I was raised in a home with a wide open door and food was a currency of love.
Summers at the lake meant 12 to 20-plus around the table every weekend. Our family of seven could always squeeze in a friend to the table on school nights. My parents hosted international students attending the state university. They’d join us for picnics, camping weekends and holidays. This started over 35 years ago and my mom maintains contact with many of them to this day. These students invited friends to come along with them – friends who’d been studying in a foreign country for months and had never been invited into a private home. Ex-cons came to dinner bearing gifts, such as Johnny Cash albums for my mom who’d visited them in prison.
There were outcasts and difficult people. At times they stayed for weeks. Sometimes messy, sometimes odd – it wasn’t idyllic, but natural.
“Us kids” assumed it was normal.
Mom brought hospitality on the road. For years in the 70′s she co-led a group of high school students (including myself) in a monthly visit to the city homeless shelter. She’d play her guitar, we’d sing at a service and serve cake to the men when it was over.
There were decades of weekly visits to convalescent homes – bringing her guitar and baskets filled with home cooked deliciousness and even “real” dishes. Tea out of a flowered bone china cup in a hospital bed…a break from the mundane. Just a few weeks ago Mom and a friend made homemade doughnuts to share with a house-bound friend.
She wasn’t the only hospitality power-house. My father traveled regularly to all parts of the world and his palate was in tune with things new and different. They organized a Round-the-World Dinner Club, rotating through friends’ homes, taking turns with different cuisines.
But his style was not one of a stuffy gourmand.
My best friend in high school was an only child living alone with her mother – a bitter young widow in a house that was sterile and eerily quiet. She was constantly criticized and we rarely spent any time there. I remember her mother screaming at her in front of me – for putting too much mayo in the tuna fish. She loved to come to our hectic messy house. One night when she came for dinner, my Dad sneezed at the table. As he drew his hands from his face his pinky held a French-cut green bean hanging out of his nose.
This was our father.
Dad wanted to take over the cooking (and did) when he retired at the age of 57. Remember now – my mother LOVED to cook. Their hospitality never waned. Twenty years after retiring he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008. Nine weeks later he was gone. In that time, HUNDREDS of people came to visit one last time. My family shares the same property, so we cooked for these guests until we were physically, mentally and monetarily exhausted. The “Feeding of the 5,000″ seemed to happen repeatedly in those sad weeks. It seemed entirely right that they’d all come.
Hospitality is in my veins. It’s my passion and joy. I could be writing all kinds of personal stories from my own chronicles of entertaining. But I want to acknowledge this gift planted in me by parents who were compelled to gather people around food.
Oh – along with plenty of wine too.
Whether in the home or taken on the road, their openness influenced many to draw up a chair and savor one another’s lives.
Words can’t explain what these two have taught me.
I thank God for their example.