On Hospitality

and the hostility of expectations.

In Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity, writer Priya Basil says that “hospitality” and “hostility” come from the same Indo-European root word, “ghos-ti,” which means host, guest, and stranger. These end up as a kind of holy trinity of our roles in life. A dim light went on in the recesses of my brain—wherever the readings of my college philosophy minor live—and I recalled Jacques Derrida’s idea of “hostipitality,” which refers to the idea that there is always hostility in hospitality. 

But Be My Guest and Derrida are not really concerned with what we know as the business of hospitality: restaurants, bars, hotels. Basil, in her slim and very accessible, liberal book, is writing about how we feed each other in homes and communities, and how that represents more political ideas of welcoming as both natural and forced migration puts us in all three of these positions. Derrida, too, is talking about the hospitality of the nation toward those it deems foreigners.

I’m interested in how the pandemic has changed very little about people’s relationship to the hospitality business, where relationships are inverted: The people doing the welcoming in a restaurant or bar are not the people who have the power, as opposed to in the home or on the level of the state. Service workers offering hospitality without expecting anything in return, except the possibility but not guarantee of tips. This is much like “absolute hospitality,” as Derrida explains it:

...absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names.  

I can only talk about the United States’ context here, where we still have the barbaric practice of tipping and a federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13. I don’t know how power in the hospitality business changes when that isn’t taken into account on a large scale, because I assume that getting rid of tipping wholesale does change dynamics everywhere. When tipping is the norm, though, its dynamic dominates even where it’s not. From my own experience going to no-tipping restaurants and working at one, it doesn’t adjust much: Someone is working, someone else is being served. One person has to be nice, the other person does not. It’s a hostile relationship, even in the best of situations. Even when I consider someone my friend, I am being annoying—hostile, even!—when I ask if they can put falafel in a wrap that on the menu comes with chicken instead of just ordering something that’s already vegetarian.

The pandemic has brought that hostility and imbalance to the forefront. A couple of weeks ago, at our local beer bar near their closing time for a 10 p.m. curfew, tourists kept coming up to the rope at the entrance. They came to the rope, seemed not to understand its purpose or application to them personally, and just walked right in and up to the bar, only to be told that food would only be sold for takeout. A man trying to get attention put half his body through the windows, waving his arms. Most of these people wore no masks. The workers have to greet them kindly, nonetheless.

As more people in rich countries are vaccinated and are returning to bars and restaurants, I’ve seen the word “overpriced” emerge in a very specific use. Something like, “I can’t wait to have an overpriced cocktail!” I don’t know how these people tip, and I don’t know what kind of places they go to, and I don’t know why precisely they are going somewhere where they don’t find the cocktail quality on par with the asking cost. But it does tell me that people still don’t value the exchange in going out to eat and drink. They are hostile to receiving hospitality, even after a year without it, unless it’s on their terms. They are seeking something “worth it,” as Benjamin Wurgaft discusses in his 2008 piece on going to the French Laundry, where he concludes this is a bad metric for thinking about the experience of eating out. I agree.

I have friends who work in the industry who enjoy providing service. This is something they feel called to and revel in, not just because of the act of service but also the anti-9-5 lifestyle. I love going to restaurants and bars, of course; I love specifically to sit at the bar no matter where I am, an act from which we’ve been cut off as of late. At the bar, there’s a communal feeling. There’s the real feeling of receiving service, but also giving your energy to the space. This exchange that I have experienced is illusory, maybe. No, I don’t think it is. (No matter what, I can’t let go of the idea that there is magic in some bars, from dive to high-end.)

But how do we stop thinking about the hostility now, after a year of hearing the stories of workers being treated poorly under the worst conditions? After the latest string of reports where owners bemoan the lack of people willing to work for them, when as I’m sure anyone who’s been out lately has seen, the behavior of the general public hasn’t gotten much better and neither has the pay? After line cooks were hit harder than any other profession in the country by COVID-19? How do we complain about costs and quality in the same way? How do we expect the same absolute hospitality?

I think of an interview I read recently with Tithi Bhattacharya, a history professor at Purdue, that took place in April 2020. She writes about social reproduction theory, explaining social reproduction as “life-making” acts versus capitalism’s “thing-making” for profit. It dawned on me that the complications we encounter in the hospitality business arise from melding these kinds of making in these spaces: a restaurant or bar is both life-making and profit-making. Life and things are being made and exchanged. We are not good at understanding this mix, of responding to someone providing us with a life-making service that to them is profit-making with the generosity that is required—the generosity we would unquestionably provide at a friend’s home. In a restaurant, we are stranger masquerading as guest.

I don’t know when we’ll see the conditions change in a real way for most hospitality workers, but we can change the conditions and expectations that we have for ourselves. The use of “overpriced” and other flippant reactions to reopening and vaccinations suggest the pandemic hasn’t changed enough. Last April, I wrote, “I see people wanting to go out to eat because they don’t want to clean up, because they want someone else to make the decisions, because they want to be served rather than to engage. And I just don’t know if we should allow ourselves that illusion built on strangers’ low-paid emotional labor anymore.” I still don’t. Can we change? How?

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview features Karla Vasquez, a writer and archivist of Salvadoran culinary culture at SalviSoul. We discuss who is allowed to sell a book without big social media numbers, the role of women in keeping Salvadoran food alive, and the significance of linguistic code-switching.

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5. This summer, paid subscribers will have access to recipes.

I did Jessa Crispin’s podcast Public Intellectual, where I rambled in a somewhat abrasive manner about how we’re going to have to put feelings aside a bit to fix the food system and food culture.

In the Land of the Cyclops by my beloved, the Most High Karl Ove Knausgaard. I need galleys of next Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk, if anyone reading as a HOOKUP!

I made pesto with local basil before it went bad. Applaud me. I put sautéed zucchini on toast. I made chickpea tikka masala with naan out of deep craving.