Hospitality over perfection

One of my family’s holiday traditions is making Christmas cookies. So, in the spirit of the season, a couple weeks ago I invited a few friends over to decorate cookies.

In the planning stages of the party, however, my perfectionist brain faced a dilemma. Should I attempt to create decorated cookies that tasted delicious but didn’t look professionally made, or should I attempt cookies decorated to perfection but didn’t taste as good (because of the type of frosting required for that kind of cookie)? Trouble was, I wanted both. You could say I wanted to have my cookies and eat them, too.

While looking for frosting recipes, I came across photos of cookies frosted so smooth they looked too good to eat. But the recipe dared to admit the frosting, while looking beautiful, wouldn’t satisfy the palate the same way a buttercream frosting would.

But buttercream frosting is messy and lathered on generously with a knife. Delicious, yes, but smooth and flawless, not so much. For some reason, the vision I had was a touch of elegance in cookie form. Trouble was, how would I also satisfy my desire for good-tasting cookies?

Many people might not think twice about such things, but dare I admit the thought occupied a fair amount of my consciousness, until I decided to compromise and have buttercream and royal icing.

The fancy cookies required royal icing, which involved meringue powder, water, light corn syrup, almond and vanilla flavorings and large amounts of powdered sugar, which, the directions dictated, HAD TO BE SIFTED.

I didn’t have a sifter, so, being the dutiful recipe-follower I am, I sifted 2 pounds of sugar through a loose leaf tea infuser. (Thankfully, this process won’t be repeated as I got a sifter for Christmas).

Royal icing is the perfect consistency to pipe around cookies as a border. It can be softened with a little water, creating a “filling” that dries in a smooth, flawless layer in the middle of the thicker icing border.

Once dried, the cookies were canvases to be decorated with more piping or an assortment of white or gold accents. I even bought edible gold glitter spray. Because what party is complete without that?

The end result was visually pleasing, and yummy, too. Although the frosting tasted mostly of powdered sugar, it’s a price I’m willing to pay for cookies that look that good.

This baking experience reminds me of a similar struggle I’ve faced since moving into my own apartment. Actually, now that I think about it, the cookie analogy is the exact opposite of what I’ve been learning, but bear with me.

When I first wanted to invite friends over to share my space, I thought everything had to be perfectly spotless, put away and elaborately decorated in order to let people in. In other words, the cookies needed to be perfect. I was afraid to let my friends see the “messy” parts of my life.

Some time ago, I read an article by author Jen Wilkin on the difference between entertaining and hospitality, and the message stuck with me. Wilkin says entertaining is self-centered, while hospitality is others-centered. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with entertaining, but I get her point.

Wilkin writes: “Enter­taining is always thinking about the next course. Hospitality burns the rolls because it was listening to a story. Entertaining obsesses over what went wrong. Hospitality savors what was shared.”

Later she adds, “Enter­tain­ing seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.”

Too often I’ve had an “entertaining mentality,” fretting over every last detail turning out just right. My “cookies” need to be perfect, and I allow even small imperfections to tarnish an otherwise good evening. It’s both selfish and prideful to seek to maintain that kind of image, and I’m done trying to be perfect.

This year, instead of focusing on appearances, either in cookies or in life, I’d like to be more hospitable.

Wilkin describes it this way: “Hospitality shows interest in the thoughts, feelings, pursuits and preferences of its guests. It is good at asking questions and listening intently to answers. Hospitality focuses attention on others.”

And that can be done, whether the cookies look perfect or not.

Janae Rempel, former sports editor at the Free Press, is on staff with Christian Leader magazine. You can still reach her at janae@hills­borofree­press.com.