Category: Hospitality Lessons

Party Tips from Food Writer Ruth Reichl

“I was not prepared for the feel of the noodles in my mouth, or the purity of the taste. The noodles quivered as if they were alive, and leapt into my mouth where they vibrated as if playing inaudible music….The restaurant’s sea urchins were fabulous too: great soft piles of orange roe as succulent and perfumed as hunks of ripe mango. Claudia refused to taste them. She merely shuddered when I offered her raw shrimps, which melted beneath the teeth with the lush generosity of milk chocolate.”

I think even a non-sushi-lover could be persuaded to eat Japanese food by Ruth Reichl. The above excerpt is from her food memoir Garlic and Sapphires, about her time as restaurant critic for the New York Times.

I have a terrible writer-crush on Ms. Reichl…even her tweets make my mouth water. Who knew you could pack so much descriptive power into 140 characters?

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Happy 2011 Party

About a week and a half before the end of 2010, Matthew and I decided we should have a little New Year’s Eve party. We did a Facebook event invite, and since event invitations aren’t very noticeable in the latest iteration of Facebook, we used the “Message Guests” feature to send FB messages about the party. We also texted/called the guest list.

Lesson 1: New Year’s Eve is one of those occasions that require advance invites. Many of the guests we invited already had plans for the evening. Next year, we’ll decide sooner to have a party so we can give more advance notice.

We still had a nice group of nine friends attend. Which gave us 11 people total at the party…that’s kind of cool for a party welcoming 2011!

The main attraction of the evening was Pucket, a British pub game Matthew’s sister Amy imported for him for Christmas.

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How to Give Directions

Getting lost is one of the most frustrating occurrences for both guests and hosts.

(Or maybe that’s just me…I have an amazing proclivity for getting lost. When we first moved to Rhode Island, I drove around with two maps in the car – an atlas and a customized MapQuest [does anyone even use MapQuest anymore?] printout with “home” and “church” and other important locations marked on it. I still got lost. Frequently. Part of that can be attributed to RI’s lack of proper street signs, but I’ll claim most of the blame as my special talent. One time, we were invited somewhere new for dinner, about 5 miles from my work. Matthew drove separately and got there before me. I got so lost that even repeated phone calls couldn’t rescue me, and Matthew had to leave the dinner, find me, and guide me to the house. Dinner was really cold by the time we sat down to eat.)

You don’t want that to happen to you. Or your guests. So give them good directions.

By that I mean, don’t actually give them directions (of the “turn right at the brown house” sort). The webcomic XKCD agrees that’s rarely necessary anymore, since most people have GPS’s in their cars or smart phones with Google Maps apps.

Here’s what I do mean:

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Flexing My Rusty Small Group Hosting Skills

Opening a home for a Bible study / home group / small group feels very natural to me. I grew up as a pastor’s kid seeing my parents model this kind of organized hospitality. When I was younger, I mostly noticed the house-prep aspects of hosting home group: the bathroom and main areas of the house had to be clean, snacks had to be prepared, chairs had to be set up in a circle.

In high school, I co-led a youth small group and experienced the role of facilitator for the first time. People had to be invited, and welcomed when they arrived. The flow of the evening had to be gently led, people (and the mood) transitioned from games and ice breakers to study and discussion…fun to serious to snacks. The conversation had to be directed, everyone given a chance to speak, all viewpoints balanced and heard.

I’ve helped facilitate small group meetings/Bible studies since then – the newlyweds group my husband and I led for several years, the women’s classes I’ve coordinated.

It’s been a while since I’ve done small group hospitality, though. So when I started an 8-week short-term study for women recently, my long-learned skills felt rusty. I tried to remember everything I needed to do, and over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten back into the groove.

If you’re new to leading or hosting a small group, or if it’s been a while, here are some of the lessons I’ve re-learned.

