What Restaurants Mean

Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about why restaurants are so much more important to other people than they seem to be to us. We grew up in a very frugal family that spent its early years with a low budget in a small town. At the time, three out of the four of us were cripplingly picky eaters. And so, with the exception of annual family vacations during which we’d eat at fast food joints three times a day, I didn’t grow up eating out very often.

Beca and I had a few theories as to why people so often want to go out:

  • Neutral ground: It can feel weirdly intimate to have someone you know only casually over to your house. After all, you live there. And there have definitely been times in my life that having someone over has required me to clean my entire house — like when we lived in a tiny pool house with the only bathroom in the bedroom, or when we lived in a studio apartment — so our whole life was on display.
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A glimpse of the studio apartment, which was an old mill house store stuffed with cubbies and cabinets
  • Relaxing: Going out is fun! Staying in means someone has to cook, and that’s work. Isn’t that just what you did all day? Let someone else do the cooking and cleaning — go out. Right?
  • Gifting: The other person, the person you’ve asked to go out with you, is special, and taking her to the restaurant is your way of treating her specially. Let her order what she wants. Don’t force her to subsist on what you can scrounge up in your fridge.
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Once upon a time, we had no dishwasher. Or microwave.
  • Pantry hurdles: It’s hard to cook if you don’t cook, if that makes sense. I was in the lucky position of receiving most of the kitchen stuff I still use back when I was 22 and sometimes couldn’t successfully scramble an egg. (My trademark dish at the time was pasta with marinara dumped cold over it.) I know people can get in over their heads with a long list of equipment or ingredients, and so restaurants feel less intimidating.

The answer, quite a lot of the time, is to just keep things relaxed and expectations low.  You’ll save money, and calories, and build up cooking skills and a working kitchen so you can host more easily in the future. I’ve said it before, but remind yourself again of scruffy hospitality, and the liberating concept of the crappy dinner party.

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Farm share salad and frozen rolls at a grad school supper with friends.

Maybe you can throw something in the slow cooker, while they bring sides. Or you can find lazy recipes, like the time in college I just slathered jarred pesto on a frozen pizza to unexpected rave reviews. If you’re a parent and they’re parents, too, remember that they might feel relieved if your house is as disorganized as theirs; if they’re not parents and you are, they might as well see how it really is.

A friend once made a steak frittata using leftovers because she couldn’t afford enough steak to feed us all. One time I had a friend over for chili and made her season it herself (the limits of anosmia).  Sometimes we’ll have people over and they bring food they happen to have and we pull out food we happen to have and everyone gets fed over good conversation. Once, we were having a picnic outside the aforementioned crappy studio apartment and J killed a rat with a rock. (Remarkably, the guests who witnessed this act of brutality are still our friends.) Some of my favorite evenings have been meals thrown together in a tornado-hit house with a shoestring budget. There are times for a well-laid, thought-out table, and times, of course, to escape to a restaurant, but it’s worth considering your motive.

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I think this was cider doughnut bread pudding, which I heartily recommend. No one will notice your dirty floors.

 

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I’m an Introvert: Am I Exempt from Christian Hospitality?

No.

Shortest blog post ever, right?

But seriously. I’m usually classified as an ISFJ. And here’s what I figure.

You’re still called to generosity and loving on your neighbor, but you get to stack the deck in your favor.

See, you can be a Christian introvert, but I don’t think you can be a shy Christian. Or you can still consider yourself shy, find yourself quaking in anxiety, and still do the brave thing in seeking out the people who need your company, your generosity, your prayers. You can’t hide behind the label on the comfort of your couch, unchallenged, uninconvenienced.*

For me, introvert hospitality means things like reminding myself about scruffy hospitality so my (ISF)J side doesn’t take over and shift me to high-strung perfectionism. (I talk about that struggle in this old post.) It means hosting people during the hours I feel most alert and energetic — kids have helped in this regard, because it means we often wrap things up by 9. (I remember hosting my first college party and at 2 a.m., with mixed wonder and revulsion, pretty much just yelling, “OK GET OUT!!!”) It also means that, at my wedding, I invited everyone I loved, but I also deliberately kept the reception during daytime and short: I want to hug you all, but I also reserve the right to peace out.

Maybe the same is true for extroverts (probably — I’ll ask my husband, who is the ENTP  to my ISFJ), but I think it’s particularly important for introverts. You need self-care, but you also need to care about people.

Mantra.

*definitely a real word, thanks for asking.

Food as Trademark

Possibly more than any other aspect of gardening, I really love to have something growing in my garden because then I’ve always got something to bring when I go visit. At various points in my life it’s been fresh mint or cherry tomatoes or (inherited) strawberries or mutant butternut squash but I love not arriving empty-handed.

