Archive for November, 2010

Take a vacation from your problems

By five o'clock tomorrow afternoon my body will be working hard to digest the magnitude of food it's just taken in. See previous post for specifics. But emotionally, I've been in digestion mode for quite some time; here at the Ely household, there's been a lot of hard stuff to take in lately and I'm starting to get that unpleasant  "I cannot take one more bite," feeling in my gut. As my Spanish friends would say, "No mas, no mas!" Add to that the fact that there won't be a crowd around my table this year, and well, I'm working extra hard to put on my party face. Let's just say, I'm not exactly feeling like 'the hostess with the mostess.'

You may go ahead and roll your eyes now because I'm about to quote yet another line from my favorite movie, "What About Bob?" In an effort to help his clingy, self-absorbed patient, Dr. Marvin takes out his Rx pad and writes Bob the following prescription:

TAKE A VACATION FROM YOUR PROBLEMS.

Good prescription, hard to follow.

It feels like denial, doesn't it? It's not – it's faith. Faith that there's a God that sees the mess we're in, knows exactly how we got there and yet loves us enough to pull out a seat for us at his banqueting table, saying,  "Welcome – now, dig in."  He invites us to drop our problems into His lap, provides us with food for our bodies and our souls and doesn't even notice that we're not dressed for the party. He's the ultimate host. That is something to be thankful for.

So, I'm going to be a good girl and take my medicine, PRN, "as needed." I'm going to start by praying this prayer by John Scott; I hope you will pray it along with me. Have an blessed and abundant Thanksgiving!

     We respond to your invitation, O God. As we are, we come. We offer to you the hostilities that shape us, the hostilities we carry, the hostilities that carry us. In these matters, move us from hostility to hospitality. Be our guard, for we guard ourselves too much. Be our protector, that we need not overprotect ourselves. Create in us a space, a room, a place – a free and friendly space where the stranger may be welcomed

  • that we may be at home in our own house.
  • that we may be healed of the hurts we carry in the soul.
  • that we may know brother and sisterhood.
  • that we may know kindness.
  • that we may laugh easily.
  • that we may know beauty.
  • Nudge, guide, entice, prod. Move us to live within your soul. To the end that within this flesh, within this house in which we live, we may be at home with you, with our neighbor, with ourselves.

    Thus we pray, remembering Christ who says, "I stand at the door and knock." Create in us a place of hospitality. Amen.

In Search of a Crunchy Thanksgiving

Have you ever noticed the texture of most traditional Thanksgiving recipes?

SOFT; they're all so soft. Comforting, I suppose, but way too mushy for my tastes. My lament about the lack of crunchiness has become a running joke at our house.

A couple of years ago my daughter Johanna was compelled to write a little essay about it and I asked her permission to share it with you. She agreed, saying, "Anything that might help to put a little more bite into Thanksgiving is OK with me."

Here it is; enjoy!

Growing up I always had a nagging feeling that my mother loathed the holidays. Not in an anti-holiday sort of way; more of an, "I hate cooking for hours and days on end and then having it devoured in ten minutes," kind of way.

Another protagonist – casseroles. While they were moist and delicious, alas, so soft and pliable they could easily be gummed to death and swallowed without a single tooth being engaged. Yes, my mother had decided that holiday feasts were prepared with the toothless crowd in mind.

"You could gum this entire meal," she'd vent under her breath as we scurried in and out of the kitchen looking for nibbles and asking, "is it ready yet?"….."I'm starving."….."What's taking so long?!"

Poor mom, ever in search of a crunchy holiday recipe. Cooking her heart out while my brother and sister and I watched the parade on the TV and harassed her as our bellies groaned from the smell of her toothless delicacies wafting in from the kitchen.

The table finally set (do the forks go on the right or the left, mom?) my father blesses the meal and we all dig in. Praising the turkey, he beams from the head of the table. He'd slaved away all day on the succulent bird, or at least the smoker had. He had prepared the feast, the focal point of every holiday meal. 

"Great turkey, Dad," "delicious," murmurs all around the table from mouths stuffed with his juicy bird and famous giblet gravy.

