on their front porch waving until your car is no longer in sight. These are the homes where dining rooms flicker in the glow of gently used candles, where the table centerpiece is flowers from the garden, and where there are always cloth napkins – sometimes ironed, often not. Yes, they have prepared food for our arrival but mostly they have brought out the best of whatever they have and then readied themselves to receive company.
I’m the first to admit that I love cookbooks, experimenting with new recipes, and getting lots of public adoration when something tastes good. It is also true that I’m a self-professed food photo slut. I may not polish my silver, but I like how things taste and look. However, it also seems to me that some of my most memorable meals were the ones where the menu escapes me but the shared laughter and conversation does not. Even with that sweet recall, I still often hesitate to spontaneously invite someone over for dinner – or even more brave, just stay for dinner (both things my Mother did with nary a pause for breath) because of these silly expectations I have for my home and my obscure but deeply held culinary reputation.
However, when I’m a guest, I’m never keeping a scorecard. In fact, things always seem to taste better when someone else has prepared it. My chicken salad sandwiches have never tasted as good as the ones my Mom used to make for me. The word hospitality comes from the Greek word philoxenia which means Love of Stranger. If food is a drug, then food prepared with love can elevate even Ragu into something special. There’s another person I know who broadcasts open dinner invitations on Facebook. Can you imagine – opening your home not just to strangers, but to an unknown number of strangers? That would be a reach for most of us, but consider this: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Meeting out for dinner is lovely, but being invited into someone’s home helps you see what they hold most sacred. It’s not just an encounter; it’s a close encounter, made even closer when there’s no unnecessary apology for what’s been left undone. You may have matching china, but it’s impossible to fake perfect harmony when a guest passes by your cluttered home office or when your husband tells your guest to use the second bathroom (!). There should be piles of something somewhere, you should only consider mopping in advance if the floor is really, really sticky, and your kitchen should only be off limits to hands not yet old enough to wield a knife. Buy a few extra aprons. Turn on a mood-setting playlist. Light some candles (non-scented would be better) and by all means, move your conversation pieces into full view.
The idea of the guest house seems to be coming back in vogue with the skyrocketing success of websites like Airbnb. Travelers are self-selecting away from hotels and into private homes and apartments where they can communicate directly with the owner. Perhaps this general stampede from sightseer to local is an indication that we are craving richer, more personalized experiences. Recently we rented someone’s home in Italy, and I kept finding myself wishing that I could have dinner with the hosts – wanting to know the stories behind the travel photos that lined the walls and treasures that filled their home. We had so much to talk about. Never once did I think about what we would eat. And although we never met in person or even spoke on the phone, I felt like I knew these people better than some people I’ve had a live conversation with. We open ourselves up when we open up our home.
The hospitality industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that depends on the availability of leisure time and disposal income. One-to-one personalized hospitality requires a little bit of both those things too, but mostly it depends on our willingness to open the door. And believe me, your guests would rather put on an apron and eat the fondue that has been passed down through the generations more than they want to eat a well-rounded menu found in this month’s Bon Appetit magazine.
So, who’s coming over for dinner?