Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Entertaining 101: Have Lots of Hobbit Pantries

It is hard to imagine that after looking for pantry references in so many books when I was writing The Pantry several years ago, that I should have forgotten about Mr. Bilbo Baggins' pantries at his hobbit-hole in Bag End, Hobbiton. I read and loved The Hobbit when I was about twelve but I never got into J.R.R. Tolkein's other novels. There was something about the wee folk in the lovely English countryside that seemed familiar and less menacing to me then the greater adventures with scarier creatures in Middle Earth.

The hobbit-hole of Bilbo Baggins was a sizable hill and is introduced in the first chapter:
No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
Today on Facebook, a friend put up this quote: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," which one of the dwarfs says later on in The Hobbit in reference to Mr. Baggins. As someone who likes to eat, cook, sing and entertain, this sentiment rings true for me. And, I was reminded, again, of how pantries ("lots of these") were a part of Bilbo Baggins' home in the shire and how a full larder is a good thing to have when a wizard–and thirteen dwarfs–show up on your doorstep, unexpectedly, for tea (and tea in England can be more like an American supper). PHOTO–Our guests, which included mostly children, were appreciative and did not make any extra requests like the dwarfs who came to tea at Mr. Bilbo Baggins' hobbit-hole. And no, our humble hobbit-hole is not tilting–it almost looks like the crooks' hide-outs in the old television show, Batman!

Like myself, Hobbits tend to be reclusive little people, "inclined to be fat in the stomach...(with) good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it)." They also are about three and half feet tall and have full heads of curly hair. I expect I've heard a "fruity laugh," or uttered one once in a while, myself, although it has likely been a while. [Come to think of it, my dear husband reminds me of a taller, balding Bilbo!]

On Monday we had some friends over for lunch and I could somewhat relate to Bilbo's angst. However, unlike with Mr. Baggins, I knew I was expecting a lot of guests (sort of–we did have a "snow day" reschedule) and my anxieties tend to occur in advance: I fret about how the house looks, how the food will work, and oh so many things not tended to (and that in the end don't really matter). I used to entertain in New Hampshire quite often, for small groups of friends or dinner parties or around the holidays, but here I've gotten rather rusty and the old perfectionist streak creeps in again. It is so unnecessary, but there it is.

When Baggins invited the wizard Gandalf to tea he asked himself (and don't we always second-guess ourselves after sending out a party invitation? I know that I do! What was I possibly thinking!?):

"What on earth did I ask him to tea for!?" he said to himself, as he went to the pantry. He had only just had breakfast, but he thought a cake or two and a drink of something would do him good after his fright.

Then the dwarfs, whom Gandalf had invited, kept piling into Baggins' hobbit-hole, one after another. Baggins went "scuttling off" to "the pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel." They begin asking Baggins for more and more food.
+ + +

"And raspberry jam and apple-tart," said Bifur.

"And mince-pies and cheese," said Bofur.

"And pork-pie and salad," said Bombur.

"And more cakes, and ale, and coffee, if you don't mind," called the other dwarfs through the door.

"Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow!" Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. "And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!"

"Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!" thought Mr Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house. By the time he had got all the bottles and dishes and knives and forks and glasses and plates and spoons and things piled up on big trays, he was getting very hot, and red in the face, and annoyed.

"Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!" he said aloud. "Why don't they come and lend a hand?" Lo and behold! there stood Balin and Dwalin at the door of the kitchen, and Fili and Kili behind them, and before he could say knife they had whisked the trays and a couple of small tables into the parlour and set out everything afresh.

Gandalf sat at the head of the party with the thirteen dwarves all round: and Bilbo sat on a stool at the fireside, nibbling at a biscuit (his appetite was quite taken away), and trying to look as if this was all perfectly ordinary and not in the least an adventure. The dwarves ate and ate, and talked and talked, and time got on. At last they pushed their chairs back, and Bilbo made a move to collect the plates and glasses.

"I suppose you will all stay to supper?" he said in his politest unpressing tones.

"Of course!" said Thorin. "And after. We shan't get through the business till late, and we must have some music first. Now to clear up!"