Fuming on his left sits mom, who actually arose at 6 am to prep the turkey, make breakfast for us and the strays that holidays always brought. All her hard work being gummed to death and all the praise being given to my father.

One turkey, ten side dishes, everyone's favorites; mustn't leave anyone out. Mama Lou's squash casserole for me, pineapple rings with sweet potato and marshmallow for my brother, green beans for sis, potato puff casserole, mac 'and cheese, stuffing…you name it, we ate it, in ten minutes flat. Gummed down and slopped with gravy. Delicious. Done.

Mom, harping on us kids to do the dishes. Dad carefully picking the carcass bare, a holiday skeleton reminiscent of Halloween. "Is the game on yet?" "No-ooo Thanksgiving," is a phrase oft repeated at our house.

Now that we're all grown up and have flown the coop it's rare for such a feast to be had by all. We have a standing rule that only one holiday meal may be gummed to death. Your pick; mine usually. Mom, ever the foodie and gourmet junkie, has us sit down to a served three or four course meal.

A beautiful salad with moldy blue cheese, tart pears and toasted walnuts. Braised scallops served delicately in their shells. Dad's famous turkey and gravy, then mashed potatoes, creamed spinach casserole, crunchy carrots tossed with lemon and dill. My mother beaming from her seat on dad's left. At least an hour of eating with all your teeth engaged. Bliss.

We take turns saying what we're thankful for (mom's amazing cooking talent ) or seeing how many words we can create from the word "Thanksgiving."

I'll always cherish my holiday memories. Cooking in the warmth of the kitchen with my mom. The occasional blast of cold air snaking in from the cracked window for our hot flash moments. Side by side with mom, or gossiping from my perch on the old butcher's block table, forever in search of a crunchy holiday feast.

THE LAST COURSE:

I've finally softened my stance on the softness of Thanksgiving food; people like what they like; who am I to judge? I'm fine as long as I don't accidentally overcook my crunchy carrots. Check back tomorrow for a free downloadable "cookbooklet" of  Thanksgiving recipes, soft and crunchy and easy on the cook.

A Savory and Spicy Hospitalitarian*

Where and how do you practice hospitality? Today I'd like to introduce you to someone who has carried her passion for hospitality out of her home and into her workplace.

She is Cindy Jones, owner of Savory Spice Shop, which opened last month in Lafayette Village, a European Shopping Center in Raleigh, NC. Cindy and her husband, Bob made the bold move to be one of the first shops to open in this spanking new plaza and already the business has developed a devoted clientele. The selection of herbs and spices is mesmerizing and Cindy's warmth and personality make you want to savor every moment of your visit. We hit it off immediately and as we chatted yesterday, I tried to discover what it is about people who, like her, seem to have a knack for connecting.

Susan: What was your upbringing like, in terms of your family extending hospitality?

Cindy: My family is Italian; so we spent every weekend at my grandmother's house. There were at least 30 of us that she fed, plus some who were absolute strangers, people off the street. There were always people there who I didn't know and would never see again.

Susan: How did your grandmother become aware of these people needing a meal?

Cindy: I think she belonged to clubs and societies in the church, food pantries, etc., and she would come in contact with someone who had recently immigrated or fallen onto hard times and they were hungry. She just collected people.

Susan: Didn't your grandmother eventually come live with you?

Cindy: Yes, when my grandpa died, she and a great aunt came to live with us. There were seven in my immediate family plus the two of them and later on, two cousins.

Susan: How big was your house?

Cindy: A tiny, four bedroom Cape Cod.

Susan: And what was that like for you as a young teenager?

Cindy: I do remember being overwhelmed by the amount of people around, plus on any given night people would pop over. My grandmother started every day with her rosary and her missal. Now I can't start my day without quiet time first; if that gets interrupted it really throws me off. I rely on it to fill myself with whatever I might need to pour out during the day.

Susan: How was your mother able to feed all those people?

Cindy: She made tons of food, seemingly out of nothing, what she called peasant dishes – pasta with eggs and peas, polenta with red sauce and mushrooms, pasta fagiole on Friday nights. I think her budget made her creative. I remember her saying, "As long as you have pasta in the house, you can make something amazing." 

