Almost every culture tells stories about the unexpected guest. In Jewish folklore there are repeated tales about Elijah the prophet showing up at the door, hungry and cold. Greek mythology is full of mysterious and ragged strangers begging a meal from people only marginally better off than the beggars themselves.

Usually, the visitor is poor and dirty, the last person you’d want tracking mud over your carpets and leaving a ring in your bathtub. Your refrigerator is empty and they will definitely eat you “out of house and home.”

In the stories, these angels, gods and goddesses disrupt the lives of their hosts, consuming their favorite foods and leaving behind a miraculously full larder and untold blessings.

While the world is still full of tired and hungry travelers, we seldom hear tales of the gifts such wanderers leave behind anymore. Even so, the benefits of hosting can far outweigh the responsibilities.

Before offering to give up space in your home, evaluate your current situation. Walk through an imaginary visit and imagine it through the traveler’s eye. Where will your guests park? If you fold out the sofa in the study for Tom and Gladys, will you be able to get to your work station at 8:30 a.m. at the usual time? If they’re on vacation and out dancing ’til well past midnight, the last thing you should expect is for them to clear out of their “bedroom” at dawn’s early light.

How many bathrooms do you have (we will cover preparing this room in a future column) and how much time do you need for your morning ablutions? If you have kids, how well do they share space? How ready are your kitchen, dining and living rooms for more seats on the chairs?

Assess your time commitment. Are you available to show your friends around? Will you be offended if they treat your place as a crash pad, spending no real time with you? When Gladys asks, in an offhand manner, if you’d mind terribly watching her kids for an hour or two, don’t just say, “No problem.” Her sense of time may differ from yours. Resentments that come from a sense of imposition can seriously damage your relationship.

Once you are clear in your own mind about the limits of your hospitality, you are ready to issue an invitation. Whether it’s engraved in copperplate or zapped through the interweb, make your wording clear. “Drop by anytime” is not the same as, “We’d love to have you between the 12th and the 21st.”

“Our house is your house” is an admirable sentiment, but if the truth is “I hope you don’t mind sleeping on camping pads in the rec room,” you’ll be better off stating it up front.

Your invitation should include a request for important information. Ask if your guests have any allergies, dietary restrictions or special health needs. Try to get an informal itinerary of your visitors’ plans. Along with arrival and departure times, you should know if and when they expect to be around for meals. If you hope to plan an event around their visit, such as a dinner or movie date, make sure they are up for the event, and available at the appropriate time. A host’s job is to make guests comfortable. You are asking these questions to facilitate that comfort.

If this is your company’s first visit, make sure the GPS system they use has the right location or offer to send them a map of the local area with your house clearly marked.

Finally, suggest they call you on the day of arrival. Choose a place on their itinerary an appropriate time/distance from your home. The object is to save you hours of anxious “when are they going to get here” waiting. Portland is an hour and a half from me, so I ask visitors to call when they pass through the big city.

Some friends don’t require as much prep time. They call from Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, about 15 minutes down the road. The phone call allows enough time to clear the paperwork off the table, warm up a meal or put together a snack, and see that we and our house are ready for company.

I will return to this hypothetical visit in a few weeks. For now, here’s a quick meal to prepare ahead and warm up after that call from the road:

Simple Curry

(serves 4-6)

This versatile recipe can often be made from food on hand, and is easily adapted to varied dietary restrictions. Fresh ginger and turmeric can be stored in the freezer and grated while still frozen. You can substitute fresh spice root for powdered spice at 1/2 the volume.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter

1 onion, sliced

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon powdered cumin

1/2 teaspoon powdered coriander

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric

1/2 – 1 1/2 teaspoon curry paste as an optional spice booster

Ground pepper to taste

1 medium or large carrot, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch pieces

a handful of green beans, cut in 1-inch pieces, or a cup of frozen peas

1 or 2 ribs celery in thick slices

1/2 to 1 pound protein (tofu, tempeh, pre-cooked meat or seafood)

1 1/2 cup broccoli or cauliflower, broken into florets with remaining stems cut small

Water

Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

Tamari or soy sauce to taste

Directions:

In a large skillet or wok, sauté onion on medium high until translucent. Add all spices except paste, and stir 5 minutes more.

Toss in the carrots and continue cooking 5-7 minutes, stirring to keep it from burning. Add the protein and stir gently another 5 minutes or so and then add broccoli or cauliflower. Stir about 5 more minutes, add a ¼ cup water, cover and turn heat down to simmer for 5-10 minutes more.

Adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro or parsley. Serve with rice, chutneys (spiced preserves) and plain yogurt as a cooling condiment.

Home Ecology is a synthesis of two related academic disciplines: human ecology and home economics, both born of the idea that we live in a world of limited resources. When we recognize the limits, our lives can be both comfortable and sustainable. Shlomit Auciello is an award-winning writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988.