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Uncollected Essays

About Hospitality

Sarah Orne Jewett

Decide on Your Own Style and Don't Change Your Noon Dinners for Guests.

   I mean this to be a word about hospitality from the housekeeper's point of view, and it is necessary to say first that this virtue has less to do with quantity than with quality. It is not what the mistress of a house has to offer her guest, but the way she offers it, that gives a beautiful sense of welcome to the stranger or old friend within her gates. Hospitality does not consist alone in making a great feast; it is the welcome, the affectionate readiness to share that makes a guest feel at home.

   We have often known hospitality to be limited and constrained because a housekeeper is not, to use her own expression, "ready for company," and so feels ashamed of her feast or of her house in general. Now, what would make us nearly always ready to be hospitable?

   Certainly, the only safeguard is in a consciousness that our tables and our rooms are ready to be seen and in doing things just as well as possible every day.

   Somebody seems to say as she reads: "Yes, but I like to have things better for my guest than I can afford for myself every day. It is the instinct of humanity to do honor to one's guest and to make a feast for him; and then, if I know that he lives in a finer house than mine, I like to show him that I know how to do things in the proper way. I have a pride in having things like other people!"

   Yes, but this isn't the spirit of true hospitality, it is the spirit of vanity and self-assertion. The effort to seem what one is not, hinders the best of pleasure in our little social occasions. There is a time for feasts and for doing honor by a banquet and for gaining those ends of good cheer and social opportunity which no one does well to despise; but we are thinking now of the coming of one or two people for a day, for a week, into our home life.

   In many households, particularly in country households, there is one fashion of life for the family and another that is set in motion, usually with much creaking of machinery, when, in country parlance, we "have company."

   In a well-kept house, no matter how simple or how economical it is, a guest should be only too grateful to take his share of the every-day fare and lodging without expecting a special arrangement of either.

   We must [first beg] for the recognition of a house's individuality. Try to settle upon a way of living that can be easily carried on, and then keep to it. Don't try to set your table and serve it like somebody else's that you half remember, or change your simple fashions for others that are beyond your power to manage successfully. You have probably fallen into a certain fashion of setting your table and of supplying it with certain articles of food from motives of expediency. One member of the household cannot eat anything but oatmeal in the morning, so that oatmeal is a steady breakfast diet; and you always have toast for tea, we will say, and fruit for dinner. Just remember that the thing to aim at is a perfection of these inevitable things, and build the variation and serving of your table on these perfections.

   We must remember that from the same simple ingredients come the best and the worst results of cooking, the plainest and most distasteful, the most tempting and delicate of dishes. It is always the exactness of care in following the recipes; the proportions, not the ingredients themselves, that make food nourishing and attractive.

   Do not try to do what cannot be done with your means. It would be a great deal better to have one delicious dish of rice, like the East Indian peasant or of macaroni like the Italian, than to cover a table with badly cooked food of a dozen different sorts. Just now we spoke of the toast and oatmeal, or of the stand-bys, whatever they chance to be, of every household. Above all, these stand-bys should be tempting, but these are often the very things to which are given the least care and into which least thought and ambition are put.

   Then the look of the table counts for a great deal, both in the housekeeper's consciousness and the guests' sense of pleasure. There is one thing which we are learning to depend upon more and more in America, and it not only serves the purpose of food, but of decoration. Nothing is better for a centre-piece than a nice dish of fruit; it gives an elegance at once to the simplest feast - even the color of a dish of apples with a sprig or two of green leaves among them of laurel, or even, where all other greens fail us, of pine. We have only to look at the gay city fruit stalls, and to count the bags of bananas and oranges sold every day in the smallest village to see within what easy reach the best of fruit is of the shallowest purse. It is something to be most thankful for, and for every reason.

   There has been a great gain in the aspect of our tables in late years, both because fruit and flowers are possible in winter as well as summer, and because pretty china and crockery are no longer luxuries that belong only to deep purses. We must beware of the triviality that has crept in with the cheapness; the finical bad drawing of much of the cheap decorated ware seems to vulgarize the look of a table at once, and we must be careful to choose good, simple shapes and colors. The Japanese blue-an-white and green-and-white wares are charming to mix with our plain white. There is lovely glass now at little cost; clear white glass that makes our tea table shine as the old-fashioned cheap glass never could; and it pays, as all glass and china does, for every bit of care we give it, and as a soft, white linen table-cloth nicely ironed pays us back in beauty for every stroke of the iron.

   Now again, to count up, we ask these things of our housekeeper who wishes to make hospitality easy to herself:

   First, that she should not try to do things that are beyond her strength or her means. If she has all the dinner put on the table at once in an every day meal she must not suddenly try to have it served in courses in the middle of the day when everybody is busy, because she knows that her guest dines in this way in his larger house in the leisure of the evening.

   Second, she must insist upon doing the things she can do in the very best possible way. Anyone can cook well who will insist upon being exact and upon taking the trouble to learn. We can have things just right if we will take pains.

   Mind, the table must be made pretty to look at, even if one is to sit down alone, and a big dish or plate of fruit and the orderliness and freshness of everything do more than anything else toward this. It is impossible to suggest details. Every household has its different store of plates and dishes, and its different faces and wishes about the table.

   Then when you have made your plan as well as you can, keep to it and live up to it, and don't consent to slip-shod days. What may be a little constraint and effort at first quickly grows into a second nature of a habit. You will feel confident that things are arranged as well as they can be. You will not be flustered if some member of the family appears with a stranger. You will enjoy the pleasantness and repose of meal times as you never have before. After all it is the good personal atmosphere that makes the pleasantness of your house, the good cheer, the sincerity of your welcome at your dinner. If we are ashamed of the looks of our houses, we are sure to wish those strangers out of them who are so unlucky as to have come in.

   There is one main thing worth a steady foundation of good every day housekeeping to build upon: one may make an occasional high holiday with little anxiety and great satisfaction to all concerned.

   It is a great thing to do the best that one can every day. There might be so much more variety at exactly the same outlay of money. Think of the good recipes in all our weekly newspapers of which so few people are wise enough to take advantage. It is a lovely thing to remember the simple feasts to which we have been made welcome by friends of town and country. There is a golden hospitality of the heart that makes it a pleasure to be a stranger and go knocking at certain gates. But alas! Some homes show no hospitality and seem to give no welcome even to those who live in them altogether, and find them houses, but no homes.


NOTES

"About Hospitality" appeared in the St. Louis Republic, February 14, 1892 on p. 25 in Part Three, "Our Women's Page."
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[first beg]: This piece proved especially difficult to obtain, and then it was available only in a barely readable copy. I have made a number of guesses that are probably correct, but I am very unsure of this one. Furthermore, there are quite likely to be errors here, especially of punctuation. I would welcome corrections and a better copy of the text the site manager.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College


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Uncollected Essays