Thereupon the twelve dwarves–not Thorin, he was too important, and stayed talking to Gandalf–jumped to their feet, and made tall piles of all the things. Off they went, not waiting for trays, balancing columns of plates, each with a bottle on the top, with one hand, while the hobbit ran after them almost squeaking with fright: "please be careful!" and "please, don't trouble! I can manage." But the dwarves only started to sing:
Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates?
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully! carefully with the plates!

~ excerpted from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein:
Chapter 1. "The Unexpected Party"

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As a hostess I am terrible about two things: delegating any kind of task or letting people help me in the first place. I am awed that my Mennonite friends are able to do both with great ease and efficiency and aren't afraid to ask for help or to offer it, either. They think nothing of swooping into another woman's kitchen and pitching in–but somehow that is less a part of our own culture and more about their communal one where the kitchen is not only the center of the home but an extended living room, too, as well as work room. And everyone in their home–man, woman, child–has a specific role or is able to learn to do many things. There is something inviolate, at times, about coming into another woman's kitchen and over the years, with good friends, as welcome as we've felt in each other's homes, we just seem to respect this unwritten code of conduct.

Ironically (and I always enjoy good irony and symbolism), I wouldn't let anyone bring anything but one person who did not attend had a bouquet of flowers delivered and they arrived a half hour before the lunch. And frankly, I hadn't thought about a centerpiece so it was a kind and unexpected gesture and it graced the center of our table. One thing I love about entertaining, as in life, is to expect the unexpected in situations, and in others, and be glad of it–embrace it, even. Taking a good cue from the poet Emily Dickinson, I try to always "dwell in Possibility," from a poem that explains as much as I feel about heaven on Earth in a shared transcendentalist stance with the poet, as I seem to feel about entertaining and having visitors in my home:
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

~ Poem #657, c. 1862, by Emily Dickinson

My husband knows to make himself scarce in the hours before a party, if not the day before. This week, one of our boys helped me to get the house ready in the morning and did some vacuuming and was a great sous chef for last minute things. Regardless of any advance mayhem, we always have fun once the gathering begins–and there's always plenty of food.

When one of the toddlers at the lunch opened our bedroom door, which is just off the living room, he made this discovery. I was able to say with a sweeping gesture, "See!? This is how we really live..." (But at least the bed was made!!) Around the corner from this bedroom, and fortunately only accessible from the bedroom, is my unkempt hobbit-hole of an office. (And no, I'm not proud of it...)

Unlike in Mr. Baggins' hobbit-hole we have no cellars here to hide stuff in. So here's my entertainment advice for what it's worth:
  1. Unless you are planning a huge open house or garden party, you'll always have enough food no matter what you make or how many people are coming (and you can freeze leftovers). I've never had this fail.
  2. Do your major cooking and "light cleaning" ahead of time.
  3. When all else fails, pile every stray bit of clutter on your bed a few hours before company comes and shut the door!
  4. (Plastic cups are also good for a crowd.)
  5. (Nice days help when you have a lot of kids–so do games.)
The varied women of Cranforda series of novels by Elizabeth Gaskell set in Victorian rural England and adapted in two sagas by the BBC–always seem ready for tea-time. But they are just as adept as brushing over any conflict with each other and value love and friendship above all. I am blessed to have made friends like this in my life.

Another parting "party tip": do your major vacuuming in the day(s) after the party and only a bit before hand–and let your children do the before hand "sweep" (if you are like me, you'll be less hard on them and happily have them do it while you tend to other things). You'll thank me–and unless you have some one who is doing a white-glove inspection of every nook and cranny in your hobbit-hole, no one will really notice...or care. And if they do, they probably won't want to come back any way.

Take it from Mr. Bilbo Baggins: it is always easier to entertain thirteen raucous, hungry, messy but grateful dwarfs–and a kind old wizard–than it is to please one imperious queen. Not that royalty ever visited the hobbit's shire, that Tolkein wrote about or that is in my memory, but a good hobbit must be prepared for anyone, at least, with his ample larders and seed-cakes. And, above all, dear readers, we must always allow the time in our day and in our homes for tea-time.

