Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Rituals of Hospitality
We commonly think of hospitality as a measure of friendliness, and “hospitality” courses are given to people who work in the tourist business to teach simulated friendliness. That gives us pause — we wonder if our jolly host is really friendly or is merely being commercially astute. Such ambivalence about the truth of hospitality, about whether it’s sincere or not, signals confusion about the meaning and function of social strategies, like politeness in general, of which hospitality is a subset. It has been said that politeness is a way of keeping people apart, or to put it another way, bringing them just within hailing distance. Similarly, hospitality is defined as a way of structuring home encounters between people, friends or strangers, and every society, as well as each distinct group within it, has its own rituals, or tactics, of hospitality.
Modern urbanized people have no trouble with that definition applied to other people in other times, more or less anthropologically, but they think of themselves, with their deliberate informality, lack of restraint, and seeming candor, as quite superior to such constraining conventions, unconscious of the fact that their ways are also tactics designed to maintain relations as a certain distance, adhered to with as much rigid conformity as any practice of the Kwakiutl.
Old country ways, the rituals of encounter, are marked by a formal order which sets them off from the jumbled flow of modern life, and makes their universality and rigidity very obvious: Everyone follows the same rituals in the same way with a sort of mechanical rhythm. When we moved to Cape Breton we learned that, while the rituals were very different from our Vermont experience, the characteristics of formality, universality, and rigidity were the same, and in spades, because change in Cape Breton — newcomers, the impingement of modern life — began much later than in New England and was moving more slowly. But in the 30 years we lived there, the old rites virtually disappeared as the elders, who maintained them, died.
My first experience with these matters occurred soon after we moved there, when I drove down the peninsula one day with our two sons to see a man who had a mower and hayrake for sale. Stopping at a garage, I asked directions to Michael MacNeil’s place. The attendant smiled. “There’s three or four Michael MacNeils right here in the village and some more out and around; which one were you wanting?” That was a poser, but we finally solved it when I described the man. “Oh, that’s Mickey Red,” and he told me where to go. At the farmhouse, Mickey Red, sitting beside the stove in the kitchen, told me where the equipment was, and the boys and I went to the barn to look it over. When we returned to the house to do the bargaining, Mickey, who hadn’t moved from his chair, said merely, “Have your tea,” as his wife put on the table three cups of tea and three small plates each with a piece of buttered bread, a square of oat cake (bannoch), and two boughten cookies. Surprised — this was a novel experience for us — we settled at he table and ate what was put in front of us while we chatted with Mickey Red and eventually got around to bargaining.
Wherever we went the experience was duplicated with the same ingredients: the oatcakes and bread were homemade; the cookies, because Cape Bretoners don’t bake them much, were always boughten. Within a few years, however, the oatcakes disappeared; they were culinary antiques that passed from the scene with the oldest generation. Due to the fact that cookery there was not learned from books but from oral tradition and practical imitation, all Cape Breton baked goods were alike.
Understand that these were not shared snacks — they were for visitors only. I was always disconcerted by this, eating away while my host looked on, but at the last of it, after living there twenty years or so, I would sometimes be joined by the man of the house (never by his wife) who would say, “Och! I believe I’ll have a bit o’ somethin’, too.”
Nowadays only the tea remains. An astounding product, it could be the subject of an essay by itself, tracing its ancestry in the British Isles and its worldwide provenance wherever the cuisine — English working class — has penetrated. George Orwell describes it in The Road to WiganPier, and the tea bag tea served in roadside diners across America in my youth was a distant, weaker relative. Begin with a low quality tea and put lots of it into a tea pot, which is then filled with boiling water and left to stand on the back of the stove, the longer the better. You may even boil it a bit for added zest. It should be poured when it’s a deep mahogany color. One cup contains enough tannin to preserve a calf skin, three cups will do a cowhide. Unless you’ve been carefully raised on the stuff, it can deliver a stunning wallop to your system, but there is an antidote: just add plenty of milk. We went one day with a visitor from New York to see someone down the peninsula, and when the tea was served I signaled to our friend to take milk. She ignored me, so at last I said, “Here, have some milk,” reaching over with the pitcher, but she was having none of that. Shielding her cup, she frowned at me, “You know I don’t take milk in my tea!” The host said, “Leave the lady drink her tea in peace, why don’t you?” What will be will be, I thought, as I watched her toss down the black brew. On the way home she had to stop the car so she could be sick.
I have always thought that the reticence of country people (and this is especially true of Cape Bretoners) ultimately stemmed from the fact that their relations with their fellows in the old-fashioned, relatively changeless countryside were likely to be affairs of long, often life-long, duration; to maintain such relations without unbearable friction, circumspection was required, and these rituals served the purpose of establishing country wariness in an acceptable social form. The light, gossipy conversation that went with the familiar routine of teacups and plates kept the participants at a certain distance, and helped to hide the substance of the visit behind the pretense of a social call. In truth, a purely social visit was a rarity in the old-fashioned countryside, where everyone worked hard from before dawn til after dark. Everyone knew that the visitor had an object and that it would be revealed only circuitously, just as the host’s response would be made known in an equally roundabout way, the asking and giving of commitment to be accomplished tentatively, gradually, cagily. The host does not ask why the visitor has come, and the visitor does not boldly state his business. A neighbor told me, shaking his head in disapproval, that when he knocked on the door of an American who lived in the area for a while, the woman’s first words were, “What do you want?” He thought she was unpardonably rude and offensive.
Of course, some are more reticent than others. One of our neighbors was so shy that he would drop only the slightest of hints about his purpose, and then just before he left (after sitting over tea for half an hour, chatting about nothing in particular). There would be only one obscure hint, and if we missed it, as we sometimes did, we would go over and over the conversation for days afterwards, trying to figure out what he wanted.
With visitors not our neighbors, callers who came to buy something, I would go out to greet them on the porch, exchange remarks on the weather, the state of the roads, prospects for the hunting season, etc., and then we would go in the kitchen where we would serve tea and Jo Ann’s cookies, and then the visitor’s business would be revealed. “I’m after thinkin maybe you’d have a bit of bacon, eh?” And when that had been attended to, he might ask for butter or sour cream, and so on, until his wants were satisfied, he had drunk his tea, the bill was paid, and we parted on the porch.
We try to use the same method here in the Champlain Valley, but modern people do not want to submit to the ritual, so I have learned to modify my technique. First get them into the house — no easygoing palaver outside now, they don’t respond to it — then I don’t ask if they want tea but simply serve it, because if I ask they wonder if they want it (no), whether they have time (no), and nine times out of ten they will turn it down, not realizing that it’s a social strategy, not a question of taste. They won’t reject it when it’s poured, and they must sit down to drink it, they can’t remain standing, ready to do their business and go. Once they’re sitting down, we can all be more social. And that, I think, is more important than the dispatch of business.
The old country-bred rituals, whatever their origins, were fine in themselves, and now they grant us a respite, a few relaxed moments set aside from the modern rush of busy-ness. *