Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Shauna Niequist’s book, Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.
It seems to me that women typically experience shame about two things: their bodies and their homes. Men, in my experience, have no such shame about their homes. Maybe for them it’s about paychecks or cars or something, and these are stereotypes, but in our house, they hold true. Aaron will invite someone into our house and not even notice as they walk in that his socks are on the floor or that the dishes in the sink are spilling onto the counter on either side. He fails to see the cereal-and-milk smears on the table, the sticky spoon, the crumbs on the counter. Meanwhile, I consider lying to the people in our foyer about a gas leak or something, anything to get them back on to the porch so I can sprint around with baby wipes in one hand and a laundry basket in the other.
When we were first married, Aaron and I lived in a one- bedroom town house so small we couldn’t both sit at our kitchen table at the same time, and the only place for his grand piano was in our bedroom. Let’s be clear: that piano in the bedroom sounds more romantic than it is. It was mostly a really big piece of furniture on which to pile our clothes, but sometimes in the middle of the night, Aaron would terrify me out of a dead sleep by sneaking out of bed to play “great Balls of fire” at a shattering volume. In the basement, he had a recording studio and rehearsal space, and the high school students we worked with at the time trundled up and down those basement steps a thousand times, dragging guitars and amps and cymbals.
It was not perfect, and it was not fancy, but it was my own very first house, and then our first house together. I wanted so badly to fill it with laughter and memories and celebration that I willed myself to overlook what it lacked, and threw open the door at every opportunity.
In the years we lived in that tiny place, we must have had a hundred parties. We had dinner parties around our coffee table, a pillow for each person leaning back against the couch. In the summer, we’d grill out and fill a kiddie pool with ice and bottles of beer and soda, until our neighborhood association threatened to fine us for having a swimming facility without a fence. It seemed obvious to us that a kiddie pool full of ice cubes and beer wasn’t really an invitation to swim, but that seemed beside the point.
We had a big Christmas party one year, and because the town house was so small, the only way to get everyone in and make sure they had access to food and drinks was to set up small stations of food and drinks in every room — ice buckets of champagne and tiny turkey sandwiches and little pots of sweet and spicy mustards on the coffee table and the kitchen counter, with another platter down in the studio, next to the drums, and another in the loft.
I realized that even those stations weren’t enough, and that the only remaining space was our bedroom. Just before guests started arriving, I took a deep breath, shoved all of our clothes and shoes in the closet, and put a platter of sandwiches and an ice bucket with champagne on the piano. At one point in the night, I found a whole group of our friends lounging on our bed with sandwiches and champagne flutes. Later in the evening I found them trying on all of my shoes.
What people are craving isn’t perfection. People aren’t longing to be impressed; they’re longing to feel like they’re home. If you create a space full of love and character and creativity and soul, they’ll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd.
When we moved to Grand Rapids, we lived in a big old charming English Tudor built in the 1920s. What we know now, by the way, is that charm is generally a euphemism for “wow, this place is about to fall down.” It was charming in every sense, with slanted floors and built-in cabinets, radiators that clanked and light fixtures that blinked as though they were haunted. Every light switch and doorknob was from a different era, and the windows in the upstairs bathroom needed to be replaced so badly that an actual breeze fluttered the curtains even when the windows were shut tight.
We hosted holiday gatherings and barbecues, fancy dinner parties and poker nights. At one dinner party, a bat flew down from the attic and out through the dining room’s french doors. The heating in the dining room was so uneven that we gave blankets to the people on the window side, while the people across the table glistened with sweat. And, of course, my memories of entertaining in that house are very sweet, bats and radiators notwithstanding. We made thousands of memories around that table, in the narrow kitchen, and on the back patio strung with lights.
These days we live in a little ranch that I love for the big windows and the simplicity of it, but we don’t have space for a hundred. We have space for thirty — kind of, if I borrow silverware and chairs and people balance their plates on their laps and sit on the floor. So that’s what we do. We throw open the front door and invite people into our home, despite its size, despite its imperfections. We practice hospitality, creating soft and safe places for people to connect and rest.
I really believed I had been making progress along the way on my house shame, until a friend stopped over unannounced recently. This friend happens to have a truly beautiful old home, the kind with a butler’s pantry and a grand staircase, full of antiques and monogrammed silver frames and cashmere throws, different from our home in practically every way. She collects hotel silver and presses her napkins. I have never seen her home less than sparkling. Ever.
She came in and hugged me and sat on the couch in our kitchen, and we chatted about various things — her work, my work, our kids. And I tried not to absolutely freak out. I hope she didn’t notice that I practically developed a facial tic while we chatted.
