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Northern Hospitality

By John Michael Thornton

Toll House Cookie Poster

When my girlfriend and I visit her family in the Berkshires—New York’s sixth borough from June to Labor Day—her mom always makes chocolate chip cookies. Nothing fancy, just the recipe from the back of the chip bag, with Earth Balance instead of butter, and no Nestle because they kill African babies for sport (she’s from Cambridge where they don’t support such things). But add to that a vase of wild flowers on a bedside table, and the Queen of England couldn’t ask for a better welcome unless someone draped her in a cape of corgis.

Hospitality doesn’t have to be a burden, but it does take work—knowing your guests’ allergies, buying decaf, hauling the good dishes out of storage. All these little gestures say big things. For someone as deeply WASPY as me, it can be hard to tell someone you love them. Being a good host communicates that love without your palms getting all sweaty.

Even if your guests are less than gracious—pita chips don’t grow on trees, Eric!—hospitality is simply an expression of decency. It’s like Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Your neighbor is anyone you can connect to Kevin Bacon in less than seven steps.

When the snooty neighbor, the snotty nephew, or the occasional Lindsay Lohan drops by, you should at least bring out some Mint Milanos, and in the case of Lohan, those little plastic covers for your outlets. It is civil, but more than that, civilized. Hospitality is part of what separates us from the animals (along with the croissan’wich and socks).

It’s out-of-print, but I send as many people I can the book Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Not because anyone needs to memorize all 900-pages, but because I’m an asshole who doesn’t like giving people fun presents. However, a secondary reason is that for a house to feel like a home, real work needs to go into it. Today, people can only pretend to keep house while wrapped in a protective layer of irony, that pair of ill-fitting galoshes that trips us up, but shields us from the vulnerability of sincerity.

So many of the things my friends and I planned our lives around—advanced degrees, high-paying jobs, 401(k)s—suddenly seem either unattainable or useless. What’s left to do but invite a friend over for dinner? Look up a new recipe. Uncork a bottle of wine. Gather a bunch of flowers from your garden or grab a bouquet from Trader Joes. And. if you’re really feeling crazy, you could even pull out the eggs and flour and make a batch of cookies. It’s not the least you can do, but it’s close.


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