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Fall Hospitality for Your Nose

“Why are you wearing pants and long sleeves?” my shorts-and-tank-top-clad friend asked a few weeks ago.

Because I have new fall clothes, duh! And I can’t wait to usher in my favorite season.

Fall in New England is MAGICAL, with sparkling pixie dust, double rainbows, and unicorns. Or at least the most beautiful foliage in the United States.

Today it’s warm and muggy out (and I’m kind of sweltering in my button-up and cargo pants), but I persist in having the windows open and fans bringing in the air, trying to catch the slightest whiff of crispness that will tell me fall is really coming.

Inside, my house smells faintly of dirty diaper. Which is kind of inevitable when you have a toddler. (Adult-Strength Poo, Without the Grown-Up Bathroom Skills!)

So to clear the air and remind myself that autumn is coming, I turned to my favorite potpourri solution today:

  • Put a pint of water in a small, sturdy saucepan
  • Pour in a generous splash of vanilla
  • Sprinkle cinnamon (and/or nutmeg, allspice, pumpkin pie spice, ginger, other fall-smelling spices) on top
  • Set it on a low simmer

It will shortly fill your home with amazing aromas, and people will think you’ve been baking pies all day.

Once the mixture starts putting off a good amount of fragrant steam, you can carefully carry the saucepan around the house, spreading the love.

CAVEAT: Watch this like a freaking HAWK. It will boil down before you can say “eggnog latte,” and you’ll be left with roiling black gunk and your house will smell like an evil, damp campfire. Don’t ask how I know this. (Or how very many times it has happened to me.) Add water as it boils down – you’ll eventually end up with cinnamon sludge, but you can keep the mixture going all evening if you’re attentive to it.

Dinner at the Hampson Estate / Using Serving Trays

We went to the new home of our friends the Hampsons for dinner on Saturday night. This was our first visit to their new-ish home overlooking the Jamestown and Newport bridges. They’ve finished restoring an 1899 historic inn. The ProJo featured the home as the House of the Week in 2006, which is how the Hampsons happened upon the property.

The home has a ginormous wraparound porch overlooking the bridges, and the Hampsons took advantage of the cool evening to hold dinner al fresco on the porch. Besides the beautiful views and lively company, my favorite thing about the dinner was Ann’s use of serving trays. If I had to transport various aspects of the dinner from the kitchen to the porch, I think I would have tried to juggle things in my arms and then arrange them on the tables. Ann used some lovely serving trays to compartmentalize and carry appetizers, drinks, and dessert, and to clear the table after dinner. It made everything feel organized and tidy.

She served cold soup made from their own garden veggies:

And brought out drinks and cups on a tray. Then we had a big summery dinner of grilled meats, corn on the cob, and garden salads.

We had brought dessert. (Price Rite had Ben & Jerry’s on sale for $1.99 a pint. How you can pass that up?)

So I didn’t:

Ann arranged the ice cream, spoons, cups, and toppings on a tray. They had all survived the trip from Providence to North Kingstown intact…except for the whipped cream, which had had an unfortunate incident in the car on the way over.

Noise: Pfffhhhwewwwhhh…

Matthew: What’s the noise?

Becky: I have no id…oh, frick. I stepped on the whipped cream can.

(Which reminds me…I still need to clean the floorboard of his car.)

After dinner, the Hampson’s son Josh (about to return to school in Scotland) gave us a tour of the house.

“This is our Harry Potter cupboard,” he said.

Oh, why, yes. Yes, it is. (I laughed very hard.)

There may have been lengthy and animated discussion about using their home to hold my EPIC Harry-Potter-party-I’ve-been-planning-for-two-years at their home in November…details as they develop.

And … rarely in my life has my mouth dropped open. But it did when I walked into this room:

Having just read this that morning…I climbed the ladder and sang “I’m the King of New York.”

So. Even if you don’t have spectacular views of the bay, a four-story historic home with a library, an under-stairs cubby, or an expansive veranda, you can still use Ann’s ideas for serving trays when you’re hosting dinner at your home.