This is the thing: it was an unannounced stopover. While I was writing. When I’m writing at home, it’s as though I am a homebound invalid. No makeup, hair in a ratty bun just above my forehead. Crooked glasses, Aaron’s gym socks. I’m not suggesting I was just a little ragged around the edges; I was terrifying. My brother had given me a sailing shirt, one of those half-zips made of some sort of wicking fabric. I thought it would make me look a little sporty. I realized, though, after my friend left, that it does not make me look sporty; it makes me look like a forty-eight-year-old athletic director at a small women’s college.
Let’s talk for a moment about my home during that fateful visit. First, the smell: my whole house smelled because I hadn’t done the dishes for days. Many, many days. There are reasons for this, of course, but when someone’s standing in your kitchen, it’s hard to explain the breakfast dishes on the coffee table, the popcorn bits all over the rug, and the smell — heavens, the smell! — of dirty dishes in the sink.
This is the shame double whammy — my body and my house. It was almost physically painful. But this is the thing: she’s my friend. And even though having her sit right in the middle of my house mess set off every shame alarm I have, I stayed there, perched on my couch, listening and talking. Just the week before, she and I had been talking about the writing I was doing, and I was telling her that while I’m writing about food, what I’m finding is that a lot of it is about shame, about the ways we feel inferior, and because of those feelings, we hide. And of course, it’s all fun and games to talk about those ideas, and then the next thing you know, you’re in your husband’s gym socks and your kitchen stinks. You’ve got a chance to practice what you’re preaching, and you’re breaking out in hives.
I felt within myself the desire to shoo her out, to hide, to keep her from the disorder that is my real, actual life some days. But I took a deep breath, and she sat there listening to me across my dirty coffee table, and we talked about community and family and authenticity. It’s easy to talk about it, and really, really hard sometimes to practice it.
This is why the door stays closed for so many of us, literally and figuratively. One friend promises she’ll start having people over when they finally have money to remodel. Another says she’d be too nervous that people wouldn’t eat the food she made, so she never makes the invitation.
But it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life — the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love — if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door. I know it’s scary, but throw open the door anyway, even though someone might see you in your terribly ugly half-zip.
White Chicken Chili
This is one of those go-to dinners you can pretty much always throw together, perfect for last-minute guests. It’s easy and quick, and all the ingredients are things you’re likely to have on hand: frozen chicken breasts, canned beans, broth, jar of salsa — although fresh is better than jarred. Fresh from the store, I mean, like from the produce section. If you’re making homemade salsa, that’s fantastic, but you’re in a different gear, certainly, than white chicken chili gear. By all means, make homemade salsa. But then definitely don’t dump it in the chili. It would be both show- offy and sort of useless, like putting on makeup before bed.
This is what you make on cold, weary nights, nights when you’re so worn through and chilled to the bone that the only thing that will cure you is something thick, spicy, and eaten with a spoon. And this is what you make when a quick stopover turns to dinner. Open the chips and the salsa, and let your guests begin crunching away while you start the chicken. You can even put them to work chopping cilantro and slicing limes.
A couple great things about this soup: first, it’s gluten-free and dairy- free, things that are very important in our house. This is a good meal to bring to friends who just had a baby — warm, easy, comforting. Bring a big container of chili, with chips, salsa, cheese, avocado, etc.
And this is a perfect Sunday afternoon football meal — great with beer and big piles of chips. For crowds, I like serving both traditional beef chili and this one too — two big bubbling pots on the stove, the counter full of bowls of toppings for both.
This is a highly versatile recipe, like all my favorite recipes are. You can add a can of corn or even corn with peppers. You can use tomatillo salsa if you’d like, and a can of diced green chilis, and then it’s chicken chili verde, which is lovely for a change. You could add a can of black beans if you’d like, for a little color and for their mineral-y, almost chocolate-y flavor.
To make it even one step easier, you can use a rotisserie chicken, skin removed and meat shredded.
I wouldn’t add kidney beans, because that would make it too much like a plain old chili, and because, to be honest with you, I don’t like kidney beans. There really aren’t too many things I just don’t like, but kidney beans are one. For the record: I also don’t love ham, cinnamon, or white chocolate. But I digress . . . back to the chili at hand.
Serve with cilantro, wedges of lime, sliced avocado, shredded cheese, chips, sour cream, and salsa. I will warn you, however, that sometimes what began as a thoroughly virtuous soup becomes a very large meal consisting mainly of cheese and chips, with a very occasional bite of soup. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.
1 – 1½ pounds chicken — breasts, tenders, or boneless skinless thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces.
1 16-ounce container of salsa, preferably fresh. Or green salsa, as discussed above.
4 cans white beans
4 cups chicken broth
In a dutch oven or stockpot, cook over medium heat until chicken is almost cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add salsa and beans, including bean liquid, and broth.
Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Simmer for at least 30 minutes, but, really, the longer the better.
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