To Serve or to Self-Serve, That is the Question

20 Mar

This is not an urban legends, guys, but a true story. In Kentucky, back when we lived there, there was this one lovely lady’s husband who insisted on an extreme version of being served by his wife. We’re talking about being served everything ingestible; if his wife’s hand hadn’t passed it to him it was not yet worthy of his mouth. He’d be sitting next to the pitcher of water and he’d call his wife in from the other room to come pour it into his cup. Unable to get his own silverware from the drawer. He didn’t have any sorts of abilities lacking to cause such behavior- just a big ole case of over entitlement.

That couple was from somewhere in Mexico, but I’d never have called that behavior a cultural phenomenon. My male friends from Mexico weren’t like that. My partner from Mexico was nothing like that. I chalked it up to a case of extremist patriarchy, which is tragically common worldwide (and yet none of these anti-terrorist organizations are doing anything to stop it).

Fast forward to us living in small town southern Mexico. I’m planning kid #2’s first birthday party and decide I want it to be different from the norm. I don’t want to serve typical party food (here that means tamales, pozole, barbacoa). I thought it would be fun to have finger food in honor of my birthday boy who eats everything with his hands. So I made sandwiches of varying types and cut them into cute triangles like I do for Lucia’s lunch, so people could mix and match with different kinds. I made cream cheese and cucumber, cheese and avocado, and peanut butter and jelly (on both white and wheat bread). Conan grilled some hot dogs to give carnivores something to eat. I cut some fruit and some veggies, too, to appease my own standards of giving my kiddos healthy things to snack on. To drink we did rely on the standard agua de jamaica (sweetened iced hibiscus tea) because it’s easy and cheap to make a ton of it (and good for you if you don’t add too much sugar).

las-mejores-recetas-de-pozole

Pozole- A soup with chicken and/or pork, hominy, cabbage and other “fixins” on top… Delicious, but not what I wanted for the birthday party.

barbacoa_en_hidalgo

Barbacoa is nothing like barbeque, although it is meat. It’s often goat or beef, and the seasoning is not sweet at all like BBQ sauce. It’s slow cooked and delicious. Also not what I wanted for the party. 

The radical part wasn’t so much what we served but rather how we served it. We laid it all out on the table and let people serve themselves. I was stoked to mix it up a bit from the normal boring party thing. Because that set-up, in my little potluck-loving Kentucky heart, is so dull and restrictive. You end up not talking to anybody; there’s no mingling. It’s all business. You sit down, get served, eat your food, get up and wait for the cake or the piñatas or whatever the next order of business is. Done. Half the time people can’t even be bothered to stay and eat the cake. They take their plate of cake with them as soon as it’s served, because apparently their quota of socializing is all used up for the day.

So I was determined to do something different. Yet I suspect that some people were as appalled by our style of self-service as I was back in Kentucky by the extremist husband. Going to the table and getting their own food was probably like they hadn’t even been invited at all, a sort of anti-hospitality. But it wasn’t on purpose! It didn’t even occur to me that it could be offensive to people. I thought it would be pleasant, so that people could pick and choose what they ate instead of being served things they might not like. I thought it would be more fun than the traditional style. Some of our crowd liked it, for sure. But there were definitely some that were far from impressed. There were women and men alike at the party who felt embarrassed to go up to the table and serve themselves. That’s just not how the roles are supposed to go at a party. That’s not what hospitality looks like here.

k bday

Khalil is like, “Are they going to give me that thing? Or are they just teasing me?” You can see our buffet table there in the background.

k bday2

More of the set-up: laid back! Relaxed! Chairs here and there for socializing! I had a great time, anyway.

k cupcake1

Finally! Cupcake deliciousness- banana cupcakes with nutella on top… I think it was a hit with the birthday boy.

k cupcake2

Here he makes sure to devour it all while being on the lookout for anyone coming to take it away from him.

 

So I got to thinking some more about the whole concept of serving and hospitality. Y’all that know me know that I pride myself on making sure that guests and visitors feel welcome and taken care of. I’m from Kentucky, after all. And I’m also a feminist (aka believer in equality).

Thus I think that serving food can be anybody’s job. Usually, if I cook something and I’m stoked about it, or we’re having people over for a sit-down dinner, I want to serve it, because it’s a matter of pride. But sometimes I just reheated some frozen soup and I’m in the middle of nursing the baby so just go help yourself, please and thank you. I refuse to believe that other adults should not eat when the person who cooked is obviously busy and they’re perfectly capable of adding their own finishing touches. Furthermore, I know that men can cook. Men can serve food. I have confidence in men. My dad was a great cook, for example, and when he cooked, he served the food. Ideally, I believe that everyone should be able to cook at least some things. Everyone should be capable of serving themselves, too. This is a basic and important skill, folks. I learned to pour from a pitcher of water in kindergarten, and you can do it, too.

I also think that being in charge of the food and the serving of food is both a tedious, never-ending chore and also a serious power. Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant knows this. There are always some customers who lash out and treat you poorly, trying to make you feel little or unimportant. They confuse server with servant, but really the customer is at your mercy. They can’t eat their soup if you don’t bring their spoon. They can’t do anything useful for themselves; they rely on you for everything. It’s almost like them being a baby all over again, except most customers have better communication skills than babies (most, but sadly not all of them).

Here, it’s like all meals are restaurant meals, and some woman or the other (mom, grandma, oldest daughter, whoever) is the server. Men become these helpless creatures. There’s the food, right there on the stove- so near and yet so far, because there’s this invisible barrier preventing them from getting their plate and piling it on. Seriously! Okay, not all the time, not everybody, but more here than I’d ever seen on any of my travels or my time in Kentucky. Sometimes it makes me outraged, and sometimes it makes me sad for the helpless men. Because ye who wields the serving spoon wields part of the power of deciding who eats what!

But this avoidance of self-serving is not just a patriarchal thing. (Do I think that overly defined and restrictive gender roles are at the heart of it? Yes, mostly. But that’s not the only factor.) At its best, it’s a case of meal time being a special time for family and sharing. It’s the antithesis of microwave dinners in front of the TV. And I love that aspect of it. It’s nice to be served sometimes, just like it’s lovely to serve, when it’s a show of welcome and love. It’s a case of a non-individualistic culture, where it doesn’t always matter that you want less vegetables and more rice, you get what gets put on your plate because that’s what everyone’s eating. It’s about community, and feeling taken care of, too. There’s a lot of good things to be said for this style of eating together.

Self-service is just not a phenomenon here, and I can respect that in a culture. I can appreciate it lots more, though, if the roles of serving changed equally- if everyone took a turn and not always only women. If it weren’t the case that at giant neighborhood parties, for example,  it’s filled with women in aprons doing all the work, and men with their beer and mezcal enjoying the party. So while we work on that (in every culture), there’s an extra present for my son on his first birthday: I promise to teach him equally the basic life skills to take care of himself and others. Everyone can pour the pitcher of water! Cheers to that!

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