In which you are asked to give reign to some best self.
What could be meant by that? Surely you are not being admonished to follow some arbitrary set of rules for social comportment. Surely no one is suggesting you do anything at all for form’s sake. No no no. Graciousness here does not at all mean, “Impress others with how beautifully you do things.” No one should ever spend good moments at your house and leave thinking, “I could never compete with that.” Making people feel as though you are better at something than they are is not gracious at all.
Of course maybe you are an extremely good host, and people do come to your house hoping for and expecting a certain high level of beauty and grace. In which case, you shouldn’t be reading this book. Or rather if you are, you should be reading it for the purpose of toning down your style so that it might be unobtrusive on those occasions when you do not want to impress others with your entertaining skills but rather want them to fall madly in love with you. Accidentally exposed fallibility, and good humor while you humbly reveal your weaknesses and allow that others have strengths you can admire and which complement your own: A different sort of approach to social interaction from the one typically expounded upon in magazines devoted to selling you trinkets and devices which make it ever easier for you to be formally gracious according to the fashions of the day. But it is that other thing, that aspect which does not necessarily benefit from taller candelabras and more exotic flowers which has the best chance of furthering a courtship of any sort.1
So perhaps we might say we are talking about how to be gracious without appearing to be especially so. Only the most jaded eye should be able to observe your machinations and remark with admiration, “You are extraordinarily gracious, aren’t you? How did you get to be that way?” At which point you demure and do something just slightly goofy and clearly not graceful in an impromptu gesture to pull your disguise of gracelessness back over your extremely gracious self. Everyone else will be drawn to you because in your presence they feel fabulous, treated as such by one who is clearly fabulous themselves. The one who sniffed you out still more impressed by this display of highly evolved grace. And each will sense they are worthy of respect and admiration and honor because they are respected and admired and honored.2 And feeling that way, will without effort go on to behave toward others in a similar fashion.
The burden is upon you. It is all in your hands. You get to do the very best you can, including choosing your guests and friends wisely. You get to bring them into your home or enter theirs as one czarina might visit the respected dominion of an admired other. And you get to do a million chores,3 indirect, unstudied, and without agenda or interest which will slowly and softly but unambiguously reveal your regard for them, for their well-being and comfort. And see if they take to that sort of thing.4 You get to feed them and sustain them and create warmth where there had been none. Gifts one might more readily ask or expect of a deity than another human—unexpected and therefore disarming. Courtship continues and thrives in such thoughtless generosity, a favorite and fertile soil.
Even so, and with all that heavy wax on the subject, when you do finally cook something for another it is extremely and unspeakably important that you do not make that person feel as though you are doing them some great favor.
First of all, you’re not. Food is easy to come by, everyone has a favorite dish and chances are you are not making it.5 Whatever you feed someone is a gift, and gifts must be given freely and without expectation of appreciation or return. Really and truly. Even though it might seem possible to disguise and hide your motives, possible to believe you can play another as easily as a recorder, you can’t. When you give it must be without anticipation for a particular result. Without thought or concern for your own interests or desires.6 Have you ever tried to force a child to play with a new toy? Have you ever criticized a friend for not having said “thank you”? Quickly enough? Sincerely enough? Have you ever told a lover how lucky they are you do what you do? Of course not.
Not that it is easy to go to great lengths of effort and creativity and not expect appreciative acknowledgment. You might notice such thoughts as, “I may as well have ordered a pizza for all they care,” meandering across your mind as you chop up ginger and onions or stir a sauce slowly as it thickens. The key is this: The moment you feel under-appreciated, stop whatever you are doing. Not because others aren’t paying sufficient homage and don’t deserve your efforts, but because you do not possess sufficient lightness of heart to do it well. In the case of cooking, set everything aside7 and call for that pizza.8 Or, if you want to disguise your humor, turn off all the lights and announce that everything has burned9 and that you think it would be a good idea to head straight for a restaurant. Under no circumstances should you cook the meal and then sulk throughout the evening and into the next day.
Enough of this. Cook when you want to cook. Feed those you want to feed. Give until you are tired of giving. Then stop without remark.10 The secret is no one cares.
The other secret is they care deeply. I am not the only one who finds little charm in a badly prepared cup of coffee and burnt toast. Mine is not the only heart which leaps at the promise of a good meal not cooked by me. I cannot be the only woman who, having eaten well, desires but to curl up on the bed of the cook and live out her days their love slave.
A charged thing, food, and while it may be served effortlessly and mindlessly, it cannot, must not, be done badly. Nor should it ever be received as a meaningless gesture. To take being fed for granted, as a chore or service that has been bought and paid for and therefore may be expected is to forget and so betray the generosity of spirit and self which typically, and perhaps without exception, accompany the serving of food one wants to eat. Just as one can buy sexual favors, one can buy food. Good food, too. It is the emotional and artistic element which elevates both above bare sustenance and entertainment and which is beyond negotiation. Either it is freely offered or it isn’t.
And all too often it isn’t. Hence the burnt and tasteless meatloaf. The wilted iceberg salad. The grayish stringy beans. All evidence of a cook who is not feeling particularly giving, not particularly loved nor loving. Perhaps feeling even a bit abused. Probably a cook who is hoping never to be asked to cook again.
Too bad. To feed someone well is to love them gently and deeply. To get way deep inside of them, caressing them where fingers and feet cannot go. Feed your lovers with disingenuous abundance and with food which provokes their senses and you will probably be happy. Feed them with studied and measured delicacy or in a fashion which reeks of penury, and you might find their affections match your table. Do not feed them at all, and they will be unfed.11 That lean and hungry look which foretold Julius Caesar’s fate is one you probably don’t want to see in your intimate chambers.
