February 8, 2015
It’s approaching thirty years ago that I made my one and only trip to India. Negotiating what you should and should not imbibe was an almost daily affair in those days. We drank beer because the water was a hazard for the unadapted Western gut. The bottled water at the fine hotels was reputed to be safe, but late in the trip I caught a steward refilling said bottles from the same outdoor tap that was being used to water the shrubbery. My friend Russ Freed (I don’t see enough of Russ, even though we are colleagues at MSU) was a veteran of dietary distress in India, and he spent the entire month eating nothing but plain rice. I, on the other hand, was curious and generally rewarded for partaking of the local cuisine.
But there were dilemmas. I recall one field visit where our guide (from the regional university) made a loud proclamation for all to hear urging me to try some dish that was being offered by our local host. But then he whispered “I don’t advise it,” as he brought the bowl close to my lips. On another field day, we visited a farm household where tea was rather proudly being made using gas collected from an anaerobic digester. Our guides told us it would be quite safe. As I recall it tasted rather foul to me, but nonetheless, I drank up.
I was negotiating some food ethics questions the entire month. On a previous trip I had made the mistake of eating a salad that had been loaded onto our Alitalia flight in Nairobi, and I had paid the price with a pretty severe bought of what would have been called Montezuma’s revenge had I contracted it closer to home. We Americans may not normally think of staying healthy in this sense as an ethical problem. But asserting the right to control what goes into your body can put you in the position of refusing hospitality, and that is an ethical act.
There are dilemmas both for the guest and for the host. When acting as the host, I’ve opted for polling my guests in advance on their dietary preferences, and then I plan a menu that accommodates them as far as I am able. But I don’t think I would go so far as to say that every host is morally obligated to take this path. My local hosts in India were being gracious to share some of their daily food & drink. It would not only have been presumptuous of any guest—and especially a relatively well-to-do Western traveler—to expect anything else, it would have defeated the purpose of making a study trip, in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that the guest is obligated to eat anything that’s put in front of them, either. While there was certainly the opportunity for taking offense when the proffered dish is declined, my experience suggests that awareness of idiosyncratic dietary needs is widely appreciated. There are gestures one can make to signal appreciation for the offering, and those gestures generally suffice for the purposes of acknowledging the generosity and hospitality of one’s host.
As gatherings become more intimate, things get complicated. Throughout my India trip I was an exotic stranger. It was well understood that while we would engage in some conversation and exchange of customs, I would not be coming back to this household again anytime soon. The proverbial dinner party among friends or business associates is built on very different assumptions. In this case, refusal of a food offering can more easily be interpreted as an affront. One needs to at least push the food around a bit, and very probably to take at least a few bites in order to satisfy the norms of propriety.
But even as I write this I’m thinking how dramatically that seems to be changing since the time of my youth. The process of polling potential guests for what they will or will not eat would have been viewed as gauche by my mother, let along my grandmother. The expectation that we can actually eat together (as opposed to simultaneously) has declined significantly with the proliferation of hyphenated dietary regimes. I am a “social conservative” in seeing something regrettable about that, even as I fully respect my guests’ right to construct a dietary ethics according to their own lights.
Another blog, it seems, where I am not so sure.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University