Guests were due to arrive in less than three hours when I walked into the kitchen and noticed it: the faint but unmistakable smell of decay.
At first, I was unshaken. Produce often remained in our “crisper” drawer long after its time of freshness had passed. I opened the fridge door, and—sure enough—the smell intensified. I set about tossing wilted lettuce and locating the lost apples that had gone to mush and removing cheese that wasn’t supposed to be furry. Gross, but normal—at least in our household.
To my dismay, the stench did not go away—or even lessen—despite the newly cleaned-out refrigerator. In fact, it got worse.
With an hour to go before people started coming over, we had the fridge pulled out of its nook and partly disassembled. Tools were strewn all over the kitchen floor. My husband was desperately trying to get the heavy duty vacuum hose far enough up into the fridge’s mechanicals to remove the mouse carcass we had discovered to be the source of the smell.
Any normal person would have already canceled that night’s dinner party by this point. But we were not normal people, and this was not a typical dinner party.
So I sprayed an unhealthy amount of air freshener, lit every candle I could find, and wrestled with whether or not to warn guests that if they were sensitive to artificial scents or stories about mice they might want to sit this one out.
The gathering we were having that night was one that had become a monthly tradition we affectionately called “crappy dinner.”
As a new parent with an infant son and no family in the area, I feared becoming isolated from community and losing connections with friends.
Then I came across a blog post by Kelley Powell called, “How to Host a Crappy Dinner (and See Your Friends More Often).” In it, she encouraged people to let go of unrealistic expectations around immaculate houses and elaborate menus, and instead embrace inviting people as they are to come to your house as it is. Low expectations and low stress.
I don’t know if I was feeling particularly brave or just sleep-deprived and delusional, but that sounded like a great idea to me! So, we decided to give it a try. And until they were disrupted by a move and a global pandemic, crappy dinners became a regular occurrence for us.
One of the first and most important “rules” of hosting crappy dinners is that you don’t do a lot of prep work. You’re technically not even supposed to clean. At all. Because once you enter the rabbit hole of needing your house to look a certain way, you have abandoned the “low expectations and low stress” ethos of the event.
I confess that I almost always did at least some frantic cleaning right before our crappy dinners. I would clear off the dining room table and chuck clutter into the spare room. (Closing the door before guests arrived and never letting them in that room, of course!) I had to make sure we had enough clean dishes with which to cook and eat. I would make a path through the baby toys so that guests would be less likely to break their necks on the way to the bathroom. (And as you already know, there was that one time we had to extricate mouse guts from the fridge mechanicals…)
But I didn’t worry about the fingerprints all over the windows, the dust on … every flat surface, or the fact that our house looked like it was home to an active family with children and pets. We invited people into our home — and into our lives — without trying to make any of it seem like it was nicer, fancier, or more put together than it actually was.
In that spirit, the menu for crappy dinners is meant to be simple: Quick, easy, and generally well-liked are the top criteria.
We chose to make it the same almost every month: gluten-free spaghetti from a box, marinara sauce from a jar (with added spices if I felt fancy), seasoned ground beef for the meat-eaters, and a giant bowl of mixed greens with various dressing options. Beverages were water, wine, milk, and maybe juice if we had some.
That’s it. I literally invited people over and fed them pasta from a box. We served everything a la carte to easily accommodate a wide variety of dietary needs and preferences.
Other easy options are taco bars, make your own pizzas (with pre-made crusts, of course), and soup & bread. Keep it simple and easily adaptable. If it’s not something you’d ever make for a weeknight family dinner, then it shouldn’t be on the menu for crappy dinner.
For our first crappy dinner, I was tempted to only invite “safe” friends: the people who already knew my life and house were a mess and who I knew wouldn’t judge me for that.
But, again, in a state of courage or sleep-deprivation, I decided that wouldn’t be much fun, so I invited every single person that lived in our area and was friends with me on social media. Literally everyone. Neighbors. Colleagues. Our realtor whom we adore. People who took the same fitness classes at the gym. Folks I’d met at trainings and events but not kept in touch with. If they’d had the [mis] fortune of crossing my path, they got invited. Once, a friend from high school was in town for a wedding, and she brought the entire bridal party over for crappy dinner!
We were surprised by the variety of people that turned out and the connections that were formed and deepened. Casual acquaintances of ours became real friends. Mutual friends discovered common interests and passions and became friends with one another, outside of their relationship with us. It was a beautiful thing to cultivate and witness.
As you can tell, the point of crappy dinners is not to create Pinterest-inspired tablescapes or cook meals worthy of Instagram. Instead, it’s to foster connections between people – real, authentic, messy, vulnerable connections between real, authentic, messy, vulnerable people.
In her speaking and writing, Brene Brown talks about how imperfections are a gift and how embracing our own imperfections eases the pressure on those around us, allowing us all to feel more deeply loved and connected.
Lutheran theology emphasizes God’s grace: that God loves and accepts us exactly as we are — struggles, frustrations, failures, imperfections and all.
Crappy dinners provide a tangible experience of these dynamics. By lowering the standards for hosting people, we take dinner parties from being stress-filled events that happen only on special occasions to being monthly occurrences we look forward to with joyful anticipation.
We take the risk to invite people in and show them that we are, indeed, worthy of love and connection even if our house is a mess and our culinary skills leave something to be desired. And if WE are worthy of love and connection—even with our toy-strewn floors and dusty shelves and pasta sauce from a jar—then perhaps our guests will realize that they, too, are worthy of the same.
As appalling as it was, there was something special about opening the door to welcome guests on The Day of the Incident with the Dead Mouse. I recall greeting people something like this: “Hi!! Welcome!! Come on in!! Um, sorry that the place reeks of air freshener and the windows are wide open even though it’s only 50 degrees out. See, we had this gross little situation with a mouse, but it’s handled now and the food is ready and we’re here. No judgment if you want to leave … we know it’s disgusting…”
Every single person stayed. We had a delightful—albeit chilly—evening full of laughter and stories and food and fun. Maybe they stayed out of politeness, but I like to think that it was one of those times that put people at ease, because when someone greets you at the door like that, you know that whatever imperfect things are happening in your life, you and your mess are truly welcome at the table.
Recipe for A Crappy Dinner Party
- Generous scoops of confidence & vulnerability
- Sprinkle of humor (more, to taste)
- Table(s) and chairs: as many as you can find, matching sets not necessary
- Food: quick, easy, cheap, adaptable
- People: whomever you have contact info for
1) Choose a location. Formal dining rooms are great, but feel free to set up a table and some folding chairs in your living room, basement, or backyard — wherever you have the most room. Borrow tables and chairs from the neighbors if necessary.
2) Invite as many people as you can. The more the merrier! Be clear about the low expectations for the gathering and that it’s about getting together, not having a fancy experience.
3) No more than 30 minutes before guests are due to arrive, start cooking. If your meal takes longer to make, then it’s probably too fancy for crappy dinner! Scale it back. Simplify.
4) Welcome people into your home. Give them whatever disclaimers you need to about the meal, the toys, the children, the pets (or don’t). Wave in the general direction of the beverages and food and tell them to help themselves.
5) Enjoy building relationships and seeing way more of your friends than you normally would.
6) Repeat as often as you like.