Hospitality at a fractured table

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

“It sure is hard to have people over to dinner these days,” the food writer lamented, at a talk I attended the other week. She told a sorry tale of a dinner party involving two vegetarians, their father who expected to be served meat because he couldn’t get any at home (“poor man”), and a guest who was lactose intolerant. Everyone chuckled. It’s becoming the stylish refrain of the decade, that people’s food choices and fad diets and principles and medical ailments have so splintered us that we can’t break bread together any more; the pot luck is devolving into a brown bag lunch. The New York Times reports on the troubles facing hosts and asks whose responsibility it is that everyone be served something they’re willing to eat; a blogger for an environmental website offers tips on avoiding processed foods at dinner parties. It’s a sad state of affairs for anyone who enjoys cooking, who enjoys cooking for friends, who would rather show love and appreciation through food than get all mushy about it, who is frankly looking for an excuse to spend half the day on a dish, that sort of effort being embarrassing unless offered up to others. It is also more than a little annoying to anyone raised to keep one’s own picky tastes to oneself when a guest in someone’s home — a leftover morsel of Victorian manners long grown cold and now, it seems, thrown away with last month’s meatloaf. But here we seem to be, and although a wise man hesitates to make a couple of news items into A Symbol Of Our Fallen Age, such is, after all, the point of the internet. So bear with me, because we’re not really just talking about food.

Let’s agree at the start that I’m not talking about those unfortunates denied by illness or overalert immune system certain pleasures of the table. True, some will complain, we didn’t have all these auto-immune disorders in my day, ahem, but we didn’t eat half the things then that we do now, either, nor nearly so much of them. Medical science progresses, identifies new ailments, catalogs them, justifes them, makes us all by definition sicker; and knowledge once gained can’t be lost. So let that go, and accept that no host wants his guests fumbling their brandy from severe intestinal distress, let alone the coffee stains on the drawing room floor. When life gives you gluten-free guests, make cornbread.

But beyond the pale of medically approved maladies there stretches a long line of minor discomforts, religious beliefs, cherished principles, individual preferences and personal tastes that fades, at civilization’s distant edge, into a Hobbesian wilderness of solitary snackers flinging tofu and canned chili at one another from the trees. Some of these choices are quite serious, some border on flippant, and often the individual in question has trouble telling the difference — let alone everyone else. But let’s assume, for charity’s sake and that of argument, that all who come to our table are serious in their own minds about what they do and do not, will and will not eat, that they stand on considered principle and not on whim. Let’s assume, in short, the best of our fellow human beings, if only for the space of an essay. I want to assume that not to argue that hosts are obligated to accommodate every dietary preference as if it had been handed down by Moses or Krishna but to ask, instead, what are the mutual obligations of a host and guest, even — or especiallywhen a matter of principle is at stake

When I was about thirty I discovered, through research and acquaintance with the past and present realities of agriculture, exactly what goes on in confinement animal feeding operations, and I gave up eating meat unless I knew it had been humanely raised. It is one thing, I said, to kill an animal for food (as I would and did), but it is quite another to prevent it ever from living. As a bumper-sticker-length statement of principle, I’ll still stand by that statement. But it hasn’t proven easy to implement. The real world is messy. There’s that problem of knowing: do I trust a farmer who looks me in the eye? a non-profit certification? a grocery store label? And precisely what standards ought I to set? What passes for humane? Chickens I helped raise were in, Pizza Hut’s meat lovers pizza was out, and in between were a lot of questions — a lot of, and I use this term without judgment, ignorance. I could never have enough information to establish perfect standards, nor to apply them perfectly even if I could.

Then there was the sticky problem of what to do at other people’s houses. I experimented with warning hosts of my preferences, but there were cases when this wasn’t practical, and even when it was, I found it a little embarrassing. I wasn’t raised to trumpet my virtues, let alone my tastes, and the gnawing fact of my ignorance smeared the line between the two. I found that to say “I don’t eat such-and-such” was a hedge on my acceptance of a friend’s invitation, a hedge in fact on my acceptance of her friendship. It is difficult to proclaim that as a matter of principle one does or doesn’t do a thing without casting tacit aspersions on those who follow more permissive rules, and it’s disastrous as a conversational gambit; it puts the listener on the defensive, which is bad for digestion, let alone friendship. The polite response to defensiveness is then to apologize, to soften the principle into a mere choice, but if it’s mere choice, why inflict it on a friend? And why put the distance of dishonesty between friends, or potential friends? The matter was, and is, of deep importance to me; why hide it?