Food is the way we connected with one another – it was always about the food, sitting around the table, watching grandma roll out the pasta. Today if you walked into my mother's house at 9 pm, she'd say, "Would you like some pasta?" It's like a springboard into conversation. That's how she interacts.

Susan: Did you inherit that gift?

Cindy: When I was newly married I didn't know how to cook. Mother never wanted us standing at her side, it was such a small kitchen. So the cooking part didn't come naturally, but the entertaining part did.

I can't remember when I developed a passion for cooking; it must have been after I had children. What was modeled for me was inherent and I didn't know it was there until I had to retrieve it. I couldn't even cook an egg when I first got married: it was pitiful.

Susan: I've heard you talk about always setting an extra place at the table. Do you mean physically or symbolically?

Cindy: Now that it's just the two of us, I would say symbolically, but when the kids were younger, they knew they were always welcome to invite friends over. It was a way of life. There were never just five of us at the table.

Susan: How did you and Bob go about choosing this business? Did it have anything to do with your passion for hospitality?

Cindy: Hospitality was totally at the center of our decision. Bob is a people person; that is something we share. We sat down and thought about what brings us the most joy. We made a list, put it on paper, talked about family and friends and memories of food and wine and conversation.

We looked at other opportunities but realized we wouldn't be able to interact and get to know people in those environments. When we found Savory Spice Shop, we knew this would be like having people in our kitchen, an extension of our home. People gather around the counter and share their entire lives with us; it blows my mind.

Susan: You and Bob are such warm people; that's a big part of it.

Cindy: The shop is so aromatic; it triggers memories for people and they like to talk about it. .

Susan: How do you go about making customers feel welcomed? It just seems like people open up to you. You're a good listener.

Cindy: It's more that I just have a willingness to listen. I don't know how to explain it, but I feel like I've been given a gift to intuitively see people's hearts when I meet them. I care enough to ask the questions. People really need to be known.

Susan: So your "table" during this season is the shop.

Cindy: Yes. Here I am, passionate about food and having people over to our home and now I don't have time. I'm struggling with not being able to be as spontaneous as I was before, to sit down and have a cup of coffee or glass of wine with a friend, but really, in the shop I have the opportunity to minister to more people than I ever did in my home.

Susan: Any last thoughts?

Cindy: What I came away with through your probing is how deeply shaped we are by those things in our life; I didn't give a lot of thought to it until I first read your blog. It prompted me to remember. If more people just stopped and asked those questions – that's what's important, the willingness to ask the question.

I've been pointing people to your blog because it's about connections and what I think God wants us to do for one another. Caring enough to ask the right questions – the rest comes after that. We were designed for relationships with God and for one another.

Bob and I don't want to waste time anymore on the mundane. We want our work to be valuable and to matter in somebody's life. If it's through food and spices, we want to be able to use what God's put before us. I'm excited about that.

THE LAST COURSE:

Whether you're writing a blog, running a business, or sitting around the kitchen table, hospitality is about reaching out, in a way that works for you.  Like the Curly character in the movie "City Slickers," we need to know that when all is said and done, there's "Just one thing," that really matters……connecting.

*If you missed the post Hospitalitarian….Whaaaat? then you might be scratching your head wondering if I just made up a word; it is made up, but not by me. It's a recognized word in the hospitality industry these days, originally coined by Danny Meyer, basically referring to someone who in any situation, puts the other person's interests first. Even strangers.

Who Are You? I really want to know you…..

Are you my reader?

When I launched this blog, I wanted to "share my table" with as many hungry readers as possible so I did a lot of studying on how to create a successful blog.  One piece of advice that blogging experts are united on is the importance of knowing your audience. You have to ask yourself this question: Who is my reader?

Keep that person in your mind and write each post as if it were a personal message to them. If you write for yourself, you will be your biggest fan, but you won’t have many followers. Since this blog is called The Shared Table, I decided to turn the tables and ask all of you who have stumbled on or been directed every so subtly to my blog:  Are you my reader?

