It was on a dark winter’s night as the snow fell heavy and deep in the central Kentucky mountains. A group of good friends gathered around the long improvised table, the fire blazed and homemade double milk stout was poured. The main course was bacon-wrapped filet mignon, nicely embellished with potato, salad, and hot bread and butter. But just before the food was served one of the men who was in charge said a few words that really stuck with me. Essentially, he exhorted us to eat slowly, enjoying each other’s company and conversation, taking time to savor each bite and moment in the spirit of the great feast of heaven. The meal was quite excellent, but the experience transcended into the divine.
Over the last few years, I have been privileged to experience some great hospitality at the hands of men who know how to throw a party. In fact, I believe a truly great celebration needs a man’s touch, a father’s hand. It takes a man with enough vision and authority, who, having recognized the true significance of the moment, can lead the assembly from the mundane into the heavenly act of celebration. This certainly takes some skill, and one needs real conviction to pull it off. For this purpose, I hope to pass on a few things I have picked up over the years from observing these gifted men.
Whether jovial and full of wild laughter or profoundly reverent, whether around an intimate dinner table or in a grand ballroom, achieving greatness requires a man to understand and fully embrace this high masculine art form. He must see the importance of his role as generous giver, keeper of tradition, stimulator of imagination, master of ceremonies, opener of ideas, enticer of the senses, and gracious host. Because of this, masculine hospitality requires a considerable amount of vulnerability as well as dedication to do it well. Indeed, this art form, possibly better than any other, can display the full depths and riches hidden in the heart of a man.
As giver of the feast, a man must really put on display what he values. And this can be quite intimidating. For example, a man who finds it hard to say “I love you” to his wife, now has to, with each dollar spent, with the care of each detail, and to each guest, say it quite openly. I think it is actually this fear of being vulnerable that keeps most men from realizing their potential in this art. But I believe that all men, at some times in their lives, if not often, will need to know how to celebrate and exalt the people and occasions he deems worthy. But this worthiness he feels in his heart must be transferred into the hearts and onto the plates of his guests through the experience he provides. In this way, hospitality is one of the best ways to put your most cherished beliefs into practice.
So what makes a meal become a feast? What makes a party become a divine celebration? How can we, as my friend Stephen would say, bring the Renaissance Festival to our homes in microcosm? I think, at a minimum, all great feasts have three essential parts: the welcome, the food, and the prayer-speech.
When you come to a man’s feast, you come into his domain, and on his terms. Therefore, most people naturally feel some awkwardness and cautiousness when they first arrive at an event, even among close friends and family. A seasoned host quickly goes to work making his guests feel at ease and comfortable. He express his sincere joy for the presence of each guest individually. He graciously escorts them into the little world that he has created and rules over, offering them some refreshment and a comfortable place to sit or stand. If there are many guests, he introduces the new arrivals to the other guests, making sure they feel engaged before seeing to other needs.
Those in attendance are there because he values them and wants them there, and it is his job to make them know that. This goes a long way in setting the tone for what is to come. If he drinks alcohol, then a pre-dinner glass of wine or a cocktail can further encourage the feelings of welcome and comfort. After all, as Robert Farrar Capon said in his wonderful book The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, “Man was made to lead with his chin; he is worth knowing only with his guard down, his head up and his heart rampant on his sleeve.” Getting him to this state is the purpose of the welcome.
A good meal with good company should always be greatly esteemed. Eating a meal with others happens often enough, but rarely does it take on the festal, commemorative, and convivial nature of these special occasions. This is not because “normal” meals are not important, or because the people we eat with are not always “worthy” of celebration. I think the reason has mostly to do with awareness and its companion thankfulness, two traits that must be really turned up for special occasions. What I mean, is that both the one who prepares the food and the one who consumes it, must do so with a constant awareness as to the quality of each detail.
For the preparer, the quality of the food and drink should reflect the quality of the occasion. More specifically, a good host wants his guests to esteem the meal and feel how the carefully selection and preparation reflects how he feels about those present. When a man presents a meal to guests he wishes to honor, especially when he is personally involved in the preparation, he is perhaps at his most vulnerable. This should be taken into account as guest at his table. The guests should also eat and drink with awareness, and, as my friend advised us on that snowy night, eat slowly and relish each bite. It is thankfulness that wells up at the moment of relishing. Likewise, the feast-giver should feel great satisfaction and thankfulness when his guests really enjoy their meal and feel valued by his hospitality.
Truthfully, we are dull creatures, and even the best filet mignon with Merlot sadly might not be enough to awaken our higher nature. How often do we, like swine, trample the pearls of opportunity when they come? How often, at moments of poetry, do we offer only the lazy grunts of distracted indifference? We need help.
Aware of his own shortcomings of thankfulness and intentionality, the feast-giver attempts this most important part of the celebration. He first must bring, out of all the individual cares, distractions, and stories, a focus towards the real significance of the moment. He must say in words, what has been only hinted at in his hospitality. He must raise, not only his glass, but also the minds and spirits of those gathered.
Most men are not eloquent speech-givers, or rhetorical pray-ers. However, just as everyone would prefer the meal that looks plain but tastes wonderful to one that only looks appetizing but tastes flat, so it is with prayers and speeches. A good idea of the heart, sincerely expressed, is all the flavor a prayer or speech needs. That doesn’t mean that some preparation is not appropriate. I think a man should reflect and prepare on what he is to say at this short, but important, part of the event as one would prepare the meal itself. I respect men who write down the things they wish to say at such occasions. It shows that it is important and worth saying. If he is successful, the bread, the meat, the wine, the silverware and napkins, the candles and even the background music can all absorb the rich significance of the occasion. As one who has been fortunate enough to participate in several of these feasts, I can say with confidence that, in each case, you can’t help but feeling that you’ve been part of something special, and that you are special, too, for having been invited. You leave refreshed in body and spirit.
Lord, may our fathers become great men of hospitality. May we feel welcome amongst our brothers and sisters. May we have thankfulness with our food, joy with our drink, and unhurried time to take it all in.
David says to buy this book! It does help us if you buy through the link, but mostly it is really a great book to inspire hospitality.
The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Modern Library Paperbacks)