Hospitality Q & A: The Sassy Cousin

My friend Kristy Miller (no relation) asked yesterday, “I need hospitality advice before tomorrow! A very special cousin of mine is coming for one night Tuesday and maybe part of Wednesday. I’ve never hosted her, so I don’t know her likes / dislikes. She is fun, very sharp, and sassy. I really want to make her comfortable and spoil her a bit.”

My first response was to laugh – Kristy and her family hosted us last summer in an emergency and made us very comfortable. I should be getting hospitality advice from her! My family went to Charlotte, NC, for a convention, and we arranged last minute to visit Kristy and her husband, Nate, briefly before heading to Ashville to stay with other friends, the Linikers. Our car broke down and had to be repaired before we could leave Charlotte, so we ended up staying with the Millers for a couple days. They gave us their own bedroom and Kristy slept on their futon while 7 months pregnant! They fed us delicious barbecue and other amazing food, connected us with their mechanic, let us do laundry, and made some important professional connections happen for us. I told Kristy she would have no problem making her cousin feel right at home.

Kristy had decided to put her cousin in the girls’ room because there is a double bed, and the room is right next to a bathroom. Great idea – proximity to a bathroom is a nice thing for guests.

Here were my suggestions to her:

  • Cook food that is regional – visitors to North Carolina often want to enjoy NC’s famous barbecue,
  • Be aware of food allergies – if you don’t know a guest’s allergies or preferences, avoid common allergens like peanuts and shellfish,
  • Make up a gift basket to welcome your guest – local food or gift items make great gifts. Burt’s Bees products are made in NC, and the Linikers gave us Burt’s Bees products and local goodies when we visited them in Ashville.
  • Guests sometimes feel awkward asking if they can raid your kitchen. Stocking their room with a few snacks lets them eat if they get hungry.
  • Put a clean towel on the pre-made bed so your guest knows which towel to use in the bathroom. Kristy said she had bought a special new towel for her cousin.
  • Give your guests downtime when they arrive. Often traveling leaves people tired and feeling rumpled. They might want to rest or freshen up.
  • Have a list of possible interesting things to go and see, depending on what your guest feels up for.
  • Create lots of casual time for conversation. Especially on a short visit, don’t run around so much that you fail to really connect with your guest.

Kristy said she makes a great banana pudding, which is a Southern specialty. And she said she likes to bake as guests arrive so the house smells welcoming. So we talked about how she could have dessert and coffee ready when her cousin arrives so they could sit down, relax, and catch up.

What suggestion do you have for Kristy?

How to Host Radio Show Callers

So, I called in to a radio show for the first time tonight. It was a live podcast called Stubborn Facts Radio, and I found out a half hour before it was on that Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like was going to be interviewed tonight. I am a huge fan of Jon and SCL, so I called in. You can listen to the recording of the show here.

I felt a little awkward doing it because I’ve never called in to something like that before. I wasn’t sure how I would know when it was my turn to ask a question or how all that worked. As an introvert, I kind of hate the phone anyway, and knowing it was going to be broadcast live was intimidating. I didn’t know how I would be able to hear the show while I was waiting and if I would have to mute my computer once I got on so there wouldn’t be a delayed echo.

(I think I overthink way too much.)

But as soon as I called, the recording said to press 1 if I wanted to get in the queue to talk to the host. Easy! Then it immediately put the show on the phone line so I could hear what was going on.

The host noticed callers in the queue but wanted to ask his questions first, so he asked the callers to hold on, which was nice. The queue showed the area code, so when they put caller “area code 401″ on, I got to talk.

