Serving is troubling. The act can be differentiated from “giving” and “taking” in that it somehow borrows from both in one smooth moment of possibility. It is important to recall that it is not the same as “giving.” The most significant point of differentiation is that “giving” entails a clear separation–a separation of self from object (shirt off back), of self from other (left him my heart), and of other from object (got a new toy). Unlike giving and taking, which are necessarily abstractions (two poles of a continuum), serving must be thought and done at the same time. It is there to resist definition.
Serving is tense. It eludes fixed positions, being captured. Giving is characterized, inventorized, and illustrated in vivid colour in moral fables, sacred texts and mythology. The moving target of serving is handed via analogy at best, and for the most part has resisted theorization.
Serving can only be a practice–a set of actions considered. It must be considered AND performed at once. Or else, it is not serving. It is something else.
Serving & food
Serving helps us get out of thinking of food mechanistically. That old anatomical drawing of the digestive tract, foisted upon us in elementary school, is only the starting point of this pervasive (Western) worldview. Think. The harvest is glorified. The harvest is seen as a “collection.” Other organisms are “products.” Farmers and cooks are “manufacturers,” and we, the human being, are “consumers.”
That quaint notion we’re taught, something called the food cycle, is really a conveyor-belt of inputs and outputs, attack & surrender, a forward-marching siege of give-and-take whose conclusion is stencilled into the diagram before we can even begin to wonder at its real workings. To survive, we must “take” vegetables from the earth and “put” them in our body. We can “give” them to our children (ostensibly to sustain their life). Yet ultimately, in this conception (the only most of us know) we and we alone propel activity. We are the actor, while the food (or person being served) are already erased. They might resist with roots, or a waived fork, but within this conceptual arrangement, they can be little else than an object which receives our advance.
Serving, as a critical concept, complicates the certaintly of the productive line. Serving is the interruption, the place where we touch & are touched. Do you “interact” with a cool damp carrot plucked from the earth? If so, is the interaction the stuff of old-fashioned whimsy, an “alchemical” change of state and slight dismemberment? (peeled & boiled orange stuff on a plate?) Is the interaction the scrumptious dish you display to your guest, prompting them to intake, intake, intake with a waggle of your sharp (potentially deadly) fork? The vegetable itself has helped dictate the tools, gestures and dimensions of the dish, the actions your partook, and the words you spoke (and fork-pokes you took) at your guest.
You’re eating at a restaurant. You’re slaughtering a sheep. You’re laying down a spread for your hungry teenaged son. Who controls service: the server, the served, or the matter being served ?
From funnelling seeds into the earth to layering alasagna
Food practices are not simply narratives of “taking” and “giving.” Food practices are strewn together by acts of serving. The point here is that we don’t “give” food to someone any more than we “take” it from the earth.
If I’m a host, we say that I serve my guests. Yet I am not giving them anything. No more than a monkey is “taking taste and nutrition” out of the banana as it strikes the roof of her mouth.
Because serving resists abstraction, it is ambiguous. As always, ambiguity can only be an opening. No more no less.
Take out the serving, take out the opening. And without it, the study of food–like the study of humans–is just too neat and clean to be trusted.