The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.


Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?

What do you bring to the table?

Which way will the creek
run when time ends?
Don’t ask me until
this wine bottle is empty.

~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

“What did you notice that was beautiful today?” When J asked me this last night, just as we sat down to dinner, I cracked up.


It’s not a funny question, but rather an example of his dear effort to honor a request I made after breakfast.

“Please don’t ask me at dinner what I did today, or how my day went, ask where I found beauty.” I implored him in the morning as I hustled to my office.

“And what do you want me to ask you tonight?” I called over my shoulder.

“You can ask how my day went. I like to remember what I got done.”

Life has always yelled at me,
“Get your work done.” At least
that’s what I think she says.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

What we focus upon comes to light. My request was part self defense – I always give myself more to do in any given day than I can ever accomplish and then feel bad when I don’t finish. And it was part new strategy; I want to pay more attention to life’s surprises of  grace and grandeur hiding in plain sight rather than concentrating only on how I try to unruffle its challenges.  I’m trying to adjust the outlook I bring to my day and our dinner table.

smooth coral

What do you talk about at dinner?

I’ve begun asking friends without children at home this question.

We don’t talk, we watch TV.
I don’t know, nothing, what we did that day.
What’s coming up on our calendar.
Funny stuff the dog did.

What did I expect? The better question is, what do I want, what does J want?  If gathering around the table is a nightly ritual so important that we set its time, its chef and menu (we trade cooking duty), its location and literally light its candles, then doesn’t it follow that we might also guide its conversational swoops and soars?

When our kids were home we had a standard dinner starting point that inevitably opened doors to conversation that often lasted long past dessert.

What was the best part of your day?
What was the worst?

Trials and triumphs of school and sports, of work and home life and friends trickled out over roasted chicken and broccoli.  If friends joined us, they too got pulled into the daily circle, some shy at first to say, but inevitably relaxed enough to tell about a moment that set this day apart.

I eventually bought Chat Packs, those decks of cards with dozens of conversation starters. We played Brain Quest and Would you rather?  I still sometimes put little stacks of these cards next to the napkins at dinner parties or spread them around the appetizers at family gatherings.

Am I inherently nosy? Afraid of conversational lull? Maybe yes and yes. But I like to think that even more than that, I really like the idea of getting to know the people I share time with. The worst kind of dinner is one where I don’t learn a single new thing about the ones I pause with at the end of the gift of another day.


Last night I learned two truths. Each day delivers beauty; my husband remembers and honors my requests. Maybe those are really one big truth.

Where did you find beauty today?

p.s. For literary grace and grandeur, you could do worse than getting your hands on a copy of Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser.
1317_lgTreasure what you find
already in your pocket, friend.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

The book is the best kind of conversation, where no one voice dominates, in fact no one poet takes individual credit for any of the short stanzas.  From the back cover:

Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became “overwhelmingly vivid,” and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems.

…When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, “Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality…This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

Maybe I’ll bring it to the dinner table tonight.