Care and Feeding of Overnight Guests

So my family’s coming into town for a weekend visit, and as usual, I’m stressing just a bit.

Don’t get me wrong — I LOVE my parents.  As previously discussed on this blog, I also love my sister, D., who is joining them for this trip.  It will be wonderful to have the three of them in my home for a few days.  My kids are thrilled.  J. and I are looking forward to their company.

But I’m stressing, nonetheless.

This is one of those rites of adulthood, I guess, a test which is passed either when you manage to have everything in your house — the cooking, the cleaning, the entertaining — perfectly in line with your parents’ standards, or when you simply reach the point of not caring any longer whether you’re measuring up or not.  But I’ll freely admit that I have not passed the test yet.  My house will never be of the standard that my mother’s house achieves (which causes me no end of anxiety), and as to the food, well, I’m sort of taking the easy way out: I’m abdicating.

That’s right.  Me, the Culinary Control Freak.  I’m abdicating.

Here’s the thing.  It’s a complicated matter, this feeding of the overnight guests — at least, the feeding of these particular overnight guests.  For one thing, we’ll have three dominant cooks in the kitchen, each with her own personal way of doing things — not that we can’t work together to make a meal, and do, beautifully, but it may involve some discussion.  For another, we’ll have multiple distinctive food personalities in the house.  Besides J., myself, and our boys, with whose eating preferences you’re already sickeningly familiar, we’ll have D., Mom, and Dad.  And guess what?  NONE OF THESE PEOPLE EAT LIKE ONE ANOTHER.  In fact, the closest comrades in this realm are my father and P. — they both like peanut butter on pretty much everything, and neither of them really eats a full meal, but they’ll graze like crazy.

It’s not that there’s no common ground; it’s just harder to find than you’d think, when all the people involved are intimately related.  My sister and I learned to cook by osmosis.  I don’t recall many times when we actually “learned” step-by-step from my mother how to do things in the kitchen, but we were always sort of there, and over time, it became intuitive.  Upon growing up and leaving home, both of us continued learning about food and cooking on our own, developed our own palates, tried new things, and branched out from what was familiar.  As I’ve stated before, my mother is a progressive cook — when other kids were eating Hamburger Helper, we got angel hair pasta with sundried tomatoes, and the pantry was always stocked with the familiar American family staples side-by-side with items like Williams-Sonoma roasted garlic paste and fajita seasonings.  But my dad is not what you’d call a particularly progressive eater.  I daresay being married to my mother is the only reason he ever moved beyond cottage cheese and pepper jelly on crackers, Velveeta, Veg-all, and raw hamburger on Wonder Bread.  (Disclaimer: I am not making this up.  I know full well that Dad is going to read this, and I stand behind the accuracy of these statements.)  As a result, it took college, graduate school, and living in cities for a while to introduce D. and me to things like Indian food, sushi, and artisanal goat cheese — things Mom would have loved to take part in, but didn’t have much chance to experience.  We sort of had to help blaze those trails so she could start acclimating Dad slowly…slowly…

Now D. and I are both closely allied in our drive to convince our parents — particularly Dad — to increase their awareness about food production, agricultural practices, and local and sustainable eating.  But beyond that, while we gravitate towards many of the same types of foods and can certainly enjoy a wonderful meal at a restaurant together with no difficulty, our palates and cooking habits have diverged significantly.  While she’s canning and working with lots of vegetarian recipes and exotic ingredients, to please both herself and her longtime significant other, S., I’m having to take things down a notch in terms of gourmet indulgences and work in a more family-friendly realm.  While fish and seafood are common in our house, D. has a seafood intolerance, so it’s off-limits in her kitchen.  We can both exclaim over the same recipe found online, then take it to our kitchens, fiddle with it, and come up with two totally opposing takes on the same dish.  That’s just life.

So when they’re all in town for a visit, I tend to start thinking of the old fall-back family recipes, things that we all ate when D. and I still lived at home, or things we’ve all enjoyed in Mom’s kitchen since.  I look to those experiences for the common ground, then try to determine which of those recipes will pass muster with P. and L.  Where do we end up?  Usually, steak.  (As a matter of fact, steak’s on the menu tonight.  Had to have something planned for their arrival.)  Not generally my favorite, nor J.’s, but L., D., and Dad all love it, and Mom has never professed a dislike for it.  P., poor child, is too young to vote, and will probably just drown it anyway.

Then, past steak, a rut.  A roadblock.  Planning anxiety.  Which means that, in the words of my mother, we’ll “wing it.”  I’m staring down the barrel of a weekend played willy-nilly, as we all debate from day to day what we should eat, and how we’ll arrange to purchase the necessary ingredients for it.  Multiple trips to multiple stores will be undertaken.  In the interim, my countertops will start to pile up with the snacks and extras Mom and Dad customarily bring with them — “their” peanut butter (they like their Jif, while we prefer Skippy Naturals), “their” crackers, “their” cereal, and so forth.  I will feel alternately grateful that they are willing to be self-sufficient and respectful of the fact that I don’t keep those things around, and guilty that my family is “making do” in my house.  They’re good guests, don’t get me wrong.  Gracious guests.  But I want them to be happy, comfortable guests.

I don’t know the answer.   I don’t have any quarrel with the way my parents eat, and I don’t think they have any quarrel with the way we eat.  We just don’t always match up, which makes me fret, probably unnecessarily (but hey, that’s me).  One of these days, hopefully, I’ll pass that mysterious test of adulthood and either figure out the planning and shopping and cooking for these occasions, or throw my hands up and dismiss the issue with casual ease.  In the meantime, I can’t wait for them all to get here…and I’m interested to see how we manage to get everybody fed.

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