Ethical eating in a diverse world: at the table (part 3 of a series)

Dining together to create a common identity and as an educational tool

Dining together, is an important community-building institution. Extended family and community are less defined by bloodlines than by sharing a meal on a regular basis or on special occasions such as Christmas, marriage or funerals.  Indeed, the genetic offspring was never sure for men, but the moral offspring, those with whom the daily meal is shared,is obvious.

In some traditional hunter-gatherer societies a woman offering a man some cooked food and the man accepting it boils down to a marriage. Sex is less central to the family bond than food exchanges.

Table manners set apart insiders and outsiders. The use of utensils, sticks, cutlery or hands, the time of the meal, eating with open or closed mouth, these habits separate the people like us (class, culture, family) from the others.

Research has confirmed the importance of the shared meal. The family dinner seems to be central both as an educational tool, assuring that children do well at school and grow up to be valuable adults, as to instill a reflex in the family members to care about nutritional habits.

Looking at the importance of shared meals in historical, cultural and educational context, it can be concluded that the ritual of the shared meal has an intrinsic ethical value on its own, strenghtened when the food or the occasion are special. However, for the global citizen, it is not always clear what rituals and table manners he should use. The laws of hospitality answer this question.

The laws of hospitality, defining identity by inclusion

The laws of hospitality, common in traditional cultures, build on the sanctity of the common meal. These laws contain rules for the visitor and for the host: ” In an accurate reflection of ancient Greek culture, rules of hospitality are among the most revered social and religious laws in the Odyssey. Men are measured by the way they play host or guest, and those that antagonize the hero often do so by failing their part of this important contract. Guests are expected to bring gifts to their host, respect the house and servants, and act with grace and appreciation. Often, the guest is a source of news and bearings from the outside world and expected, in some ways, to sing for his supper. The host is then to provide food, shelter, and even money and transportation if the guest is in need. Breaking these obligations in the Odyssey is disrespectful to the gods and indicates a somewhat subhuman status”

The laws of hospitality are a way to codify the coming together of 2 identities: the identity of the guest, who comes into the house of the host, and will be invited to share the ritual of the common meal that defines the identity of the hosting family, according to their table manners. The guest will receive food and shelter, but must respect and become part of the identity of the host. The identity meaning, amongst others, what they eat and how they eat: what you eat is who you are.

The laws of hospitality, inviting people and be their guest, are still a very important ethical pillar of our day to day human interactions. While less central than in the days of yore, the laws Ulysses abode with are still valuable in the current western culture. Tinkering with the laws of hospitality changes the inherent quid pro quo in the arrangement, to a degree to make it less adapt to our modern society. Indeed, if the idea of full immersion of the guest in the identity of the host gets lost, and the guest does not participate in the sharing of the food and the rituals of the host, the walls between the cultures are not broken down: each partner keeps up his own shield and observes the other from behind it as an outsider. The new arrangement will lead to less cross fertilization and hybridisation than the tested arrangement. As the guest does not share the common meal, there is less “communion”, and less obligation for the host to defend the guest as if he was a part of the family or clan.

by Sam Gardner



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