After a year or so I accepted a practical compromise: I would not buy meat whose origins concerned me, but in someone else’s house, I would eat what I was served, in the interest of friendship and of accepting hospitality. I’ve mostly stuck to that rule since. (Although there’s a whole messy in-between realm of ordering pizzas where my behavior is, I have to assume, as maddening to my friends as it is confusing to myself. I apologize wholeheartedly, but I’m not entirely certain how to repent, or what of.) I’m not going to suggest that I did this because I’m a wonderful person, just that my upbringing won out over a principle I adopted after I was grown — or maybe that I’d rationalized myself into a way to eat things like pepperoni that I couldn’t otherwise have enjoyed.

More recently, though, applying principle ex post facto to pragmatism, I’ve come to think of this as being fundamentally about hospitality. If that seems obvious to you, hang on, because hospitality can cut both ways in this debate — and, again, it isn’t about food.

In the ancient world, to offer hospitality to travelers was more than just being a nice guy; it was a sacred duty. That theme is woven through Homer’s Odyssey; it’s also woven through the Old Testament. There was always the possibility that your guest might be Athena or an angel of God, but the same duty applied to any stranger who appeared at your door. That’s good ethics and a roadmap to peace, but it was also a practical necessity in a world without central government, police, paved highways, hotels, or hospitals (note the etymology of that last word). Not surprisingly, as those grand institutions of civilization have flourished, personal hospitality has withered, and we caution our children sternly about even talking with strangers. Now many of us are reaching the point where we throw up our hands at offering hospitality to our friends, to people we already know and love or at least have agreed in principle to tolerate. Such behavior, I would argue, doesn’t only reflect a lack of trust; it breeds it. We still have a sacred duty to be hospitable.

But the duties of hospitality are reciprocal; they fall on guest as well as host. Even the daughter of Zeus respected her host’s home and hospitality, but Odysseus returns home to find “guests” camped out in his house, trashing the place, trying to bed his wife (the very breach of hospitality that sent him overseas in the first place). Warrior that Odysseus is, he kills them, and having endured several chapters of their behavior, even the most liberal of modern readers are hard put to blame him. And the Bible makes equally clear, albeit more peacefully, the duties of a guest to his host. Indeed, God warns Israel that we are all perpetually guests in His creation: The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me. (Lev. 25:22-24) To drive the point home, He leaves them in the desert where they have only manna to eat — manna that falls from the sky, a free gift of God that will rot if His hospitality is abused by greed. By either standard, the Greek or the Hebrew, we are called upon to accept hospitality gracefully.

If I’m to be a good Christian humanist, then, it would seem I ought to worry less about what I eat than about accepting the hospitality of my hosts — or would it? Manna and the commandment about not selling the land might suggest a different answer. How much of modern agriculture is, in effect, a rejection of God’s hospitality in His creation, or of the hospitality of the earth itself? If we’re given animals to eat, it hardly seems a graceful acceptance of hospitality to stuff our fellow creatures into pens too small to permit movement, drug them, debeak them, let them wallow in their own excrement, and cart off the losses on what agricultural supply catalogs refer to as “dead sleds.” It hardly seems a graceful acceptance of hospitality to re-engineer the genetic structure of a plant so that it can survive a storm of poison applied to its habitat. It hardly seems a graceful acceptance of hospitality to consolidate farms into automated latifundia and drive their former owners guests into apartments, cubicles, and ghettoes.

I have, it seems, multiple responsibilities, multiple hosts whose hospitality I’m bound to accept gracefully, and it isn’t always clear how to weigh them. I’d argue, actually, that for most of us, living in twenty-first century America, it would be enough simply to accept those competing responsibilities and embrace our ignorance about prioritizing them. It would be enough to shift the conversation away from our own individual rights, personal health, consumer choice and knowledge to focus on others for awhile — on our place in our communities and in creation, on the fact that we are, in a very real way, guests in this life and on this earth. The honest weighing of our responsibilities would be, spiritually at least, an end in itself, and a new beginning.

As a practical matter of day-to-day choice, though, I think of St. Peter’s dream from the Book of Acts. Called upon to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, Peter hesitates to eat at their table lest he break the Jewish dietary laws. In his dream (which God has to send him three times to make His point) Peter is given all the animals of the earth to eat. The message is not that Peter’s dietary laws are unimportant but that the real people who have need of him must take priority. Dietary laws are, after all, an abstraction, designed to remind people of their place in a community and in creation, but they mustn’t become an idol. They are not the end, only a means. People are more important than food. Indeed, people are more important than law and principle. By accepting the hospitality of Gentiles, Peter was giving up more than a dietary choice; he was sacrificing his very identity as a Jew, and doing so for the sake of a greater good and a larger community.

The rules we make for ourselves, the principles, the choices and compromises between competing rights and responsibilities and our byzantine justifications for them may be practical necessities for navigating daily life, but they are not the point of this life, and to make them the point, even with the best of other-directed intentions, is only another form of self-worship. The real human beings right in front of us are always more important than our abstractions. In the end, if we can’t break bread together — figuratively and literally, gluten-free if necessary — we’ve left ourselves with nothing from which to build a better world.