How does the Culinary Institute of America teach hospitality? This is what John W. Fisher has to say in At Your Service: A Hands-on Guide to the Professional Dining Room.
To help bring the concept to life, I begin with an example that draws upon the students’ own memories and emotions. I ask them to recall an extra-special gathering at their home–perhaps a holiday meal, friends from faraway arriving in a joyous celebration, or Mom or Dad’s boss coming over for dinner. Most of the students have experienced such an occasion. Then I ask them what their house was like for the couple of days beforehand. They recount stories of long shopping lists and the back of the car filled with groceries. Cleaning took on a new dimension, perhaps requiring the use of nontraditional implements such as toothbrushes and Q-Tips and the scent of Lemon Pledge hung in the air. Martial law reigned in the kitchen as parents prepared dishes that weren’t the run-of-the-mill dinner fare. Then, the main event: taking guests’ coats at the door, remembering what everyone wanted to drink, carefully carving the turkey and arranging the meat on an enormous platter, and each member of the family hustling around the house to make sure that none of the guests wanted for anything. Every activity pertained to making the guests feel comfortable and welcome. Recalling this, most students immediately understand, on an emotional level, what hospitality is all about. (4)
My recent guests would count as the “friends from faraway arriving in a joyous celebration.” Mississippi and Kuwait exist as parallel realities, alternate time-dimensions, something out of Dr. Who. Gabriela, Demian and I cleaned, I mean we cleaned but did not use toothbrushes or Q-Tips. I’m not sure if we have Q-Tips in the house. We swept and vacuumed carpets and floors, wiped clean the black granite, I even mowed the lawn when it was too wet resulting in an uneven haircut. No Lemon Pledge, but organic cleaners. I do impose an absurd martial law, which Demian and Gabriela are quite nice to put up with, as I pace back and forth asking why there are cat tins on the black granite, who didn’t shut the cupboard all the way, and what in the world are you doing standing in my kitchen.
Warm night, so no taking of coats. I did make sure to supply a drink that I believed each guest would enjoy. No turkey, but I did remove the luscious white meat from the snapper. Gabriela and I attended to the guests, while I believe Demian was attempting to kill them. No time to relax however. More guests arrive the next night. Where do they come from?
Before I return to musing on the dinner table, let me guide you through my transformation of Mexico into Brazil. If you remember, I had prepared a traditional Gazpacho and a Red Snapper Veracruz Style. Guests brought mozzarella and tomato appetizers, so we certainly celebrated the holy red fruit. I have plenty of leftovers.
Beautiful, isn’t it? A decadent cornucopia. Here’s another view.
The remains of bestial eating. What to do? Well it’s time to use some magic fishbones. I pick through the remnants and assemble in a pot a respectable amount of bones, heads and shells.
To this I add oregano, parsley and sage from our garden. Simmer away. Next, I take out all the sweet potatoes, mash, add milk, mash, heat and stir. Now it’s time to sweat more veg.
But not olive oil this time, palm oil. Oh yes, I’m going to swing down from Veracruz to Bahia. Where is Bahia you ask? In Brazil, right on the Atlatic coast north of Rio De Janeiro. Fine. What does it look like?
Moqueca. A wonderful celebration of whitefish, shrimp, tomatoes, red peppers, coconut milk, and yes palm or dendê oil. Let Christoper Idone explain from his book Brazil: A Cook’s Tour.
The African slaves brought the dendê palm (Elaeis guineensis) with them from West Africa along with their style of cooking, making Bahian food unlike that of the rest of Brazil. The crimson-colored oil is disappointingly tasteless until heated. Primarily used for frying, the oil is often added to a dish near the end of cooking to give color and flavor. And though cooks and food writers often suggest combining vegetable oil and paprika or annatto oil as a substitute, dendê has a flavor that can thrill the palete. Dendê is very high in saturated fat– a staggering 51 percent–and this does not sit well with Americans who worry about cardiovascular disease. It does not, however, seem to affect the health or figures of the Baianos. (93)
I’m sold on the flavor in the early stages of cooking. I pour a generous amount into the pan, add onions, carrots, celery, leeks, garlic and tomatoes. Then when its all worked itself down, I add the tomato, olives, and caper mixture from last night. Mix in the mashed sweet potatoes, then a can of coconut milk and I am cooking Bahian.
The guests have arrived, we’ve sat around and talked, ate grapes, cheese and bread. Quaffed glasses of wine. Time to plate and eat.
Ah, the dinner table.
A sacred space. In his seminal work The Sacred and Profane, Mircea Eliadae defines the sacred this way:
Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term, because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us. (11)
Inviting guests to your house, preparing the house, cooking a special meal, inviting Dionysus and Hestia, forming the bonds of family and friendship–is anything else more sacred? Brillat-Savarin in The Philosophy of Taste writes about such a moment:
Gourmandise is one of the principal links of society; it extends gradually that spirit of conviviality which unites every day different classes, welds them into one whole, animates conversation, and softens the angles of conventional inequality.
I’ll finish this post with the most appropriate words of M.F.K. Fisher in The Art of Eating.
“When shall we live, if not now?” asked Seneca before a table laid for his pleasure and his friends’. It is a question whose answer is almost too easily precluded. When indeed? We are alive, and now. When else live, and how more pleasantly than supping with sweet comrades? (40)