Photo credit: Brian Samuels of A Thought For Food / portfolio

The key to hospitality is working hard, then letting go. Here’s what I mean.

Two weeks ago Maggy, Erika of Ivory Hut, and I hosted our third annual Big Summer Potluck for about ninety food bloggers and sponsors. From the beginning, hospitality has been a priority for Erika, Maggy, and me. We want every single person to feel welcome. We’ve all been to conferences where attendees—sometimes it’s us—are awkwardly standing around the periphery.

There are lots of practical behind-the-scenes-things that go into a welcoming event, but here’s the most important: prepare the best you can, and then let it go.

After years of stressing out when I had people over—that my food wasn’t good enough, that I hadn’t done enough—I finally gave it up. I realized that good food played a role, but the most important thing at any meal was the deep connection around the table.

It’s easy to believe that when it’s just your family for Sunday supper or even a brunch for a couple of dozen. But was it still true when ninety food bloggers and sponsors (food professionals!) show up for the weekend?

As I was preparing for the Big Summer Potluck the little voices were there, assuring me that bloggers would have tasted better fried chicken than mine, that dinner at a Zagat-rated restaurant would be a much more interesting than the one at my house. And since bloggers are encouraged to bring a dish (it is, after all, a potluck) the voices insisted that people would forget, and there wasn’t going to be enough. I really ought to whip up some more. Just in case.

And there was the house. That whole week the voices kept quietly suggesting the deck needed cleaning and the dining room rug was dirty. I had managed to whip the main level of the house into shape, but what if people strayed beyond it? Those same voices reminded me there wasn’t any furniture in our lower-level family room (if you were just a little more successful you’d have that room decked out), and the rest of the house was a little scattered.

But the voices started to quiet when Sabrina of The Tomato Tart arrived the morning of the Big Summer Potluck and said, “Put me to work!” And then there was Colleen of Souffle Bombay who offered to come early. (She’s the reason I had time to hot roll my hair and slip on a dress.)

And then people started to arrive. I took a deep breath and walked out to greet them. I had done the best I could, and it was time to let go. The voices faded.

Hospitality happens when you can welcome people into an anxiety-free zone. People know when the atmosphere is charged with worry and the need to look good. They quickly intuit whether the food and drink on offer is meant to impress or embrace. We’ve all experienced a dinner where something magical took over and people just merged. Yes. They do that when they sense that the host has let go, has let it be.