In Defense of The Ugly Dinner Party

Perfectly Imperfect Hospitality // Jen Wise

I’ve spent hours over the past couple weeks cutting out tiny paper bunny ears – this is what I have CHOSEN to do with my free time. Send help.

But Easter is only three months away and I will have entire platters of adorable powdered sugar donut-bunnies to share. This is real, friends. This is important to me.

Contrary to what my husband says, there’s nothing wrong with spending your evening hours painting the handles of disposable cutlery to match a theme, or cutting hundreds of paper bunny ears. Details matter! Ambiance can make or break a gathering – and sometimes effort goes a long way to showing someone you care.

I’ve been learning though, that sometimes I limit myself with my own expectations, and that things don’t always have to be expertly crafted to welcome people in well. We don’t always need a table runner made of moss, or a cake stand piled high with homemade marshmallows to show people we care. (But when we do! *sigh*)

One summer day this lesson really landed. A few months after we’d moved to the block I was out in the street chatting with a hodge-podge of neighbors, the kids whirling around, and the relational side of my brain lit up. “Wow, it’d be so easy to just invite everyone to pop over in a half-hour for dinner. Everyone is connecting, people are softening up a bit to the idea of being friends. This could be a really healthy step forward for our street.”

But the planning side of my brain instantly chimed in, vetoing the idea. “You don’t have anything prepared. You better wait for another time when you can plan ahead and really make it special. On a gorgeous summer day like this it’d be a crime to serve a dinner that doesn’t include an overnight marinade, grilled veggies atop exotic greens, and a chilled sangria. Do you even have the ingredients for homemade ice cream? We have no fresh flowers in the house! What napkins will we use? What are you thinking?!”

But a tiny, nagging third voice told me “the time is now.”

Right now my neighbors are gathered around. Right now we’re getting a taste of community. Right now they are likely to lower their defenses one smidge more and walk into my home to share a meal.

I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my phone and texted my husband.

Me: Pick up pizza and beer on the way home. I invited people for dinner.
Him (stunned): Uh… pizza and beer?
Me: Not even anything fancy. Get Dominos and Yuengling.
Him: Are you my wife? Did you hit your head? Is this a trick?

And guess what, our pizza and beer “dinner party” was just fine. It was lovely actually. Everyone was at ease. No one complained that the pizza was subpar. No one asked where to find the adult food, because the togetherness, laughter, and friendship outshined the menu (admittedly, it wasn’t hard to outshine). And as we dined on a $7 special over paper plates something happened. This group of wave-and-walk-by neighbors began to form a bond. What a win for real community. What a blow to the pressures of perfectionism. Disclaimer: I did chop up a big fruit salad, because "yes" to casual can still mean "no" to eating like a frat guy.

Here’s the lesson. Do what you can, do what you love. Yes, serving others requires effort, but we don’t need to run ourselves into the ground, and we don’t need to shy away when things aren’t picturesque.

Maybe sometimes you put together an incredible garden feast, and maybe sometimes you get home from the gym and invite friends over for take-out. Hospitality is a lifestyle, not a one-time event. Choose a sustainable pace. Your pace might be different than mine, mine might be different than my sister’s, and hers might be different than her best friend’s. It’s all good. We’re making the most of the opportunities before us — there’s no set formula or expectation.

Ultimately, what I’d love more than anything is if we’d all just be gracious here, with ourselves and with others. If you serve up lasagna from the freezer section, and this enables you to nourish friends and family, and be at ease, good for you! High fives! If you set out a gorgeous cheese plate and a few bottles of wine, and this enables you to enjoy and breathe easy with your people, high fives for you too! Let’s drop the judgment, and free ourselves and others to love on our people well.