Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Models of Hospitality, Generosity, Tenderness

The June issue of The Art of Eating just arrived in the mail.  I found it waiting for me, along with a handwritten card, when I came home from running errands.  After putting away the fruits of my afternoon walk, I took them both out to our newly straightened, planted, ordered backyard and sat down with a cup of tea to read.

The card was a thank you from friends who are getting married in a month, characteristically prompt and characteristically warm and enthusiastic and full of love and promises of future hospitality and togetherness.  It brightened my already lovely day.

The magazine was next and, one page in, similarly filled with warmth.  So much so I had to share.
A long time ago I was in Crete, eating lunch with a large group of visitors, mainly food writers, a lunch that had been cooked by the people of the village we were in.  A chance came for several of us to see the oven where some of the bread had been baked.  A woman led us to her house, where the masonry oven, still cooling from the morning's baking, was built into the walls.  The house was two stories tall, high-ceilinged, sparsely furnished and with a sparse but certainly efficient kitchen.  Covering the entire floor of one bedroom were drying figs.
We had just left the house and were standing outside, when our hostess's white-haired mother appeared, wearing a full dress and with her hair in a kerchief.  When she heard who we were, she smiled without stopping, seeming joyful to see us.  Maybe that was because we were Americans and well liked, a legacy of the Second World War (when Crete fiercely resisted the Nazis).  But it was more than that.  She disappeared and returned and began to stuff our pockets, opening and filling them, with almonds and figs.  Most of us were wearing jeans and the gesture was very personal.  I can't say why, but it was immediately clear that this was an act of hospitality meant for us and yet going far deeper, back to the time, probably not so long ago in that place, when for strangers traveling through the countryside food was not readily available from an inn or tavern, but only from the people living there.  I began to cry.
It was as if I had been touched for the first time by one of the oldest and deepest human emotions, the desire to give pleasure to guests.  It was the greatest lesson in hospitality I've received, and now when guests come to our house I often think of it and ask myself how I can measure up.  Hers was the ancient desire, perhaps instinct, to send strangers on their way safe from hunger.
Edward Behr, The Art of Eating, June 2012 Number 89 
Is there a word bigger and more active than generosity to describe the pouring out, the opening up, the embracing-ness of this gesture? Of taking out a moment to express thanks and love? Of the pulling toward and the giving out all at once? 

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