[I just discovered that The Hobbit will at last be made into a (two-part) movie: get ready for more Hobbit fever in the next few years.]


Anonymous said...

I want to shout at you about the bedroom clutter...

"THAT'S ALL??!!!!"


I must admit, I was wondering as I racked and stacked the dirty dishes if you would not like that. How silly of me.

Thank you for everything that day. Food to eat and food to take home, plus good company, conversation, and coffee! Can't wait to see you later this week. I'll be experiencing the same thing with about 30+ guests over 8 hours. I'll remember your sage advice.
love, t.

Ladyfromthewoods said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

(shaking my head)

Catherine said...

Hey T.--NO, IT IS NOT ALL! I would gladly post a photo of my office and a few closets right now (and don't even get me started on the brick house) but I'm afraid social services will stage an intervention for the show, HOARDERS, and haul my kids away.

I was a born clutterer-piler in a family that is either meticulously neat or the same as, or worse, than myself. We're not filthy people but have a tendency towards profound clutter. It also doesn't help to be a writer and a family archivist and photographer who wants to save EVERYTHING for posterity.

It's a losing battle at times and already the house is a wreck again. One day it will help to have a place for everything again, in one house, and one that is equipped with a big cellar, attic, and many many pantries...

And I didn't mind about the dishes or notice! I've gotten over that kind of anxiety.

Love, Catherine

Erica said...

Hi Catherine! Ive been gone for a few weeks and have missed your blog and what a welcome one this is...so sweet. The one thing hubby and I both agree on is that we want to live with the hobits, LOL! Such a beautiful, whimsical and peaceful dwelling place. I love this particular blog, thanks for sharing! Erica

AC said...

THis post made me so happy when I first read it this morning...just the thing to warm up a gray winter day. And perhaps I should check the Hobbit out of the library next week when our temps are supposed to plummet again.

Wasn't Cranford a great miniseries? I'd never heard of the novels and now I'm dying to read them. It struck me as being much more warm and human than the Jane Austen productions...not that I don't like Jane Austen, but it was a refreshing change to see something that dealt with facets of life beyond the courtship and marriage of young and wealthy people.

Catherine said...

I am so glad the hobbit post has made everyone happy today! I am having a rather glum day and your posts have cheered me up--it's not so much the rain but the, well, I dunno.

So I'm off to make chicken-noodle casserole and rhubarb crumble with custard sauce for dessert! I think Mr. Baggins would approve.

And if you haven't read any of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels you are in for a treat. I've only read CRANFORD and WIVES and DAUGHTERS, but that was a long time ago. She was a contemporary of Dickens and wrote more of village life and the wonderful details of domestic life from all classes at that time--and relationships between strong women. The best kind of book!

In fact, I may have to do some re-reading this winter.

Best, Catherine

Crystal Mudgett-Epley said...

Lovely! Love the references to the Hobbit!! However, you should have had a photo taken of US and used it instead of the Cranford women. I think everyone is self-conscious of their own houses because WE know where all the dirt is and what hasn't been cleaned. Oh well, life goes on. Why spend it cleaning. Can't wait til the next get together!!! <3

Catherine said...


I used to have someone come in 2x a month back in NH to clean and believe me, that house was more than I could handle. There are days that I think THIS house is more than I can handle, too! This woman was amazing: she took pride in what she did and she was happy to do it and for about a week each month, in groups of days, the house looked great.

But what it really did is it freed my mind to focus on things like my family, my writing, entertaining. And the best part was it freed BOTH of us from that dreaded "Isn't that your job?" rut that a couple can get in. I take a very feminist stance on housework: we all are busy, we all contribute to the mess, so therefore, aren't we all obligated to pick it up, too? Sadly, it never really works out that way and Momma is generally the one holding the bag, so to speak.

Cleaning isn't so much my problem as is the clutter! That can consume me at times, esp. since moving into a temporary status for a few years. It is mind-cluttering, too.

But here's to entertaining! And the occasionally clean house...

Hope to see you again soon!