Haphazard Hospitality

You know in life there are those things you REALLY want to be good at but are also REALLY afraid to try in case it (likely will) go quite badly?  Mine was hospitality.  11 years ago I couldn’t cook to save my life.    I was going to a church potluck with all my friends.  I approached the kitchen and attempted to make magic bars as my contribution.  I had eaten them a million times and reasoned it couldn’t be that hard.  Armed with a recipe and a preheated oven, I began.

Hours later, I had an inedible situation on my hands that had permanently fused itself to the helpless pyrex dish.  My roommate walked in to find me crying in a heap on my bed. Yes.  Magic bars had conquered me.  There was simply no way for me to attend now.  My roommate brought me back to real-life (thanks Karen) and convinced me to take the bars and leave them in the car if I wanted.

You know what?  No one cared that I made a terrible dessert and that was the night I actually started getting to know the wonderful man who is now my husband.  The magic bars were magical after all!  Just kidding about that last part.  The magic bars were disgusting.

And that husband of mine happens to be a fantastic cook.  He could win one of those cooking show competitions where they give you fruit loops and a can of tuna fish and tell you to make something gourmet in 10 minutes.  He would win.  Even so, I still very much wanted to be Paula Dean so I asked my husband if I could take over the cooking.  He agreed.  And for quite awhile, it was bad ladies.  The food was bad, the entertaining was bad.  Just very painfully bad.  I am happy to say, however, in the last decade I have learned a thing or two about hospitality that I would love to share with you.

1. Don’t try new recipes out on your guests.  You are having them over because you like them, right? It could totally flop and it will add to your stress.  Make the dish you’ve made 100 times that your family likes and actually tastes good.

2. It doesn’t all have to be homemade!  Hospitality can come from a package if it needs to!

3. Do keep as many little treaty snacks around as possible for when you spontaneously entertain.  We are close with many of our neighbors so I try to keep some cookies in the freezer. You never know who is coming over.

4. If you’re instantly entertaining and you didn’t really mean to be, take my friend Heather MacFadyen’s advice and cut something big into little pieces and put it on a pretty plate.  BAM!  Instant H’orderves.  You’re practically in an evening gown at a cotillion at this point.

5. Laugh about the things that go wrong.  Like that time my husband and I invited 20 people over for a BBQ and didn’t realize until they all arrived with their steaks that our grill was broken.  Or that time I tried that huge waterpad thing off pinterest for a birthday party and it had 5 leaks before the guests even arrived.  Or that time I made a shephards’ pie for some British guests and dropped it face-down on the ground in the kitchen.  I laughed quietly about that one as I scooped it right back up and walked into the dining room like nothing had happened…

6. Remember hospitality is not about you.  It’s about your guests.  The entire point of having them over is to love and care for and serve them.  They don’t care if they are eating shephards pie off the ground (especially if they don’t know they are eating shephards pie off the ground).

7. Perfecting hospitality is a process.  I am a perfectionist in the worst way. Those of you who know me are nodding. Vigorously. I would get so wrought up when I had guests coming over I would freak out on my family and spend the whole evening trying to make everything seem a certain way so my guests thought I was impressive.  Once time I served carrots that were undercooked and I almost ended the whole night early.  Over carrots people!  I started to realize, however, the people who most impacted me were my friends who let me see their mess and invited me into their home as it was.

8. And finally, if you struggle with opening your home for the reasons I just listed, I would encourage you to try something that helped change my view on hospitality entirely:  Find some friends and ask them over for dinner.  Tonight.  Not after you’ve had your carpets cleaned, tonight. Ask them to bring some food from their fridge and you pull out what you’ve got in yours.  DO NOT GO TO THE STORE PEOPLE!  You’ll ruin the whole thing.

This does several things: they are bringing their weird food to join your weird food so everyone feels weird.  For some reason, letting someone peer into your fridge can feel very much like standing in your underwear.  With my brilliant plan, everyone is equally (and very hopefully figuratively) exposed and you can all collectively relax.  Secondly, you have the opportunity to come up with the menu together which ends up being much more fun than you thought it would be. The result: you get to focus on the real art of hospitality which is simply to warmly and genuinely welcome someone into your home and make them feel loved.  We have done this type of haphazard hospitality for years and it is life-giving. Try it tonight!


Which of these ideas are you going to try today?

Photo Credit by Eric May via flickr  cc


  1. Susan Gaines June 18, 2014

    This really tickled me.  I have the sudden urge to clean out my refrigerator.  #5 & 6 will probably keep a smile on my face for the better part of an hour.

