The meal as radical gesture of hospitality

In a fantastic and underrated dialogue with Anne Dufourmantelle, Jacques Derrida muses on the shared root of the words “hostility” and “hospitality.” In reviewing the dialogue, one scholar notes that it is really about  “making [one]’s very limits [one]’s openings.”

When I read this, it dawned upon me that right here was a fabulous way to open up new discussion on the mealscape—a way that might tease out some more fibres of its social/material interplay.

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With his “Step of hospitality / No hospitality,” Derrida brusquely and characteristically displaces us from our habitual discursive stance.

It made me think of how passively we brush up against notions of “hospitality” in daily life. There is, for instance, Hospitality in the Capital sense:

  • the college program (Minor in Hospitality)
  • the hotel ad (“Hospitality is Our Middle Name!”)
  • the middle management position (Food & Hospitality Manager)

What is there to pull from these mythologized Hospitalities (which are also facets of the mealscape)? And even if there were something to say, what is there to say that has not already been said?

Doro watt and bulgar and injeraThis version of Hospitality need not be criticized or extolled for, in the end, it is already canonized, frozen and anointed. It is literally un-remarkable–we’ve long uncovered that anything and everything can become capitalized. In other words, capitalism spares nothing and no one: even the Devoutly Hospitable. Of  the latter, we know that hospitality can also mean something like “good grace.” Aligned in this instance to a certain moral compass, hospitality is fueled as much by the Saving of oneself as it is about providing for another. Devout hospitality, I would go so far as to argue, might even be about saving face in light of this Other.

But there is something more to Derrida’s etymological curiosity here. Meals might help us get there.

Let me share an anecdote from earlier tonight.

At around 8 pm, I stopped by to fix a bug on a client’s website. Before I could complete the simple task, the manager was asking what I did and did not like to eat. I stumbled over my words, attempting to avoid any expectation that I should be fed. It was, after all, a bustling Ethiopian restaurant—and there were plenty of mouths to feed. But half an hour later, I was ushered to the back of the restaurant, where a platter of injera the size of a bicycle wheel was placed on a table with eight vibrant mounds of goodness lavished on top. I was surprised to see my accompanying friend, who had disappeared into the basement upon our arrival, already seated in front of the platter with a mango-grenadine cocktail. Moments later, the owner arrived from a workout, flanked by an acquaintance who he’d picked up on the street. We blinked at each other, giggling at how we’d come to be seated face-to-face on this particular unexpected Thursday night. All I’d come to do was fix some code.

But here I was with an Ethiopian restauranteur planning his next trip home, a high school English teacher fresh off a long day of rote, and a law graduate turned professional impersonater just returned from a rowdy show to Russian diplomats.

We dug in with open (or rather, curved) hands. As we scooped up bites of expertly-spiced watt and kitfo, languages and topics flowed across the food: dialects of Italy and Montréal-Nord, uncanny impersonations of Chrétien & Obama, and a mandatory dose of local political speculation. I like to think that—like the spontaneous configuration of the gathered eaters—the products of this meal could not ever have been planned. Nor repeated. I also like to think of them as pleasant digestive enzymes.

In my day job as well as my past gigs, I have dealt with various clients, and been submerged in half a million meetings. Ideas are always being shared, and tasks are always being attacked. But the living matter of food, placed squarely between the players, can whisk these encounters into something quite profound. It is as if the living matter, so simply offered to keep us alert on the job, slowly reminds us of our own living matter—our hands, our skin, our glands—and with it, our basic want: happiness.

We know that meals—despite the quaint notion of feeding someone—can of course function in just the opposite way as I have described.  I am wary in being overzealous here. There is, to be sure, a razor thin edge between hospitality and hostility. In light of this, I also don’t want to misrepresent a) Derrida, b) my hosts or c) the meal, as some kind of handy binary, as have done so many historians and rom-com scenarists. In these mythologized accounts, the meal is reduced to Ecstatic or Sinister.

But when certain configurations alight, the social, sensory, intimate, (in)corporeal gestures of the meal might be the perfect medium for making one’s very limits one’s openings. For hospitality in the rich, curious, Derridean sense.

Meals in this light are more than the “messages” or end parts (the stuff of much restaurant criticism, drama or cynical “foodie” accounts). Meals in this light are more than simply nutrition, politesse, or gluttony.

Meals in this light are radical—in that they do much to reveal the root of the word hospitality itself.

So take heed: we now have evidence! The best meal is nothing short of a radical gesture of hospitality.