Go ahead and think of cooking as a hobby, as a method of stress management, an outlet for artistic creativity, a money saving device, whatever. Regardless of the reason, in the end you are feeding people. Deadly12 cooks forget this and then go on to forget that feeding people is not such a big deal. Rapt in pride for their accomplishments,13 they expect praise and admiration for the simple feat of feeding others. Not unlike lovers who ask about their performance, needing to be assured it was brilliant; who make love not as an expression of affection for the beloved, but rather as an opportunity to expose their talents and to attract compliments. The thing caressed and adored never the other person but rather the self-same ego.14
Back at the table, the person who unwittingly ate the meal feels empty, realizing to late they have not been fed at all.
Confused? wondering whether it is the host or the guest who is being instructed to be gracious? Twisting about, trying to see where to place the blame when a meal is soured by bad humor and a loud absence of generosity and grace? Surprise. You are responsible at all times. You are also responsible for deciding when the behavior of another is intolerable and then further responsible for disentangling yourself from contact with the insufferable being.15
If you are cooking and are not happy about it, Stop. If another is unhappy in the kitchen, check with yourself silently to see if it is because you have either taken their efforts for granted or otherwise neglected or offended them. Correct the situation, or otherwise extend yourself to make it possible for them to refind a place of comfort, even if it means taking their place at the stove.16 If they are cooking in a mean or pompous or otherwise disturbing attitude, forgetting it is all a continuous communication and communion with their guests and not an exhibit for a panel of judges, protect yourself and do not fall into their trap. Play your role politely rather than to the hilt. Be a good, healthy person, and good, healthy people will fall into your sphere of gravity.17 You will find that you dine well and often in the company of excellent friends and loves. Mindless, habitual, guileless and frank consideration and kindness will do it.
Without grace, however awkward or strangely manifested, there is no courtship.
1 Except the kind of courtship in which you are applying for the position of Gracious Host. Even then it is trickier than that, and the applicant who exhibits disarming and guileless, almost accidental grace often wins out.
2 Careful. Gracious people are sometimes accused of being shamelessly flirtatious by naive and priggish types who have not yet digested the complexity of human interaction. Of course they are flirts, indiscriminately so. All “flirting” means is to favor another with your full attention: Intellectual, romantic, sensual, sexual, whatever.
3 Tony wants to know what I mean by chores. Get them a drink. Set the table. Put their wet jacket in a place where it will dry during the course of their visit. At their home, you might read to the children, arrange some flowers, set the table. Like that. Chores, sweet and endless. Do them.
4 Some people don’t, you know, considering themselves unworthy regardless of your actions. Doubly lamentable because they will also think less of you for being good to them. Others take to it all too well, having been seeking just that sort of thing and they try to entrap you into a contract in which you must treat them with honor and they treat you with disdain. Stay so far from those people. Treat them with extraordinary kindness for they are unhappy. It is not entirely their fault they act in such poisonous ways. But keep the same distance you would from a rattlesnake or a grizzly. No need to kill them or wrestle power from them or get very close at all. You can’t and shouldn’t avoid these people, but neither should you court and mate with them. That’s what I think. Others disagree.
5 If you do make someone’s favorite dish, especially if it’s something you are not particularly fond of, and they do not notice or seem to much care, don’t make it again.
6 At least in the most important cases. Who cares if you easily seduce someone of no importance.
7 Wrapping up what you can for later use. A nasty disposition is no reason to waste good food.
8 See PIZZA.
9 Let something inessential burn for inspiration and dramatic effect if you are not a very good liar.
10 In truth, sometimes a remark can be very useful. A great aunt of ours recently stopped right in the middle of cooking three different things and announced “I am sick of this meal.” My sister and I recovered quickly from our surprise, shuttled her out of the kitchen, and finished the cooking. The meal was delicious and we were all in good spirits, although it did take my aunt a moment to recover hers. As usual, frankness worked like a charm to diffuse a simmering situation. Good thing, too, as excellent pizza is hard to find in Holmes Beach.
11 Which is a perverse courtship technique all its own. See Not Cooking as Courtship.
12 I steal the idea and the term shamelessly from Peter Brooks’ The Empty Space. He uses it it to describe and refer to the sort of theater in which all is performed exactly as you would expect, according to convention, suffocating under its own cultural weight. The sort of theater once seen convinces the viewer they hate theater.
13 In the highly unnoticeable film, Mr. Frost, a latter-day incarnation of Satan, when not busy murdering people, chopping them up and burying them in the backyard, spends his time cooking elaborate dishes, taking Polaroids of them and then throwing the food out. What kind of monster would cook food only for the aesthetic exercise of culinary virtuosity? Too many, it seems to me, although they usually serve the food as an additional crime, caring only about gathering praise.
14 I read about this somewhere.
15 Shall I mention that forgiveness is the greatest form of grace? Insufferable tonight is not the same as insufferable. You have to be Solomon. Please don’t make big mistakes that cannot be corrected and then say I told you to do it. First of all, I didn’t, and second of all no one would care if I had.
16 “You sit down and let me chop/stir/wash for awhile,” would be one way to extract someone from something in which they are mired, but which they would never admit hating. Taking a stance of savior or remarking that their humor has soured is deeply impolite and fabulously ineffective. I have never found anyone to accept an offer which is contingent upon their admitting they have lost grace.
17 Conversely, do not accept abuse and abusive people will drop from sight. Such a neat trick. I’m always surprised more people do not employ it.