Stress-Reducing Secret No. 7: Just Give (and you’ll get back in multiples)

I once attended a talk where a business coach revealed a key secret for success: “Be sure to define success in terms you control,” she explained. “Pinning your idea of success to forces you have nothing to do with is called ‘gambling,’ not ‘creating a pathway to success.’ “

I got to thinking about that lesson yesterday: It was 10:00 in the morning and not a guest was in sight for our Thanksgiving Coffee. But the invites did give a “10:00-ish” start time. So I turned my only slightly panicked attention to the Chai I had made. I had been fussing with it all morning and still the spices weren’t quite right. What’s more, following the advice of some quack Indian expert off the Internet, I had simmered the Chai with the milk and the milk had curdled. So 10:30 came and I began to descend into full-blown panic—bad Chai plus no guests!

The fact is, hosting food-related get-togethers involves a lot of gambling: Is a kid going to get hurt right when you should be stirring the gravy so it doesn’t lump? Will your guests be among the one in a hundred who despises sweet potatoes no matter how exquisitely you prepare them? Are you going to miscalculate how long the turkey or prime rib cooks so it ends up dry as a bone?

I think all these potential pitfalls really lead back to the one biggest fear every host has: What if no one has fun at my get-together? Isn’t that the worst: thinking that people might leave and walk back to their cars, whispering in confidence about how they’ll be sure to have a “prior engagement” next time around?

We all know that food contributes hugely to the fun of a party. When the food is so-so it leaves us feeling lukewarm. That’s the big, bad bugaboo every cooking hosts wants to avoid. We want out guests excited about the food, because that excitement bounces around and makes the whole party fun.

So the pressure is on when you’re the one cooking for a party. We don’t want lumpy gravy or dry turkey to lead to a lukewarm get-together. But how can you be assured of great, success-generating food when so many factors are outside our control?

If I were giving a talk on “kitchen success for the holidays,” here is the secret I would reveal:

Just give. In return, you shall get back in multiplies—and everyone will be in a good mood.

I had actually experienced this principle a number of times. The first time I was racing to put on a neighborhood block party: picking up all the toys littering our lawn, stashing gardening tools, scouring away an entire winter’s accumulation of dirt and filth from breezeway, setting up tables, and so on and so forth, all the while taking care of kids and, of course, trying to prepare a showcase summer salad. The work wasn’t nearly as bad as the thoughts running through my head: What if no one shows up? What if people don’t talk to each other, what if someone notices that I didn’t clean the cobwebs in the corners of the breezeway, and of course, what if no one likes the new Greek salad I’m making?

Just as I was just about to lift off from the force of my party panic, I had my epiphany: Why am I hosting this get-together to begin with? To give. Really, that’s what the party was about: Giving our neighborhood time and space to get together and have some old-fashioned, get-ta-know-ya fun. And giving them the best food I am capable of making as a center point for a gathering.

Those goals were completely within my control. Maybe my Greek salad wouldn’t go over with this crowd, maybe the lettuce on the relish tray would wilt because my son forgot to put it in the frig like I told him, and maybe it would rain (which it did!), but nothing could prevent me from giving: my best effort to whatever dish I was making, a warm smile when each guest arrived, a genuine interest in listening to their stories, a relaxed space where jokes and laughing could percolate.

Flash forward to yesterday’s Thanksgiving Coffee: 10:35 came, and still no guests. At 10:37, however, the guests began pouring in. Before I knew it, the house was full of merry talk and laughter. A few dear friends gamely tried my Chai and pronounced it “good.” I knew that was about the best that could be said for it, but that was enough. In the end, no one went home thinking about my Chai. As each one left, they just exclaimed how much fun it had been to get together with the neighbors we live next to but rarely see.

And, as I reminded myself, that was the whole point of the get-together to begin with.

Want to learn more about cooking simple but inspired holiday meals that are fun to share with your holiday guests?  Check out my listing of Holiday Cooking Classes.

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