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We had neighbors at our old house who never arrive for dinner without a bottle of honey from their hives, and Scout’s godparents always have a jar of maple syrup for us (they “know a guy”). My parents make and gift orange marmalade from their tree; they and my sister both make their own wine and share freely.

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Consumables are just such a portable, enjoyable, representative-of-place treat. For the years in which we lived in western Mass and my sister lived in Brooklyn, we had a country mouse-city mouse thing going where when we’d see each other, I’d tote along a bag of Atkins Farm cider doughnuts (recognized by Saveur so you can feel fancy) and she’d swap us for New York bagels. Magical.

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I don’t have a trademark Thing yet, not like the wine or honey. I’m thinking it might end up being garlic compound butter, because I did that for Christmas gifts last year and it seemed like a crowd pleaser. I’m getting pretty good at ciabatta, too, but that’s not something I can make in a big batch and store. I’m still not sure, but it’s worth thinking on, isn’t it?

On Making Pizza

The other night we had our Blessed Buddy (worst name, best program) over for a chaotic, casual dinner in the midst of packing for a trip the next morning. (Seriously, the dining room table was so buried in luggage we had to eat around the coffee table.)

We go meatless for Fridays year round, and now that we have air conditioning, homemade pizza was the obvious choice. J is our pizza maker, so it’s always a mad scramble after he gets home to get the pizza in the oven so the kids can eat it before they go to bed. 

And I hadn’t managed to get the goat cheese for his classic (goat cheese, nuts, caramelized onions, greens, honey, balsamic vinegar) so after co op I made the dough in the bread machine and I foraged for alternate ingredients. 

And what I found: pesto I made the other night from aging mixed greens; roasted garlic I made weeks ago and froze; a bag of shredded mozzarella leftover from Sunday’s small group meeting. 

J caught up with our Buddy as he worked and I corralled the children and it was one of the best pizzas we’d ever made. 

And it just felt like a reflection of the best parts of our marriage and how far we’ve come as a household: we didn’t start making homemade pizza until a friend brought over a damn good one when Pippin was born and shared his tricks. And then there were various bad experiments with pizza dough. And countless seasons in our shared life where things like homemade pesto and roasted garlic weren’t sitting around waiting to be used because I was slammed with pregnancy exhaustion or toting around a new baby, my eyes glittering with Crazy. 

Our marriage always works best in situations where I do the prep and then step side as perfectionist angst emerges at the last minute, while J doesn’t take anything seriously until go time, and we’ve learned to use that to best advantage. So I make the toppings and the sough, and he assembled. I plan and shop for Thankdgiving and make desserts days in advance, and he’s the day of man. I plan and pack for a trip, and then the morning we leave I take the kids for a walk while J loads the car and I try not to hyperventilate. 

We’ve built up these habits and formulas and skills and while there are absolutely still dinner time disasters and meals of store bought frozen meatballs I guess the pizza made me realize we’ve surfaced from Baby Crisis Mode and made the best of our newfound and no doubt temporary calm. 

It was a good pizza, I guess is what I’m saying, but sometimes a pizza isn’t just a pizza. 

J adds an egg to his share because he is gross.

Books I Love: Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson

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Please don’t judge a book by its cover because…not cool looking.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages — a gift, I think, from my parents, and I finally tackled it this spring. Boy, am I glad I did. Peterson opens with a series of questions I find myself asking:

“But why was it that not a single other one of them had made the choice I had, to keep house with more than leftover bits of time? Was keeping house really a waste of time, at best a hobby to be indulged by people who like that sort of thing and at worst an unpleasant set of necessary chores? Or were there broader cultural and theological factors that made housekeeping seem like all of these things when in fact it was, as I had found it, a disciple as interesting and worthwhile as many other kinds of work?”

Peterson equates thoughtful, conscientious, imperfect housekeeping with caring, a core Christian precept. She argues, “[H]ousekeeping is about practicing sacred disciplines and creating sacred space, for the sake of Christ as we encounter in our fellow household members and in neighbors, strangers, and guests.”

She calls out the isolation of contemporary society, noting “[W]e think it is normal for people to be by themselves and make an exception, as it were, for spouses and young children. But the movement in scripture is toward community, not separateness, and the bonds of community in scripture go well beyond those of the nuclear family.” Her observations highlight the growing conviction I’ve had since first encountering Wesley Hill’s musings on tumblr concerning the obligation of Christian marriages to expand the scope of their households.

Her observations also point to the rude wake up call I received when we had kids and I moved from full-time to part-time to no-time outside employment. Housekeeping had been just something we managed in the cracks of our lives before the huge upset that is a first child, and while we strove to have a cozy home to which we could comfortably invite friends, it wouldn’t have been something we listed as a major part of our lives. She argues, “How much more conducive to the well-being of the household it would be, both before and after children, if housekeeping were treated as an intrinsic and positive part of life in the body and in community rather than as a set of boring and limiting chores imposed on you by parenthood.”

