Time is in such short supply for many now that they have handed their domestic skills off to Dinner Done!, Merry Maids, and the corner laundry. Consequently, it never goes without notice when a guest has made something themselves. I sigh just a little when desserts are produced from a Harris Teeter bag. Not because I don't understand, because I miss your Pumpkin Bread, or your Mama's shortcake, Grandpa's zinnia's, or Tommy's wind-knot bracelets. I wish for both of us the days when you could labor over something which brought so many smiles could return for you. Slogging away on the corporate ladder is necessary for reasons far beyond livelihood, but the thing you created with your hands is no less necessary or rewarding. Too often balances are off-struck and we cannot force our days to realize accomplishment in all the areas in which we feel talented and rewarded. Now we have an opportunity, nearly a responsibility, to turn that around.
The neighbor I mentioned, she is a talented artist, baker, and neighbor. She and her husband are are salt of the earth, the kind who will knock on your door at 2 am if they hear something concerning. Two other neighbors are gifted gardeners, especially with fruit trees. They can also renovate rooms of their home on their own and be good friends too, the kind who cut your grass when you need a hand, and the kind who bring you baskets of lovingly grown fruit from their own garden. In one glorious week, my kind neighbors brought pastry and show-stopping beautiful mountains of fresh fruit. I don't know what I did to deserve any of these gifted and skilled friends, but I know I am the lucky one in the deal and I am not taking any chances.
We ate the caramel tart. It was a lovely afternoon snack with tea or formula (in the baby's case). And like a hot wind through the kitchen, the fruit was preserved two days later in an effort to hold on to the vibrancy of its color and the gifts of this bright season.
Receiving and enjoying these things was made so much more perfect because lovely people had put their personal stamp on them. This got me in thinking about returning things (baskets and dishes in this case). And the tradition of never returning a vessel empty.
Sometimes, if there has been a funeral or a shower and dishes have been tagged with names on the underside (the only circumstance in which it is good manners to turn a plate over), returning a dish full may seem an overwhelming task. Trust me, it will be a good distraction in either event. Look, you need not hand yourself off to the zany-plan leprechaun on your left shoulder who has you baking twelve quick breads to place in wrapping color-coordinated to the dishes. Come on back to me, Dinner Party Host. Let's take a deep breath together.
Think of the things you do well, the things you prize, then translate: If you have a way with tea roses, put each one in a flower tip, tie a ribbon around it and place it in the pan with a note no bigger than a business card. It might read, "Bit of cheer for you. With many thanks..." You choose elegant stationary and have artful handwriting, send me a note. I save all the actual hand-written cards I get, they have become too few. A few of your Grandmothers precious spice cookies in simple parchment with a note in each dish would be a nice touch. Some piece of yourself should travel with the dish. So look for yourself now and figure it out before you are pressed.
Think that dish does not mean much to a friend? On the day of my Grandfather's funeral, one of my Grandparent's oldest friends approached my parents and asked if she could have one of Grandmother's dinner plates to keep (she preceded him to the grave). My mind went to some painful place at that moment: In short order, tears would surely still roll down our cheeks as the last of my Grandparents worldly possessions were packed and passed on to my parents.
Before my thoughts could complete the painful Why? question working it's way to the fore, she said she had a plate from each of her friends who had passed away. She hung them above the kitchen table in her home so she would know some part of their worlds, their kitchens, their history as friends, mothers, and wives would always be there to warm her and her family. She knew all the plate patterns by heart because she had many times returned them home with a bit of pie or a few slices of cake to thank her guests for being a generous friend.
So, you ask, what was in the dishes I returned? Buttercream cake with lemon filling for my baking neighbor, and the Greyston Bakery's Earl Grey Tea Cake for the gardeners who grew the fruit which went into the cake. From my talents to theirs with my great thanks.