The show hosts and Jon were all very gracious and hosted the conversation well. Hosting a call-in show takes a lot of skill at conversational ping-pong. It’s like:

-identify caller
-welcome caller
-caller says hello to host or guest
-host/guest greet caller
-small talk
-host knows the right moment to ask the caller for his/her question
-caller asks question
-host/guest answers
-follow up back and forth for clarification if needed
-host lets caller know when to hang up

If any of those things does not happen, it gets awkward very quickly.

The show invited Jon on after they read his CNN article about Christians being jerks online. They wanted to talk to him about politics and Christianity. I got to ask about pro-life stuff. And unicorns.

Jon is very kind…he mentioned how I wrangled 19 children to Holden, MA, to hear him speak last month and then plugged my blog on the show! That is so gracious. I want to be all about promoting other people as much as Jon does.

Thanks to the hosts of Stubborn Facts and to Jon Acuff for doing a great job hosting the podcast. Again, you can listen to tonight’s show here.

Stuff Christians Like: Hospitable Churches

I cheated on my church a few weeks ago.

I didn’t even have a good reason, like traveling for business or being on vacation. The opportunity presented itself, and without thinking, I just went for it. I had a one-Sunday stand with another church. And the worst part is, I dragged other people from my church down with me.
I know, you thought better of me than that. But I’ll try to salvage my tattered reputation by playing the authenticity card. (The only thing that looks better than a perfect person is an authentic person.) So I’ll *authentically* tell you all about my church-cheating experience and what I learned from it in the hope that my pastor will forgive me – maybe he will when I implement some of these hospitality lessons at my home church.
So a few weeks ago, one of my favorite writers was in frigid New England all the way from the friendly South. Jon Acuff blogs at StuffChristiansLike.net, where he writes satirically about western Christianity, trying to clear away the clutter of culture so that people can see Christ better. Stuff Christians Like, or “SCL” as it will henceforth be called herein, has encouraged me a ton since I started reading it last fall. When I heard Jon was going to be preaching at a church outside Boston, about an hour away from where I live in Providence, I jumped at the chance to hear him speak live. I brought three carloads of good girlfriends, fellow SCL fans, with me.

Being “Company Ready”

I have really been struggling with my home not being “company ready” lately. I’ve realized it’s a function of my personality (INFJ) to compartmentalize, so when I get busy with work or a project, I can only focus on that, and I tend to tune out other things like housework. (And vice versa – when I get focused on cleaning, I can organize and clean all day to the exclusion of other things). I really want to learn how to balance all this better – keep up with work, volunteering, projects, enjoying motherhood (although that’s the easiest…it doesn’t take much for me to set aside everything else to play with the cutest child in the world), AND have a generally company-ready house.

With the Red Sox heading toward the World Series and now being in the World Series, and the fact that we have a projector-theater-room now set up, our home has been the hub of much baseball watching. Tired of being embarrassed by dirty dishes and baby toys everywhere when hordes of guys suddenly “drop by” to catch the game, I’ve been working on keeping things more straightened up. Matthew and I have been busy running here and there in the evenings, so it’s been a long time since we actually sat down together for dinner, and that was another thing I wanted to change.

Yesterday I texted him and cordially invited him to a sit-down dinner at home. I’m so glad I was getting prepared for a nice dinner when he called from his racquetball league and said, “A friend is in Rhode Island tonight…can I bring him to dinner?” While the bedroom is the messiest it’s probably been since college, the kitchen, living room, and dining room looked pretty good, and I was already cooking stroganoff.

“Sure, that would be great!” I said. I finished clearing off the table, set plates, and lit a candle. Our upstairs neighbor was able to join us as well, and later, two other guys came by to watch the game.

I feel like I’ve had a lot of hospitality failures lately, so it was wonderful to feel like a success last night. Matthew even made sure to tell me several times that I had been a great hostess. Last night reinforced my desire to keep our home company-ready…not to mention that those of us who live here deserve a peaceful, clean environment as well.

Now I have to run, because another long-distance friend is flying in this afternoon to spend the weekend with us, and I need to tackle our bedroom…

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