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St. Norbert College Magazine
Summer 2008 | Radical Hospitality

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Nourishing Friendships
by Kyoko Mori

Kyoko Mori To entertain a guest, an idea, or a possibility is to receive each of them with an attitude of openness. In my 20s and 30s, when I lived in Green Bay with my husband, Chuck, I was unable to entertain this whole notion. Our friends came over to watch television or listen to music and stayed for supper, but we didn’t give them a proper invitation. “You can come by our house if you want,” we’d suggest. “We’ll probably be home, but whatever. Let’s play it by ear.” Even the regionalism of our speech (“come by our house,” rather than “come to our house”) was non-committal. If the house was dark and both our cars gone, the prospective visitors could just drive on by: we had never promised to be home to welcome them.

The idea of inviting people for a meal was foreign to Chuck, who dreamed that someday, scientific progress (in the form of a complete-nutrition pill) would make food consumption obsolete, giving him more time to read, practice yoga, and play the guitar. I liked cooking and eating well enough but, as a young feminist, I was appalled by the unequal distribution of food-related chores in our household. I didn’t want our guests to see me tossing a salad and taking a casserole out of the oven while Chuck set the table. So I failed to take advantage of the perfect setting—a house with a dining room and a huge back yard—we had for entertaining.

Then, in 1999, I moved out east and settled into a 440-square-foot studio apartment in a condo building near Harvard Square. I was 42 and divorced, and most of the people I met through my new teaching job were single apartment-dwellers who had grown up in New York or Boston. These busy writers, scholars, musicians and artists seldom cooked for themselves, much less for their guests. In Green Bay, if a group of people found themselves with extra time on their hands, they might go to one of their houses for coffee—even Chuck and I had cookies and simple foods like bagels in case this happened. But when my new colleague Patricia and I misread the poster for an event at the Cambridge Public Library and met there two hours early, we had to find a cafe instead of going to her apartment a few blocks away. Out east, people did not casually invite you into their living space.

I missed the hospitality I’d taken for granted in the Midwest. My new friends and I would watch a movie and go to a restaurant afterward to talk, but it wasn’t relaxing to sit in noisy public places night after night, being waited on by strangers. On the nights when all the restaurants were packed, I started saying, “Let’s just go to my place. I have some food.” I had chosen my apartment because, unlike the other studios the realtor showed me, this one had a fully functional galley kitchen where I could bake bread and make a big pot of soup every week. I hadn’t turned into the kind of single person who ate cereal for supper or wolfed down a deli container of salad while standing by the sink. I always had enough groceries in my small under-the-counter refrigerator to make an omelette or pasta primavera.

I quickly progressed from having friends over for impromptu after-movie dinners to inviting them ahead of time (“Let’s go to a movie and then have dinner at my place. I’ll prepare something simple so it won’t be any trouble”). Then I started having a few guests over for a more elaborate dinner (an appetizer, an entree, bread, salad, pie) that was the main feature of the evening instead of an afterthought. Soon, I was hosting birthday parties for friends, colleagues and neighbors. By moving the furniture, throwing some pillows on the floor and baking a couple of homemade pizzas, I could entertain as many as 20 people in the one room that was my living room, dining room, and bedroom. The guest list, compiled by the birthday person, usually included people I didn’t know. Hosting a party for someone, I discovered, was the best way to meet his or her friends. I wasn’t particularly good at introducing myself to a lot of new people at once, but when the party was at my place, the part I dreaded— explaining who I am and why I was there—was a cinch.

I now live in Washington, D.C., in a one-bedroom co-op apartment (660 square feet), which seems enormous. Though I still don’t have a separate dining room, my living room is large enough for a party without rearranging the furniture, and this time, the galley kitchen has a full-sized refrigerator and a dishwasher. Entertaining has become one of my hobbies. In the last few months, I’ve held a cocktail party for my friend Ellen’s birthday, a pizza party for the graduating students in the MFA program where I teach, and several small dinner parties with a few close friends. Sometimes, if the guests stay long enough, the quietest person in the room will suddenly tell the most memorable story of the evening, or a very serious colleague will confess her love of reality TV. My guests go home feeling they’ve gotten to know one another a little better.

My favorite company dishes are lasagna, filo casseroles, or enchiladas—things that are baked in layers. I can spend the whole day before the party simmering the sauces, preparing the fillings, grating the cheeses, and assembling the layers in a baking dish. Each step is methodical and meditative. I’m not the kind of cook who substitutes one spice for another and invents a new sauce, a creative genius whose signature dish cannot be duplicated by anyone else. I follow the detailed, step-by-step directions in one of the cookbooks I know well, everything goes according to the plan, and the food is done when it’s done. For me, cooking—unlike writing— is a fail-safe, no-pressure activity. Alone in the kitchen, I don’t come up with a stunningly clear sentence that contradicts all the others I’ve drafted and revised a dozen times; I don’t have to scrap the whole project and start over because that one new sentence makes me realize that the truth is the opposite of what I’d believed. When I write, I might spend four years at my desk and not know what it all means; when I entertain, the guests arrive at six or seven and I am ready.

I indulge my own likes and dislikes in planning a meal. I wouldn’t serve anyone the one food he or she abhors (eggplant, mushrooms and zucchini often make this hate list), but I’m a vegetarian, so my guests would sit down to a stuffed squash at my Thanksgiving table. If someone is allergic to cats, I’d offer a box of tissues but I wouldn’t lock the cats in my bedroom. The fun of entertaining is in being in charge. It is my house, and the guests are there to share what home means to me. Entertaining connects us to the community around us, but it also reaffirms our own way of living. I became interested in entertaining only when I realized how much I loved the home I’d made in my studio in Cambridge. Inviting friends to an impromptu after-movie dinner was to imply—to them and to myself—that my home was better than any restaurant. During my first year in that studio, I replaced the ugly curtains and light fixtures the previous owner had chosen. I had to have a place of my own before I could take enough pride in my home to share it with others.

Three years after my move, Chuck visited me in Cambridge and met my new friends at the dinner party I threw in his honor. I also got people together to visit museums, sculpture gardens, jazz clubs and restaurants with him in a week-long extravaganza of socializing and entertaining. After that, he was once again my friend, an important member of my community. Though he hasn’t visited me in D.C., his sister has.

Everyone needs solitude and community, it seems to me, but partnership is optional. I’m better at being a friend than a wife. I have no desire to get married again. Staying single, however, isn’t the same as longing for isolation. I write in a quiet apartment I can have to myself, knowing that I can fill the space with other people’s stories when I choose to. Entertaining is the bridge between solitude and community—the two ways of being that nourish me.

Kyoko Mori was writer-in residence at St. Norbert College 1984-1999.  She taught creative writing at Harvard University before taking up her current position at George Mason University. Her books include “Shizuko’s Daughter” (1993), “Stone Field, True Arrow” (2000), “The Dream of Water: a memoir” (1995), and “Polite Lies: on being a woman caught between cultures” (1997).

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