Serving (2)


As I sat down to write this post, it began to dawn upon me how odd the past decade of my life has been work-wise. Somehow I’ve strung together a model for the non-career–a path studded with the most inconsistent array of tasks imaginable: web designer, line cook, teacher, waiter, religious organizer.

One thing emerged from this list. There is one thing in common–and though I’m skeptical of destiny and hardline versions of karma–I do see how the scattered stones of this path has led me to what I call “mealscape” today. In each of these jobs, it would seem, I am somehow being appointed to serve. To serve someone with something, or something with someone.

Serving food to a plate, serving a plate to a customer, serving HTML to the web, serving questions to the student, serving spirituality to the heathens*. (*NOTE: yes, this is how religious groups think).

I no longer know if I agree with–or want to repeat–any of these roles in exclusivity. But as a whole, they give me pause for thought. What do we mean when we talk about serving, anyhow?

What is actually going on? Is serving as simple as giving, or being taken from? If so, of what use is this particular verb at all? Is serving a person the same as serving an object or an ideal? And how is that a host serving a dish simultaneously connotes appropriation (the transformation and “plating” of one vibrant thing) and being appropriated (the devotion of one’s energies to the benefit of another vibrant thing–such as another human)? In other words, how do we navigate the tension between serving and Serving? Are serving up and serving out really worthwhile distinctions?

There are more than a few of us who seem to have pursued food as an inroad to some kind of emancipation (physical, social or political). I for one have spent much time grappling with the ways in which food exists as culture, and culture exists as food. But more often than not this obsession has come at the detriment of the gestures that stand in between.

Food bloggers, food critics and food scholars … we’ve all been neglecting to tip the waiter. We’ve become fixated on the messages of nutrients, ethics and taste. In doing so, it seems we’ve often bypassed their very “medium: serving.

The ambiguity of serving is that which allows its inscription – simultaneously – upon various positions in the food cycle.

We know that production, preparation, procurement, consumption and disposal – in short, food acts – are bound up in a moral, sensory and social fabric.

Food studies folk – especially the social scientists – are fond of bickering as to whether the pancake you ate for breakfast was a product of the inorganic worms that shit the wheat’s soil, the (un)ethical labour of the millworkers who ground it into flour, or the oil compound of the spatula that flipped it .

Meanwhile, they tacitly omit the performative.

But of course we all do it, and we do it not so much tacitly as tactfully (I don’t mean to pick on social scientists).

After all, doing service is hard–and I’m not just talking about the hotel & restaurant business.

Have you ever cooked in an open kitchen? Of course you have. (Think of your apartment, your job at McDonalds, or that time you operated the food truck).

Okay, forget open kitchens. Have you ever cooked?

Did you purchase a seabass at the market? Who served it to you? The fisherman, delivery driver or fishmonger? I once cooked for religious retreats. Us cooks were religious too–and we had to get food out on time. In practice then, each chop of the onion, or tilt of the frying pan, was spiritual service as well. When you cook at a restaurant, you serve to the plate. Does the waiter/food runner serve the customer, or is it you, the cook, or is it more practically the dish or the fork?

“Service” is not an industry, a position, or a duty. It it has been frozen and captured by the systems in need of each of the latter. Regimes, whether capitalist, totalitarian or religious, cannot help but steal the glorious ambiguity of life away from a word.

The problem is not that we enter the service industry hoping to do good, or even to make money. The problem is not that cooks work in service (sorry) of any of the latter. Rather it is that we feel that simply because we are in the industry, that we are serving, that we understand what serving is.

Like the edible matter imagined by Jane Bennett, “to serve” is to enter into a space of vibrancy. Yet vibrant here does not equate to eye-popping, exciting or colourful. It applies to gesture and motion, in the sense that the vibrant is the interplay of performing and being performed. In other words, if vibrancy here holds some affinity with the “lifelike,” it is less in the biological sense, and more the quantum one.

Serving food, serving HTML, serving the Divine…the question the verb poses seems to lack boundaries or definition. And yet it is no less real in its functioning. Whether we care about politics, food, or social justice, it is inscribed upon much of our adult lives. I have no pretensions. I am not unique. The older I get, the more I become convinced that all humans (especially those with financial commitments) eventually eventually ask: what master am I “serving”? This is a cognate question to Old Faithful: What Purpose Does My Life Serve?

Surely a post like this cannot properly ignore that last famous question. But what has not already been said about it? It’s not only that, as a Question, it’s lost its punch. It’s that the verb itself seems much more meaningful at this juncture in time.

To serve any of the entities above is to enter into some kind of engagement. The mechanical (and most exploited) view of this engagement is the reduction of serving to “serving to.” Yet “serving to” co-opts and appropriates reduction to self and Other. “There can be no server without a person being served,” “The master and slave are mutually dependent,” etc. We all know what follows from this rhetoric, and its storied (ab)use when plucked from embodied experience.

In serving, reciprocity can always be found *somewhere*. There is no serving without agreement–of some kind, on some level. And it is precisely *because* of this agreement that we should never equate it with “giving” nor with “being taken from.” It stands somewhere in between, or rather, in avoidance of these two theoretical impossibities.

Serving necessarily opens up a world. And in doing so, I think, it most seductively transcends the mechanics of mere “transaction”.

At that, my friends, I shall depart. I have a dinner to go make…and eat !

… stay tuned for part three! Your comments welcome below.

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