for the politics and politesse of dietary constraints and the guest/host relationship, “debate” is probably too strong a word, but it is certainly a fraught issue on both sides of which i have found myself at different times in my life. i have spoken to many people – lapsed, lapsing, and prolapsed vegans and vegetarians – who have explained that they did not want to find themselves in a situation, for the sake of their host, where they could not eat what was put in front of them. this is laudable, as a matter of courtesy, but also as a recognition of the essential role of food as a social coherent,* the importance, for many people, and for whole societies, of being able to provide for the nourishment, and share in that nourishment, of another. breaking bread, and all that.
it is not, however, a one-way street. the egalitarianism implied by sharing food – the recognition that fundamentally, we are all united by our mortality, our need to pause, to rest, to eat – suggests a willingness to meet one’s guest halfway, as it were. food is the bridge, and it is upon that bridge that we meet, held aloft however precariously over the chasm of difference. i should refrain from using the language of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation,’ on either party’s part, because that is not what i’m trying to get at. it is, in fact, exactly what i am trying to get away from. there is the sense, in hosting, that one wants to have their guest feel comfortable, safe, to feel at home. and this arises not out of the juridical or the systematic, but out of co-feeling, of compassion. thus to place before someone a food with which they are uncomfortable, or which they cannot eat, for political or constitutional reasons, is to interrupt that circuit of compassion and mutuality. to aver in an authoritative tone that one should “eat what is put in front of them” is to succumb to the stridency of the wounded ego, and become again the Master of the House, at whose board the philia of the Neighbour is at pains to survive.
in a recent New Yorker podcast, Adam Gopnik is speaking to Alex Stupak, pastry chef of NYC’s WD-50 about the Future Of Dessert and “technoemotional cooking”** and at one point Stupak makes an unexpected off-road into the tensions between virtuoso celebrity restauranteering and what somebody (not me) might call an Ethics of Care of cooking:
If a friend of mine was coming over for Thanksgiving and they brought a guest that I didn’t know, and that guest ended up being a vegan or disliking turkey or having an issue, as much as that’s inconvenient to me, or goes against what I had planned, you’re in my home and you’re uncomfortable, and I’m going to figure out a way to make you happy. You know, I feel like that has to kind of be the starting point. Otherwise, I think a lot of people lose why they started cooking in the first place . . . I made jello for my mom when I was six and it made her cry; that was the starting point. It’s funny how far you can go and how that can get lost, and I think it’s important not to lose it.
pride is something that should be left at the threshold, to emerge again in concert at the table, from the satisfaction of the host to have provided for the happiness and satiety of one, and of the honour of the guest to have dined at the table of the other. what pride we arrive at should thus be born of the recognition of the pleasure of Good Company.
that said, are we expected to honour the whims, the fickle prejudices, whatever provincialisms our guests carries with them?
of course not.
or, you know, maybe?
just as a guest – vegan, celiac, mycophobic – must respect what is at stake in their refusal to eat, so too must those who take wild offense at what they see as a vegan’s fundamental ingratitude reexamine what they are presupposing the table to represent.
for the claim that such ethical conceits as vegetarianism or veganism should acquiesce to the social function and decorum of the table is not far from the insistence upon unity and uniformity that is so essential and so dangerous in the formation and performance of the nation, or equally, the nationalist struggle. it is indeed the crisis of the Other that lends such tension to the act of eating-together, itself a performance, presumption, and production of commonality. the question of how much Otherness can be accommodated before the circuit of compassion breaks down is the problematic question as much for the meal as for the nation, the movement, the community; for it is this sharing which is supposed to both transcend and align each of us in our indissoluble difference, that is simultaneously jeopardized by that same difference.
this is a conceptual point, and i do not want to stray too far from dinner itself, for it is precisely the difference between dinner and nation that i am trying to elucidate here; namely that what the nation cannot rely on – affect, compassion, and good humour – is precisely in what spirit dinner must be founded. it is a mistake to couch the work of the host and the guest in the language of duty and obligation, as is often done, rather, it is important that it remain beyond or before the Law, which is not to say pre- or a-political, but in the terrain where the political, as a negotiation of love and of basic necessity, remains in process.
so i guess Arendt can take her polis as space of freedom only for those freed of need or the thought of need, and, you know, mourn it.
* i am fully aware that coherent is not a noun, but can’t it be? a coherent as that which has imparts/participates in coherence? not unlike an adherent, what?
** more commonly known as molecular gastronomy, but what is interesting to me is how the very (re)naming of this trend seems to mount a response to the impressions of coldness, calculation, and heartless abstraction evoked by the former. much of the anxiety and incredulity of the pedestrian response to which seems to hinge on the denaturing of food items (although if so, one can query why such denaturing on the fast food end of things does not impel similar discomfort). but is this goal of Total Transformation anything more than an extension of the already persistent logic of mastery which pervades our discussion and engagement with food production? i wonder if Mastery vs. its philosophical alternatives can be pursued so to arrive at different schools of cooking and ways of being a cook? i’m gonna think on this, and maybe even ask around, do a little survey. get back to you in time.