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The Imperfect Table

Scruffy hospitality, Cook Book Clubs and reclaiming the table

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I hate owing someone a dinner invitation.

It's so high-pressure.

I always thought "imperfectionism" was a character flaw until Brene Brown, the vulnerability guru, outed perfectionism as a tactic people use to protect themselves from getting hurt. Ha! I exhaled smugly, I knew there was something suspicious about you perfectly groomed, beautifully mannered ones, with your Instagrammable dinner parties and Kinfolk magazines casually tossed on the Noguchi coffee table.

But embracing your own flawsomeness is harder than it sounds. Even with Brene Brown's Vulnerability manifesto at your back. I point a finger at Lucy Waverman, the Globe and Mail's food columnist. Waverman has written that you should never ask "what can I bring" in response to a dinner party invitation. It's an insult to the host who has put forethought into curating a great meal with perfectly paired wines. Just bring your conversational A-game, she says, and an elegant hostess gift.

Lucy and I move in different circles.

On my planet, we always ask.

I ask, not to insult my host, but to acknowledge that bringing people into your space takes effort, and I'm happy to help lighten the load.

For the record, I am never insulted when someone asks me. I am also stoked if, without even asking, someone randomly shows up with contributions. Throw them down there on the table. Open that bag of chips, decant some vino, let's squeeze in as much conversation as possible before the children blow it all up.

But it's taken a while to devolve to this place, helped along by necessity (children), a catchphrase and one unofficial intervention.

The intervention occurred in the fall, when childless friends, after months of "We should get together soon" emails, randomly dropped by, with wine, cheese and crackers.

This couple are consummate hosts. They're foodies and entertainers with a genuine passion for food, wine, design and décor. For a long time, after first being invited to their house for dinner, (three courses, perfectly plated, in a room where the drapes and the curtains matched), I was too scared to return the favour and serve up one of my standard one-pot meals in return.

When I eventually braved-up, and dished forth something peasant-like, on chipped plates, from a help-yourself-to-more platter on the table, they didn't turn up their noses. They were more distracted by the conversation, by playing with my toddler, or whipping up the dessert themselves. (I'm smart enough to say, "Hell, yes," when an amazing cook asks "Shall I bring dessert?" Sorry Lucy for not measuring up to your standards.)

Their drive-by drop-in was the ultimate signal to me: we don't need to be entertained, we don't want to be a high-pressure entry in your day planner, we just want to catch up.

The catchphrase came out of a sermon, in which a Knoxville, Tennessee minister commended us to lower our standards and embrace "scruffy hospitality," the kind of dinner party that reveals your hunger more for good conversation than fancy ingredients.

In my gospel of scruffy hospitality, "What can I bring?" is the password, a signal that a person appreciates they are participating in a come-as-you-are experience, where the napkins are unironed, if we even remembered to put them out, and the kids will move from lap to table to toy room as we try and coerce them into eating something, before ignoring them for conversation that is grabbed and relished and as nourishing as the food could be.

"What can I bring?" is also code for: "I know you'll have cleaned the bathroom for the first time this week because people are coming over, and that you and your partner will probably be arguing the moment we walk in the door, because that's what happens to us too, every single time we have people around."

It means: "I anticipate stepping around toys piled into a corner. I am willing to push past my inhibitions and make myself at home, to find a glass and pour myself a glass of water if I am feeling thirsty."

Ultimately, it's code for: "I'm just happy to see you."

That's what my foodie friends taught me, when they dropped by with crackers and dip and we ate standing up, moving between the kitchen island and the side of the bath-tub where the kid happily contributed his chatter.

And that's why I started Cook Book Club, which debuts tonight, Thursday, Feb. 22, at Stay Wild Natural Health Store and Juice Bar. Anyone who wants to can come. Bring a friend, or make one. Bring a plate to share, made from the monthly feature cookbook. Sample a bit of everything. If your contribution is a fizzle or a flop, blame it on the cookbook. I know I plan to. Imperfectionism, scruffy hospitality, Cook Book Club, it's all an invitation to reclaim the table as a gathering place. Even when we're too busy to entertain. Especially then.

The Velocity Project: how to slow the f--k down and still achieve optimum productivity and life happiness.

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