Entertaining with ξενία

We don’t wear uniforms at the Spotted Owl (think vests, bowties, arm garters, or the anti-uniform of matching T-shirts and jeans). I look at it this way: a comfortably dressed bartender, listening to music she enjoys, is a happy bartender. A happy bartender is a friendly bartender, and a friendly bartender is the goal. A bartender is a host—her job is to make people feel comfortable, have fun, and be safe. The way she dresses should reflect her personality, and should empower her to host with grace and empathy. It shouldn’t be a costume.

That said—if men were angels, we wouldn’t need laws. So, there have been occasions in which I’ve had to suggest alternatives to a team member’s outfit. In such circumstances, I find myself referring back to the same idea, and the same suggestion—“just dress like you were hosting a party at your house. Whatever that means to you, just dress like that.”

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I find that such a strategy works pretty well—it reminds us that everything we do as bartenders should reflect the spirit of being a host, of welcoming people into our homes. But lately it’s taken on a more literal sense in my mind, and it’s given me occasion to think about actual at-home entertaining.

Entertaining at home was an enormous part of American culture in the ’50s, and ’60s. A cursory exploration of estate sales in the greater Cleveland area will prove it. So will a perusal of vintage cookbooks and cocktail manuals at secondhand stores. I’m not sure what changed in the intervening decades, but cocktail and dinner parties aren’t so common anymore. It’s a shame, because hosting guests in one’s home, preparing delicious food and well-balanced cocktails, is one of history’s noblest endeavors—dare I say, even nobler than bartending, as it’s less overtly transactional.

Cocktail parties give us the opportunity to be our best selves, both as host and as guest. We are deliberate about our clothes, but we don’t dress in costume unless called upon to do so. And there’s something about the rarity of a cocktail party (as opposed to visiting a cocktail bar) that calls on us to act with increased graciousness and empathy. The host hangs your coat; the guest brings a bottle or fills the sink with soap to help clean the dishes. The drinks are programmed and practiced. They’re made in big batches, ideally, so that guests may take part in the fellowship of the punchbowl. During a good cocktail party, there’s a feeling that some tradition is being carried on—that some notion of ours best selves is being protected.

Ancient Greeks had a word called ξενία, or xenia, which translates loosely to “guest-friendship.” It’s a derivation of the word ξένος, or “stranger.” In certain Homeric contexts it can also mean “enemy,” a fact that lends a certain elegance to its most common descendent in our parlance, xenophobia. Guest-friendship was a sacred concept in Greece back then, and now. Greek hospitality had dozens of specific rituals, each of which emerged from Greek notions of the divine. Most scholars agree that the ξενία idea comes from theoxeny, which literally means “god-stranger.” It’s the idea that you should show the utmost hospitality to a stranger, just in case that stranger turns out to be a god in disguise. As a bartender, I like that idea a lot.

ξενία is always close to my heart when I think about hospitality, about hosting a party, and about running a bar. It describes an understanding and a contract between the host and her guest-friend. The host must provide food and drink and a gift, but must also restrain herself from asking too many questions too quickly—such interrogations would be unseemly. The guest-friend, in return, must be courteous, and humble in his acceptance of gifts and succor, but must never be a burden. Guest-friendship is a relationship, and like any relationship, it must be cultivated and protected.

There’s a spirit to hosting a party—that seems obvious. But the same spirit also occupies attending that party. During a house party, or a dinner party, or any celebration, every small piece of the party, every offering, should be in service of that dual spirit of guest-friendship. The food and the booze and the music and the empathy and the grace should enrich the soil in which ξενία has been planted, so that it can flourish, for its own sake. It’s not about how the host looks, or about how the guest behaves. It’s about the space between people, who themselves move throughout a party like subatomic particles in their little orbits. That space, to the Greeks, as well as to my ancient rite of bartenders, is a sacred one, and it can be protected only through ritual.

Maybe that’s why I so abhor the idea of a uniform—like the god disguised as a stranger, one cannot judge a great host by what she’s wearing—only by how she hosts.