“Peace is our gift to each other.”
– Elie Wiesel
We hosted a large reunion of old friends for the 4th of July weekend. As usual, the week before found us tackling a long list of neglected home repairs. At one point, while my husband hammered in a nail, I told him we’d probably live in squalor if it weren’t for our house guests.
Maybe that’s not strictly true, but we do find hospitality to be highly motivating when it comes to maintenance chores.
One day before the first guests turned down our long driveway, I decided to do something about the pantry shelves in our kitchen. A few weeks before we’d finally removed the flimsy bi-fold doors that never did stay on their tracks. Somehow I remembered an old pair of cream-colored curtains that my mother had sewed for me years ago. The tie-top panels had covered the sliding glass door in one of our first married homes, but then never quite worked for any of our windows after that. I’d been moving those curtains around, storing them at the back of various closets and drawers, for more than fifteen years.
We installed a curtain rod. We hung the curtains to hide our boxes of Cheerios, our tubs of coconut oil, and my messy collection of recycled glass containers. And they were perfect. As if they’d been made for just this space.
I texted my mom a picture and said do you remember these?
Yes, she said. Maybe it is sometimes a good idea to hold onto things.
So, yes, mothers do know best and simplicity is complicated. Give it away or hold onto it? I don’t always know.
Maybe it comes down to motivation. Are we holding on to something out of hope or fear?
There is a world of difference between I’m afraid I’ll need this one day and won’t have it and I hope one day I find a place for this beautiful thing.
I used to encounter advice on simple living and think won’t work for me. Things like, keep only the number of dishes necessary for each family member and wash after each use.
But what happens when you suddenly have thirty-five extra mouths to feed? Paper plates? That may be simple for me and my jar of dish soap, but it is not so simple for our budget. Or for the earth.
I prefer a large stack of plain white dinner plates collected from Goodwill and IKEA.
In our culture of excess, simplicity and hospitality can seem like oil and water. But I am learning, slowly learning, that they are not. Because what I most desire to share with my guests is peace.
There is no peace in excess. In overindulgence. In decadence.
Peace needs space in which to grow. It requires surrender and trust. Strangely, too much effort, even too much paper party décor, can snuff it out.
A little emptiness, a little imperfection, a little less … of everything. This is how to carve out space for another person.
There is also, in simplicity, a great deal of not knowing. Do I keep the curtains or not? Do I bake three desserts or will one suffice? To overwhelm someone with the stuff of our hospitality is to assume we know, in advance, what she needs.
But we do not know. So we give a little emptiness instead.
And we watch as emptiness becomes a place where every guest can be seen and heard.
And made welcome.
When I was invited to write about “quiet hospitality” at Grace Table, I knew just what I would say.
I meant to tell you all about the loud hospitality we used to practice. About the parties and events and big efforts. Those days were good, but they are long gone.
I meant to tell you about the daily rhythms of our current life at Maplehurst. Those quiet practices, like a cooked breakfast every morning and homemade pizza every Friday night, that are easy and natural to share with others.
But all the while a very different story was unfolding at my own kitchen table. And that is the story I’m sharing today.
Grace Table is about love for God, love for neighbor, and love for the table. If you haven’t yet spent time there, I suggest you do. The storytelling is excellent, and the recipes are mouthwatering.
It’s a delicious combination.
Find my story here.
I write a great deal about books on this blog. You know that I love Irish poetry and the novels of Virginia Woolf. You know that I love Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. You may not know that I love well-written detective novels like those by Margery Allingham (past) and Kate Atkinson (present).
A significant sub-genre in the large category of Books I Have Loved is Food Books. This includes my childhood favorite Little Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Even today, I could happily read those descriptions of nineteenth-century farm meals over and over and over. Wilder can make me drool even for headcheese.
It also includes Food Memoir. This seems to be a very popular genre today. I haven’t actually read many of these books, but I have noticed whole stacks of memoirs with words like cupcake, lemon, chocolate, etc. in their titles. My own favorite food memoir may be Down the Kitchen Sink, by Beverley Nichols. His gardening books are the best, but I love Nichols no matter his subject. He’s sentimental, nostalgic, and rather snobbish (well aware of his own foibles, he would no doubt prefer the term “romantic”), but he’s witty, supremely British, fond of name-dropping and more comforting than the most comforting comfort food.
Lastly, there are cookbooks. I read them like novels and am drawn both to the glossy and new (Ina Garten! Babycakes!) and the vintage and worn (The Kitchen Garden Cookbook with watercolor illustrations by Tasha Tudor!). One of my all-time favorites for reading pleasure is Apples for Jam. The recipes are organized by color (pink! green! white!) rather than food type or meal. It’s totally impractical and wonderfully inspiring.
Last spring, I inherited (via estate sale) a whole stack of vintage cookbook treasures. When I paid for them, the daughter of their previous owner sighed and told me that her mother used to read cookbooks like novels. I told her I’d be keeping them on my bedside table for just that reason.
My favorite of her books is The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook. The title may sound corporate and rather soul-less, but if you could hold it in your hands you would know right away how wrong that first impression is. This is a hefty, hardback covered inside and out with delicate ink drawings, many of them in full technicolor glory. Originally published in 1963, mine is the 1965 edition.
It is part cookbook, part memoir (as the best cookbooks usually are), and describes the life, times, and food of Margaret Rudkin. Apparently, Mrs. Rudkin was inspired to begin baking and selling Pepperidge Farm bread because of her child’s food allergies. Thus, she is dear to this mama’s heart.
Part One of this book describes Mrs. Rudkin’s childhood in a New York City brownstone. It seems they ate a lot of soup and fish. I might try the recipe for Strawberry Soup. Likely, I will skip the Pickled Lambs’ Tongues.
Of course, I also enjoy actually cooking. And certainly, I love to eat. Still, one can only cook or eat so much. But reading … ah, reading. With books I am never sated.
Do any of you share my love for cookbooks and books about food? Any recommendations? I’m always hungry for more.