Hospitality is probably as old as humanity itself. I can easily imagine cave people inviting each other over to share fresh mammoth meat around the warmth of a fire. Since those (very) simple times, hospitality has evolved into a complex concept that varies from culture to culture, but also from one socioeconomic background to another. A dear friend of mine whose financial situation has gone from average to high has been struggling with how difficult it has become for her to entertain. Before, it brought her joy to cook and clean, to receive and care for her guests. Now that there are so many more expectations placed on someone with her salary bracket, it has become something else altogether.
The idea of entertaining seems to be unidirectional in some cultures. I have been brought up in one where everything is provided for someone invited to your home, and guests are not to lift a single finger to help. You clean your place so as to make Mr. Clean feel dirty, you set up elaborate decorations, including centerpieces, that would make Martha Stewart blush in shame, and you cook a meal that would make Julia Child seem like a frazzled debutante. On the one hand such a style of entertaining can be quite an experience; there is something to be said about sitting around a meticulously decorated table with family and friends dressed to the nines. However, entertaining can become quite the ordeal with such expectations.
But the culture of the place I currently live in is geared towards pot-lucks. I risk making all my ancestors roll in their graves, but I have come to appreciate pot-lucks as they make it possible for me to host so many more events than when I take care of everything on my own. The role of the host, instead, becomes one of coordinator. A pot-luck also allows for different cooks to contribute to the menu, which allows it to break free from the limitations set by my know-how and imagination. I have discovered many new recipes from places I only heard of because of pot-lucks.
But most importantly in my opinion is that pot-lucks seem to have a certain je ne sais quoi related to empowerment. It is becoming clearer and clearer that forces in society are breeding passivity, reflected in the decrease in participation in community life and its governance. As a host, doing everything for your guests is akin to breeding that passivity in a very basic unit of society: a home. Your guest becomes a passive recipient of entertainment you are providing, a unidirectional flow of energy that can create dependence on one hand, and exhaustion on the other. Hospitality requires that we welcome people into our home, but does it mean we need to do everything for them while they sit idly by?
My culture thinks it treats guests like royalty, but is that actually the case? After all, being royalty does not mean not doing anything and lazing around; royalty is about serving the people the crown represents. So perhaps it is ok to let guests be active participants in the entertaining you are hosting. By guaranteeing them a grand time and opening your home to them, you are still treating them like royalty. However, encouraging active participation helps develop of the kind of attitude at the grassroots that is needed for everyone to participate in community-building.
Firs published on Sahar’s Blog on 17 November 2012