The Catholic Table
meet Emily Stimpson and the theology of hospitality
By Daria Sockey
“I love making risotto for guests—it’s such an incarnational dish,” remarked Emily Stimpson as she sautéed and stirred.
How often do you hear an adjective for a great theological mystery paired with creamy Italian rice? For three hours, this petite redhead cheerfully explained what on earth she was talking about as she cooked, served, and helped me consume that delicious risotto.
Stimpson is a full-time freelance writer from Steubenville, Ohio. Ten years ago she bought a fixer-upper, circa 1915 Craftsman-style home in a working-class neighborhood. A work in progress for the last 10 years, that home now features restored architectural details, antiques, and reproduction fixtures that take visitors back to 1920s and 30s. (One exception is the kitchen range—a state-of-the-art appliance has replaced its worn-out predecessor.) It has become a center of hospitality—a place where friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers come for good food, good wine, and laughter. The hostess finds herself blessed in being able to receive whenever she gives: How often does one manage to perform a work of mercy while having a rollicking good time? Many single Catholics complain of feeling marginalized, when so much of parish life seems to be centered on families. But Emily has found the niche in her single state that creates a warm sense of community, an ever-widening social circle, and a channel of grace for others.
The Catholic table
Although Emily has been cooking for others for years, she only recently began writing about it. Work on her new (and very popular) blog, TheCatholicTable.com, has been a welcome relief from the stress of the more controversial topics she has handled for political and apologetics venues. In response to some of her writing, she has received angry comments from readers who disagree without understanding the topic fully. Stimpson admitted this is frustrating and commented, “People need the gospel, but those who need it most are not listening anymore.”
While there may be disagreements in the political forum, Stimpson says she can find harmony when discussing cuisine. “Everyone loves to eat and craves authentic community. People struggle with food issues—such as weight and body image—and they struggle with loneliness. At The Catholic Table I can share truths about the human person—along with the cooking tips—that many people would not listen to in other contexts.”
Theology of food
Along with recipes, Emily’s readers learn the theology of food—and if you scoff at that, the author will set you straight. “To question a theology of food is to question that God made the world! Everything was made by God, so everything can teach us something about him.” And food teaches us a lot. “God made food taste good for a reason. Food is meant to delight us physically, just as the Eucharist is meant to delight us spiritually. Across all times and cultures, a shared meal means nourishment, comfort, companionship. The Eucharist will always mean love, grace, goodness, and spiritual nourishment.”
Not only can food teach us about the Eucharist, the Eucharist can heal our thoughts about food. Fifteen years ago when Emily returned to practicing the Catholic faith, she was struggling with anorexia. One day as she received Communion, she had a revelation. “It hit me that the most intimate union I had with God was when I ate him. This was how God chose to give his life to me. I must no longer look at food with fear or hatred. Immediately my head was straightened out, although in practice it took me several more years before I got used to eating the right way.”
Emily found additional healing of her attitude in Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body: “It taught me that my body was not a hunk of matter separate from my soul, to be controlled and whipped into shape. The body is what enables me to know and be known, to love and receive love, so I should care for my body rather than control it. I realized that starving and over-exercising was not caring for my body.”
It doesn’t take much theological pondering for any of us to realize the possibilities for service, love, and joy that come from inviting others to eat with us. Who hasn’t said, “I’ve got to do this more often!” after hosting a successful dinner party, cookout, or just coffee and dessert with friends? But often we don’t do it again for months, even years. What stops us?
Strangely enough, says Stimpson, some of the greatest enemies of hospitality are things that are supposed to motivate us. “Pinterest and Martha Stewart are enemies of hospitality. We are left feeling that if we can’t put on a seven-course dinner and put a handcrafted centerpiece on the table, it’s not good enough. We think, ‘I have no time or talent for that.’ And that whole idea of “entertaining” is all wrong. Buying into the mind set of entertainment, of ‘I must impress you,’ works against the charism of hospitality. I do not ‘entertain.’ I simply enjoy cooking for people.”
Is this a little too easy to say for someone whose house is a candidate for the pages of Better Homes and Gardens? Not at all. When Emily first moved into her house, the kitchen resembled a bomb shelter (“concrete walls!”). Its floor looked permanently filthy despite scrubbing. The range had three working burners, and the oven wouldn’t hold a steady temperature. “I had lots of fun gatherings just the same. With that range I couldn’t do anything but soup and pasta, but people loved coming here. We had a great time. Don’t you think the new couple in town would rather be invited into a messy or unattractive home than not be invited?
Opening your home
So, dusty baseboards and a lack of Royal Doulton place settings don’t matter. But what does? What can you not do without?
“What’s needed is plenty of food, plenty of wine, and—you! Guests need to be fed, and wine will “gladden their hearts” (Psalm 1104:15). You must be present to your guests, to listen to them and talk to them. If they leave your house without feeling loved, then you’ve failed as a hostess. Don’t worry about about being judged or rejected based on how your house looks or what food you serve. Despite being so busy, people are lonely. They are longing to be invited and included.”
Now, back to that risotto (which was delicious, by the way). What has it got to do with the Incarnation? Well, risotto is not something you can put on the stove and forget about. It must be stirred almost constantly, with the ingredients added gradually. The amount of broth needed must be pondered carefully. In other words, says Stimpson, “It requires a lot of the person who’s cooking. If you see cooking as a gift of love to others, you want to put a lot of yourself into it.”
The Incarnation—God becoming man—was not a walk in the park for Jesus, even before the Passion. It was hard. He emptied himself. Every moment of his life on earth was a gift of love to individuals. We, his followers, are rarely called to the grand gesture of giving our life for another, but we can give up tiny pieces of our lives as acts of love. Such as the minutes given up to stand at the stove, making the perfect risotto.
Take the plunge
Inspired to practice hospitality but not sure where to start?
The best thing is to start simple. A cookout, or a potluck where all you have to supply is drinks and dessert. If you are single and not an experienced cook, you might begin by inviting friends for pizza and a movie night. If you have children, start out inviting just one other family with their kids. Later, as your confidence increases, move on to people who aren’t so close but you want to know better: neighbors, co-workers, people you only see only at Mass, or ask friends you’ve invited to bring someone new along with them.
Read more of Emily's work
As Emily discovered, the Theology of the Body isn’t just about sex and marriage. It’s about the meaning of the whole human person. Her book, These Beautiful Bones, translates difficult theological concepts into simple language and everyday experience. She is also author of The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide to the Single Years. Both are available from EmmausRoad.org.