    1. Emily Thomas June 18, 2014

      So glad you liked it!  I enjoyed remembering all of those mishaps!

  2. Ashley Felder June 18, 2014

    I’m still learning #1. I like trying new recipes, and sometimes the urge is greater when people are coming over! But my dear hubby kindly reminds me every time it fails miserably that I should stick with what I know next time. 🙂

    1. Emily Thomas June 18, 2014

      There is SUCH a strong urge isn’t there to go out on a (very dangerous) limb with a new recipe isn’t there?  It’s bad news.  Listen to your husband.  🙂

  3. Tracy June 19, 2014

    One time early on in my practice of hospitality 🙂 I invited a bunch of church friends over for a cookout. I had a bunch of chickens I butchered that morning for the bbq. They were so tough it was like knawing on a rubber chicken!! I had no idea what I was doing when it came to hospitality or what types/age of chickens were  good for bbqing. That was a day I will never forget. Thankfully my friends were very gracious and we all had a good laugh.

    1. Emily Thomas June 19, 2014

      I love this story!  And I love that you butcher chickens YOURSELF!  I am truly impressed!

  4. M'Lynn June 19, 2014

    “they are bringing their weird food to join your weird food so everyone feels weird.” That’s funny! I can think of several times I’ve been blessed by someone’s leftovers or blessed someone else with mine, so this one strikes a chord with me. Thanks for sharing your story. I didn’t learn to cook until we moved to China after being married four years. My husband is a great cook. I preferred baking. Anything involving meat was in his department! We ate a whole lot of takeout our first year back in China. I’m so thankful for great websites out there that give step by step photo demos on recipes. Over the past six years, I’ve collected quite a few yummy recipes that can easily be made with stuff I can find in my local Supermarket. I also have my go-to crowd pleasers for serving others. I’ve come a long way since my burnt toast days and it sounds like you have, too.

    1. Emily Thomas June 19, 2014

      Sounds like you have learned so much!  We also ate takeout almost every meal our first year in China.  So much scrambled eggs and tomatoes.  Still LOVE that dish!

  5. Kelly June 19, 2014

    Oh, yes- I actually love trying new recipes on guests!  Of course, I try to get most of it done earlier in the day, so if I have to start over it isn’t gonna stress me out.  But what I like best, is adding one new element to a mostly safe dish- a new dessert, a unique addition to the salad, or a different herb to the main dish!  Keeps me humble, and adventurous!  I’m also a fan of the cookies in the freezer trick!  Best ever!

    1. Emily Thomas June 19, 2014

      Great idea to add one new element to a safe meal.  That way if it tanks the whole meal isn’t a waste.  Going to try that!

  6. Cecily Willard June 19, 2014

    Baked for every week of the 12 week Alpha Course, save one.  Sometimes I tried a new recipe, and every time it turned out okay.  Tried a favorite recipe, didn’t put in enough eggs–DISASTER!  That day, THANKFULLY!, someone else was also bringing something.

    What I am learning about hospitality, among other things, is that hospitality isn’t limited to my “house”.  I love to surprise people with little gestures of friendship, and I think that counts for hospitality (nobody is keeping score, right?)

    1. Emily Thomas June 20, 2014

      Love your point about hospitality not being confined to your house.  That is a GREAT thing to remember!  It gets me thinking about even more creative ways to be hospitable!

      1. Cecily Willard June 21, 2014

        Here is an example:  The other day a friend was travelling by bus back home after working for two weeks in a village 30 minutes away from me.  She had to take the bus from my city, so I surprised her by meeting her at the station and giving her snacks for the journey home.  This was my way of giving her a welcoming send-off, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms!

        1. Emily Thomas June 22, 2014

          A welcoming send-off!  Love it!  That is such a sweet example and meaningful to her I’m sure.  🙂

  7. Brittany June 20, 2014

    Haha, almost every time I entertain, it’s with a new recipe I’ve been dying to try.  😉  But that’s what works for me.  I love cooking and creating a new recipe is part of the adventure of entertaining for me!

    What I definitely need to try is having things on hand for unexpected hospitality.  Unexpected guests freak me out, not because my house is a mess (I’m over that), but because I might have ZERO food in the apartment!  I’ll have to work on that!

  8. Emily Thomas June 20, 2014

    The tricky part of having fun treats around is that I want to eat them all even when no one is over!  That’s why I hide them from myself in the freezer.  🙂

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