One of my most memorable experiences last summer in Israel was a Friday night dinner at the home of a few local Tel Avivians. I've thought about that evening a great deal since, mostly because it was such a lesson in hospitality. There we were, a traveling group of food writers, invited to eat a homemade dinner prepared especially for us. We were strangers to our hosts, and yet the evening turned out to be an intimate, welcoming affair — all due, I think, to three things, which are also great entertaining ideas for anyone:
1. Write the menu on the wall: A few days ago I wrote about this outdoor menu, chalked onto the stone courtyard wall. This was our introduction to the evening, a look at what our hosts had prepared for us. Seeing the menu handwritten on the wall had the immediate effect of familiarizing us with our hosts — their creativity, their entertaining style, their food loves. It was as if someone had wrapped a rope around the group of us and pulled us closer together. Suddenly it didn't feel like we were entering into the unknown, unsure what the evening would hold. It was there, written for us on the wall — a creative touch I felt for sure was indicative of good things to come.
(Obviously not everyone has a wall they can write on, but perhaps you could write the menu on a chalkboard, for example, or maybe a big piece of brown parchment paper. If you entertain often, you could even paint a swath of your dining room wall with chalkboard paint so you have a menu surface ready whenever you need it!)
2. Assemble and set the table together: As you can see in the photo above, the courtyard was sans table at the beginning of the night. There were a dozen or so chairs, which we sat on while drinking arak (an anise-based liquor) and nibbling on appetizers. But when it came time for dinner, we were treated to an unexpected surprise: we were all going to assemble and set the dinner table together!
It turns out the dinner table was actually a long piece of MDF our hosts had covered with a sheet of adhesive-backed, lace-patterned plastic to make it look like a tablecloth. Brilliant! Together the group of us carried the board out to the courtyard and set it up on two sawhorses. Then our hosts brought out dishes and glasses and we set the table together — passing plates and folding napkins, pulling up chairs and filling wine glasses.
When entertaining people with whom you're not very well acquainted, I think the inclination is to be extra formal, to have everything set out and set up so you can usher in your guests and serve them. But I'm so glad that's not how it was here. I may not have helped cook the meal, but it was such a pleasure to move and work to create the actual surface on which we'd be eating! (Not to mention the fact that this was a completely brilliant DIY budget way to create a table that would fit a large dinner party.)
3. Invite your guests to share and experience your traditions: This "secular" Shabbat dinner is actually a weekly tradition among these friends, our hosts, who see it as an opportunity to cook and eat together every week. In honor of their culture and the traditions they grew up with, they recite kiddush before the meal and pass around the kiddush cup to all their guests.
We were graciously invited into and included in this ceremony. Our hosts made us feel it was perfectly fine to ask questions, to participate, or just to watch. It can be uncomfortable when you are the one unfamiliar with someone's custom, or tradition, or way of doing things, but a gifted host or hostess will diffuse any tension and will welcome one and all into the moment. That's how it was here: it was experiential learning, very inclusive and informal. A good reminder that no matter what your individual dinner customs are — washing your feet before a meal, singing a thanksgiving, giving long toasts, whatever! — that it should always be shared. You never know how it might touch someone, how it might stay in their memory for months or years to come. They might even make their own tradition of it!
Our lovely hostesses: Dorit, Tal, and Gili
Tal holding the kiddush cup before the prayers.
After dinner, the table was collapsed, put away, and it was back to chatting.
Do you have any entertaining tips you've picked up on your travels? Places you visited or homes you stayed at, memories and experiences that have stuck with you?
(Images: Elyssa Frank)