by Kelly Minter
For me, cooking has always been about community. I realize this isn’t the case for everyone. I know a few people who are just as happy to cook for themselves as they are for a group of people. I respect this, but I am not that person.
It’s kind of like the old adage: if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, did it make a sound? Except mine is: if you make a meal in your kitchen and no one’s there to eat it, why didn’t you just pour yourself a bowl of cereal and go to bed? I know, I know: this could be symptomatic of deeper issues in my life. Or maybe I’ve just always seen eating as needing the additional component of community for a meal to really come alive.
Now I don’t necessarily need anyone around while I’m cooking. You’ve never seen a happier, all-by-herself, dicer of carrots, celery, and onion than I am on a Saturday afternoon—just as long as I know someone is eventually coming. This is all about expectation. Every stir of a spoon or stroke of a knife is in anticipation of those who will soon be bustling through the front door and emptying straight into my kitchen. If the end game entails a table full of people, a couple friends at my kitchen island, or even just one other person, cooking alone doesn’t equate to lonely while cooking.
Thankfully, my friends share this desire for cooking and eating together. It’s one of our favorite activities. We try to be mindful of extending invitations, often last-minute casual ones, to those who could use a good meal and some conversation. My friend April is a natural at the open-armed invitation. “The more the merrier” is her motto. And in some cases, the stranger the merrier. (If you’ve ever been invited to her house, don’t read into this.)
Every so often, April makes an elaborate Sunday brunch we like to call April’s Breakfast Wagon, or ABW for short. I think we came up with that name on a day we were urging her to open her own breakfast diner. It was a very exciting prospect for everyone except her. The idea was short-lived but the name caught on.
When April decides—usually on the night beforehand—that she’s having an ABW, she alerts her friends and intown family. Once you’ve received her invitation, the unspoken expectation is that if you see someone who looks lonely at church, you have a guest staying with you, you run into your neighbor who has no plans, or your hamster looks sad, he or she is welcome to come. You don’t even have to tell April in advance that you’re bringing someone extra. She always has enough sweet potato hash browns, fried eggs, kolaches, and coffee to go around. An extra place setting is always waiting in the wings.
This approach actually stresses me out a bit, but I’m also about as flexible as a two-by-four. I love cooking casually for close friends and family, but if the guest list expands beyond that I can get a little frenetic. April has helped me learn to relax, to make a little extra, and to keep the ingredients quality but unfussy. In Ina Garten’s cookbook Cooking for Jeffrey, she framed it this way: “Instead of the elaborate food I used to cook for dinner parties, I learned that people wanted simple food at home.”* April innately understands this. She’s always reminding me: Don’t stress. Grab an extra chair. Give your guests an inviting hug. Put a well-crafted pancake and a sausage patty in front of them and let them know they’re loved and welcome in your home. You don’t have to complicate this.
As we consider the different personalities and contributions when it comes to hosting, we can’t leave out the non-cooks who are happy to pick up the items you forgot to buy at the grocery store, clean the dishes after the meal, and entertain guests with lively conversation while you’re running around in the kitchen with your hair in flames. This is my friend Paige. She’s always there for you in a pinch, just don’t ask her to make anything. You can’t have too many of these kinds of friends or relatives when it comes to entertaining.
It takes all kinds. What I’m grateful for is that we all have two things in common: a love for good food and a desire to be inclusive.
I’ve had enough experiences where I’ve either felt left out of a group of people, or found myself part of the “inside” group while others were left out. At some point in my life, I realized I didn’t want to ever be part of this latter group. The Lord encouraged me to open my doors, reach out, and welcome people in. I made a conscious decision that whether it was morning coffee and muffins on the porch, or tortilla soup around a football game, if my friends or I knew of someone who could use an invitation to eat and enjoy community, well then, a place at the table would be made. I can’t say that I’m always excited about making unexpected last-minute provisions, or that I don’t have to adjust my attitude at times. But all of us try to support each other when it comes to opening up our homes and tables to anyone who needs the warm embrace of a meal.
I also try to keep in mind opportunities to cook for people who aren’t in my immediate circle—to invite people over who may not be able to give back in any way. When we are used to only inviting over “our people,” this requires intention. In Luke 14:12–14, Luke tells a compelling story about Jesus sitting around a dinner table with the Pharisees (Jewish religious leaders of the day). He noticed that they were taking the best and most prominent seats at the table. After discouraging this practice, Jesus took His instruction further. He told them that the next time they threw a dinner party they were to specifically invite people who couldn’t return the favor, those who didn’t run in their circles. Put on a spread for the sick, the hurting, those on the fringes of society. Those who had nothing to give in return.
For us today this may also include welcoming the loud talker, the somewhat awkward, or the quintessential Debbie Downer. I know what you’re thinking: this can really wreck a brunch. But I believe that Jesus meant what He said, and expects His people to follow His instruction both in His own time period and in ours.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should never invite over our loved ones, or those we know we’re going to laugh and carry on with late into the night. Oh, the meals that Jesus had with His friends. The gift of friendship and fellowship is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and we should joyfully foster and savor it. But we can’t forget those who are often passed over, who no one stops to take notice of, who don’t have a home to be welcomed into for a homemade meal. I really do believe that He blesses this kind of cooking.
* Ina Garten, Cooking for Jeffrey (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2016), 133.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND SAUSAGE RISOTTO
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 30 minutes
1 large butternut squash, seeded and cubed (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
16 ounces ground sausage, casings removed
1 onion, diced
2 tablespoons butter
16 ounces Arborio rice
5 cups chicken stock
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, toss cubed butternut squash with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place on baking sheet. Roast for 20–25 minutes until edges are lightly browned.
2. While squash cooks, brown the sausage in a pan, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon. Drain most of the fat, keeping a small amount for flavor and set aside.
3. In a large saucepan, sauté onion with butter over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add rice and stir until well coated, about 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of stock and stir constantly until absorbed. Do this with each cup, waiting until stock is absorbed before adding the next cup. After 5 cups, if you feel like you can still add more liquid, add 1/2 cup of water (or stock) at a time until the rice is creamy and the texture is to your liking.
4. Once rice is cooked, add squash, sausage, and Parmesan cheese, stirring gently so squash stays intact.
5. Salt and pepper, to taste. Serve with a green vegetable such as asparagus or Brussels sprouts.
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