There are people we learn from over the course of many years. Earnest Alexander is one of those rare individuals with great celebrity and uncommon humility. As an international gospel singer he’s taken stories of at-risk children to the world to break the cycle of fatherlessness.
J. and I have been invited to his table more times than we can count and he has been a favorite guest at ours. Ironically, J. typically entertains Earnest with a mix of the work and styles of current musical artists…most recently pointing him to Carpool Karaoke and The Late Late Show Host James Corden’s rap session with Michael Bublé. While Earnest might not ever croon, no artist will ever be a match for bringing sound up from the floor to fill the rafters. And few people I know will bring his kind of “music” to the table.
Who inspired your love of the table?
My grandmother Cille. We lived with her in a shotgun shack in Selma, Alabama. It didn’t matter that we were poor. She fed the eight of us and more cousins than I can count.
Do you have a favorite memory of the table?
Cille’s table. She made great biscuits and bread on her cast-iron stove. Our friends were always welcome. They loved coming to her table because she listened to them.
You do all the cooking for the people you bring to your table.
Yes. My mother was adamant that my six brothers and sisters and I learn to cook and clean before we left home.
Cooking for others is an act of love. When I spend two days preparing for guests I’m giving them the gift of my time and attention. It’s clear I’m doing it for them, not myself.
Two days of preparation…that’s a lot of pots and pans.
You won’t find pots and pans in my kitchen by the time we sit down for a meal. Mama taught that you cleaned as you prepared, that there should be nothing left after the meal except the dishes. I have a friend who has the entire kitchen on his counters by the time we sit down. You do not want to do dishes for him.
Any other sage advice from your mother or grandmother?
Mama prized a clean home. Never go to bed with a messy kitchen. Always turn out the lights on a clean space.
Tell me about meals at the Youth Horizons Kinloch Price Boys Ranch. Do the boys help?
Always. Participation teaches and creates value. When we prepare for guests we’re modeling. When I get down on my knees to help scrub a floor, I’m modeling.
Harriet, who gave us the land for the ranch, modeled so many things for the boys while she was alive. Like me, she grew up in poverty. She prepared…served…cleaned and expressed so much interest in those young men. If she didn’t know you she walked across the room to introduce herself and get acquainted. She never, ever expected that her wealth entitled her to being served.
You’re modeling thankfulness.
Yes. I’ve insisted that the staff model gratitude for the boys. My mother taught me that you say thank you until you’re asked to stop.
We’ve come to the table with you in your home, at the boys ranch and at fine restaurants with people we don’t know. How do you make your guests comfortable?
A host or hostess has an important responsibility to lead…to bring people into the spirit of the occasion, make sure they’re introduced and remain watchful over the group. When that responsibility is neglected the room suffers.
It’s bold to put strangers together at a table, don’t you think?
The only ingredient needed for strangers at a table is interest. The art of conversation is about sincere curiosity and interest in the lives and affairs of the people sitting to your left and right and across from you. You can feel the moment when everyone lets down their guard and all the nervous tension goes out of the room.
You’ve talked about Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter tables at your family home…
Use the most beautiful things you have at these times. It is work to use china and crystal but a beautiful table signifies to your guests that you honor them.
You have just stepped down as CEO of Youth Horizons. What’s next?
I’m hosting donor dinners this month and would love for you to come. Seriously, Craig Curry and I hope to do more weekend concerts.
You have a few signature dishes.
Yes. Your husband asked me to call him the next time I smoke ribs. I think he wants to steal my secret sauce.