Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hospitality as Self-Expression

Food Network continues our democratic embrace of high standards for food and etiquette. But for Amy Sedaris, hospitality is the art of self-expression. She would ultimately be disappointed if we followed her recipes, preferring instead that we write our own cookbooks.

In Dr. Abromaitis' class, we're currently reading Pride and Prejudice, and often discussing liberalism—not as it relates to whether the GOP will take the Senate in today's election, but as it relates to democratic ideals of equality. The rules of traditional etiquette, dismissed by Sedaris in her opening letter, signify wealth (9). Although I'm no expert in the history of etiquette, I imagine that as societies became increasingly liberalized, the opportunities for middle- and lower-class citizens to take part in the formal etiquette of the upper classes grew. Traditionally, kitchens were kept in the back of the house and reserved for the servants. The less time a family spent in their kitchen, the wealthier they were. The New York Times Food section no longer includes restaurant reviews, but celebrity chefs such as Mark Bittman who offer organic home-cooking advice. David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise calls this the ultimate modern fusion of the bourgeois and the bohemian. Our modern love for cooking and decor (à la Good Housekeeping) is a very recent preoccupation.

Sedaris is continuing the democratic tradition of celebrating cooking in a way that class-based societies wouldn't understand. She's continuing the American consumer mentality that allows for free choice between themes, traditions, cultures, and decorations. However, as Sedaris does this, she's also poking fun at the modern foodie industry. While a previous generation of liberals may have rejoiced in their ability to mimic the parties of the upper classes, that eventually led to Betty Elliot, Martha Stewart, and Rachel Ray becoming an upper class, an unattainable ideal, themselves. Sedaris deconstructs our love of everything that Good Housekeeping, Food Network, and Mark Bittman present as routes to happiness.  

Hosting a party, for Sedaris, is an expression of self, not a mimicry of someone else's idea of a good time. I think that Sedaris would be flattered, but ultimately displeased, if her readers imitated her recipes, her decorations, her crafts, or even her zany style. Imitation is for an older generation of hosts. The truly free person sees hospitality as the art of self-expression. She writes:
I feel entertaining is a dying art. My goal is to encourage you, [your name here], to entertain in your home, your style. Having a party is one of the most creative and generous activities that every person can enjoy and indulge in, if you're on the list. (13)
Flipping through Sedaris' book, she never includes pictures of her guests, only pictures of
herself. It's as if we are already guests at her party, imagining her food and dress and decorations. The reader is invited into her imaginary home, and her tipsy thoughts.

Our class is hosting the upcoming English Department Feast, and it already promises to be an incongruous event like no feast that has come before! While other seminars may have focused on a unity of theme, we were unable to decide on any single theme and instead have smashed them together. It's not one of the suggested themes in Sedaris' book (such as “Gypsy” or “Price Chompers”) but it is an expression of our class. Amy Sedaris would approve.

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