Living in a Hospitality Culture — Is It Hospitality or Obligation?
Is it hospitality or obligation? It can be a fine line between the two acts. Hospitality is serving others because you want to treat guests warmly.
Obligation is providing a gesture because you feel you need to.
Hospitality in the States
In some cultures, hospitality is a demonstrated high value. You see examples of this in the southern United States (also called the Pineapple States). “Real Southerners” who were born and raised in these southeast states like North or South Carolina, will offer strangers hospitable gestures out of this value of southern kindness and manners.
Expect something like an offer of a sandwich or a conversation with long-winded questions attached. This is similar to life in a “small town” in the US where everyone knows everyone else and their daily business. But in the south, it doesn’t have to be a small town. It could be a larger town like the Raleigh, NC metro area that has over a half million inhabitants.
The opposite to this kind hospitality, would be rudeness, not being a good neighbor, or giving strangers the time of day. It could be as simple as not smiling or being friendly to others, regardless of their status. New Yorkers have gotten a bad rap for this. I’d add my two cents, that busy city goers in these northeast states have become friendlier since social media took a life, as no one wants to be caught on camera with a frown.
Hospitality or Obligation?
In other cultures and countries outside the United States, hospitality can be elevated to even higher levels. In Morocco, friends are made easily and it’s customary to invite friends over for meals with the family. When invited, the return invitation back is expected especially with new friends. This could be in an outside meeting event or an at-home event. In either case, is this type of behavior considered courtesy or does it cross the line of an obligation, with possible motives to impress?
To help figure this out, I had witnessed this first hand as my host family was invited over for dinner. At the end of the dinner, the other (second) family invited the host (first) family over for a dessert gathering for the same week at their home. At the end of that event, the first family then invited the second family out to dinner at a restaurant a few days later. After that outing, then the second family took them out to lunch. This back and forth probably went on after I left to go back to the States.
It’s almost entertaining to watch as an observer, but it left me wondering…
While I thought hospitality was at the core, I think this was a similar type of scenario to when guests at a restaurant fight over the check (that must be comical to the restaurant staff). It almost becomes a show of who will be the thanked and who will be doing the thanking. Whether or not that was the truth, it was an amazing cultural experience to learn about the Moroccan culture through this host family and try their homemade meals.
Hospitality in Morocco: meals, tradition, and values
Meals in cultures with high hospitality values can be very elaborate, with all day handmade cooking love from the family. In the experience I had staying with a family in Morocco, the female family members living in the house took daily turns cooking. Daily home cooked meals are taken very seriously.
This family had a round dining table with wheels that could be wheeled into the kitchen for ease to set the table, and for flexibility to dine indoors or on the outdoor patio. The table is set with drinking glasses, preset plates with cold salad, side dishes, and dinner size plates for the main dish. It’s similar to setting for a nice holiday meal in the States.
The main course or feature brought to the middle of the table is a protein dish like chicken, turkey, or fish. Anything but pork or ham as those are deemed unclean in Muslim countries and the Middle East. It’s interesting to note that a nearby influenced European country like Spain relishes ham, because it was heavily influenced by North Africa’s Morocco. In Moroccan cultures for family meals, I’m told there are no vegetarians or special requests.
When dinner begins, each person around the table reaches in the tagine (cone shaped cooking vessel) or family plate and makes his or her own plate. Customarily you would use your “clean” right hand for the main plate. If you’re a guest, it’s totally acceptable these days to ask for silverware and then use both hands.
Meal conversations are similar to what you would find at a family table meal in the States. Moroccan meals end with traditional Moroccan mint tea and dessert. Desserts can be made or bought. The meal is served with non-alcoholic beverages like water, juices, soda, and tea as most households recognize the Muslim religions. A country like Morocco allows for some religious freedoms but is mostly Muslim influenced with regular “daily calls” to prayer that can be heard in large cities like Casablanca.
Cleanliness is a big part of this intimate type of hospitality. Everyone washes and scrubs their hands before and after meals. They go to bathing houses regularly (where they get a scrub down in hammem bath houses). They would enter “dirty” and come out clean wearing a different clean outfit.
Other traditions include, using traditional plateware especially on special occasions.
On Friday, which is officially Cous Cous Day, all the Moroccan families make cous cous for meals.
Cous cous balls are fun to make, and not just for the cook or children. These balls can be made at the table with the right hand.
Like other meals, everyone reaches in the tagine or family plate and makes his own plate. It’s a skill and an art.
It takes practice to make the individual cous cous balls. As with any skill, some people pick it up sooner than others. Surprisingly not everyone in Morocco born to this tradition can make these balls.
One of my trip experience takeaways, is that food like cous cous in this case, added to table conversation, connection, and became a way to show love for family meals and hospitality to others.
Food = currency of hospitality
Back in the States, I’ve participated in private dining events at Spanish, Italian and Lebanese cuisine restaurants. They serve “family style” meals for groups.
Family style is where you pass the bowl or plate of food and add a portion to your plate. There’s a lot of focus on other people’s plates, as you don’t want to take too much in restaurants. It’s not an unlimited buffet. It isn’t the restaurant plated meal or buffets that Americans are accustomed to, where the focus is on your own plate.
In American homes, there is the passing of the plates which is much more family style and focused on sharing food abundantly. Thanksgiving is a great example and time to share this hospitable love, where you can eat until you pass out. And if you’re in an Italian, Moroccan, or Asian family’s home like I have been, and they offer you food, you should not refuse. You just eat until you can’t eat anymore. As an American guest, don’t be surprised if your hosts keep looking at your plate and coaxing you to eat more. It’s their currency of hospitable love.