I still struggle, over a year into being home full-time, not to feel like my housework is somehow un-hip, shamefully old-fashioned, and degrading. Peterson offers useful context, here as elsewhere, however: “But if in Jesus God himself could take up a towel and wash other people’s feet, surely we, as Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters, can find it in us to wash one another’s dirty clothes and dirty dishes and dirty floors.” Amen, sister.

 

The bottom line, of course, is simple: “How much more hospitable it would be if our homes were routinely to be places filled with satisfying meals, with shirts warm from the dryer, with smoothly made beds — not because we are trying to win the housekeeping prize but because these are good and pleasant ways to care for one another and for ourselves!” I would do well to remember this myself.

 

 

The Wandering Bowerses

We’ve been on the road for over a month, staying with one friend, two families, an Airbnb and two hotels so far. Stray observations:

  • I’ve felt much more relaxed about my own housekeeping standards staying with people whose houses I admire. Everyone has some things better organized or cleaner than I do, and some corners more neglected. 
  • I love seeing the contents of people’s fridges. Anchovy paste! Refrigerated pie crust! (So I’m not alone after all.) What must our friends think of the strange food we leave behind, the garlic naan and the frozen Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants?
  • I’ve gotten to cook with friends and loved ones and learned a lot along the way: why fresh lemons are better than lemon juice, for instance. 
  • There are so many small clashes in living with someone. My father in law and I are locked in eternal war with each other as everyday, I take out a drinking glass for water only to find it already loaded in the dishwasher when I come back for it later, meaning I then run through half a dozen glasses a day. I’m sure it drives him nuts, too. 
  • Baby proofing a variety of locations for two active kids is impossible. This week Pippin bashed his face on a coffeee table and Scout fell down a flight of stairs. Awful. 

Perhaps most importantly, I now feel like a Jane Austen heroine who goes to call for a fortnight at a stretch, and I’ve gotten to sleep in nearly every day. Bliss!

Scout will sleep anywhere but wants to nurse 327x a night
we have profited shamelessly from borrowed baby gear

The Birth of a Cook

I come from a baking family. On weekends, my introverted dad would cheerfully stay home and bake a double batch of homemade bread, sending me and my sister to deliver the spare loaf to one or another neighbor. Everyone baked cookies, and brownies, and cake, and pushed the baked goods on each other until the leftovers got sent to my parents’ office, or, later, into the garbage disposal growing bodies of our high school boyfriends.

I wasn’t a cook at all until I got married, and it wasn’t the “Mrs.” title that pushed me into it – it was social pressure in rural Uganda, where people made fun of J for cooking, which is regarded as women’s work there. It helped, too, that I was very bored, and also that if we wanted food from home, we were going to have to make it ourselves.

So I set out to make things, and the limitations of ingredients (ground beef was the only meat I could buy by myself; the only cheese was a nameless frozen waxy wheel) and tools (an incomplete set of measuring cups, a single chef’s knife) made cooking approachable. In fact, when I returned back to the US to an empty fridge, a kitchen full of new registry bounty, and a grocery store that stocked everything all the time, I felt acutely overwhelmed.

In her excellent Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson argues, “Cooking can be a way of actively receiving the gift of food and actively participating in handing that gift on to others.” That was key for me. My parents had modeled baking delicious things and sharing the bounty, but now I learned that pleasure firsthand as I learned to make spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan from those Pizza Hut packets sent in care packages. I started to make biscuits for J with canned cream, and saved jarred pesto bought with care in Kampala for a feast.

In Uganda, I’d search online on our slow internet connection for recipes with ingredients I could obtain: baked potato soup, cottage pie, meatballs, banana bread. For our housemate’s birthday, I made chocolate cake with painstakingly hand-whipped peanut butter icing, and chili with one of those spice packets my mother sent. For my birthday, friends smuggled the weird, half-thawed local ice cream into our freezer. Peterson observes, “When we cook we produce things to eat, of course but we produce something else too: acts of care.” When food from home was hard to come by, it became more clearly what it always is: a concrete currency of love.

For better or worse, I recognize my limits as a cook: I have basically no sense of smell, and it pretty seriously limits my ability to cook intuitively. (It’s hard to tell what you don’t have, but through casual experimentation we’ve found that I can’t discern tastes as sensitively as other people.) If it’s a success, I owe it in large part to the recipe; if it’s a flop, I can blame my nose, or the recipe author. But seeing cooking as a humble way to care for someone else frees me from all the things that might otherwise intimidate me about cooking: whether I can make it trendy or locally-sourced or Instagram-worthy. It’s just me, feeding people I care about.