 You’re my reader if you:

  • are tired of living in your shell; it feels safe in there but after awhile, it begins to stink.
  • want to open your home but are waiting until: the kids get older, you have a bigger place, you have more time, more money, become a better cook.
  • would rather share life than share the juiciest gossip.
  • want to but fear reaching out to others.
  • realize you’re supposed to “love strangers’ but don’t know any.
  • you value relationships and community more than commerce and productivity.
  • want to get over your perfectionist tendencies about hospitality.
  • think there must be more to hospitality than napkin folding and appetizers.
  • need encouragement and skills to impact your community with the love of Christ.
  • want to be more available.
  • sense that something spiritual takes place when you share your table.
  • long to be at home with God, with your neighbors and with yourself.
  • are interested in discovering the real meaning of hospitality

THE LAST COURSE:

Have you ever thought about inviting someone to your home for a meal, but didn't act on it? Next time, take a minute and think about how you feel when YOU receive an invitation: Excited? Wanted? Accepted?

When God invites us to his banqueting table, he offers a feast that feeds our hungry hearts and makes us long for more. Do you know anyone with a hungry heart who would be thrilled to be invited to your table? Don't wait, don't hesitate – issue the invitation, and focus on feeding their hearts. 

Isaiah 55:2 "Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance."

STOP ENTERTAINING!

Have you felt it yet? Halloween is barely over but I've already experienced that pinched feeling in my gut reminding me that the holidays are right around the corner. I noticed it the other day when I went to the grocery store to pick up a can of pumpkin to bake a pie for my grandson's birthday.

I had to ask a clerk to help me find it, which I thought was a little weird since I'd already tripped over several displays of Christmas products.

She pointed me towards aisle one, bottom shelf, where I found just five cans. OMG – is there a pumpkin shortage again? Should I buy all five in case I can't find them four weeks from now? What will Thanksgiving be without the pumpkin pie?

The holidays will do that to you – turn your normally sane mind into a bowl of quivering cranberry sauce.

Do I love the holidays? Yes.

It's the anxiety producing expectations that drive me nuts, all because somehow I'm convinced that if I just try hard enough, I can attain the illusion of the Southern Living brand of Holiday Happiness. You know – the one where in any respectable Southern household, there will be a trio of homemade coconut cakes on the sideboard, displayed on vintage milk glass cake stands of varying heights? Surrounded by fresh holly leaves and heirloom polished pewter candlesticks? Just sitting around for show, gathering dust?

I have a confession to make – somewhere in my files of IMPORTANT STUFF, I have a picture of the above scenario that I ripped out of a holiday magazine. God help me, but I would kill to have three coconut cakes sitting around on my sideboard, just in case, you know, company drops by. Then I'd be READY! 

In the book, "Making Room," one couple, with years of experience offering hospitality to countless people every day, commented, "When hospitality is viewed as entertainment, the house is never ready."

What a breath of fresh air that statement is to all of us who strive and strain for perfection. It makes me want to throw open the front door and invite the world in, regardless of my empty, dusty sideboard. And yet it's so tempting to give all my attention to devouring yet another article on how to prepare the perfect holiday buffet.

Here's my little secret: I have twenty years worth of holiday issues of Bon Apetit, Food and Wine and Gourmet magazines stashed away in my sideboard. There are some great recipes in there; the ones I've tried, all three of them, have become staples: chicken liver pate, chocolate mousse cake and Brussels sprouts with pecans.

I've made those dishes dozens of times over the years and must say they do create a dazzling display on my sideboard, but that's not what motivates me these days. I want to gather people around my table – friends, loved ones, strangers – and create family. I want to share my table and I want to share life. Sharing – that's what hospitality is really about.

As they say on TV, "That's Entertainment."

THE LAST COURSE:

When we put the emphasis on making sure the house is immaculate and on preparing extravagant menus for which we lack the time, energy or expertise, we set ourselves up for a load of stress and tension that alienates us from our guests. That makes it hard to share anything.

This year before you sit down with your cookbooks to plan your holiday feast, take some time and visualize the day in your mind. What could you do that would make you more relaxed, more present? Do you need to tone down the meal or tone down your expectations? Maybe you could ask people to contribute a dish instead of trying to do it all yourself. Picture yourself enjoying the day and interacting with your guests; make that the priority then plan your menu accordingly.