Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Spice, Hospitality and @Vconnecting


This is a thinking post that’s building on several different ideas with food sometimes as a metaphor for hospitality and sometimes as literal.

First story – on recipes

I read something recently that will probably be familiar to everyone reading this, to an extent. You know how your grandma or Martha Stewart or your local fave restaurant can give you a recipe, and you follow it word for word, and it still doesn’t taste exactly the same? Did it ever happen to you that you yourself cooked the same thing with presumably the same ingredients, and it didn’t taste the same? In Egyptian, we call this “nafas” which literally means “breath”. Someone whose food tends to be tasty is said to have good “nafas” with food. My husband also tells me my food tastes different depending on my mood. That probably has a scientific explanation, like when I am angry I am in a hurry or I leave it on too long or I move the spoon too hard or don’t taste the food or something.

Anyway. I’m just saying this because I realized that in Virtually Connecting, we initially focused on writing up our processes so volunteers can do things smoothly. Then we realized the processes are too tech focused and we actually need to focus on the Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH), which is an attitude and value but also an embodied practice we refine over time. And it occurs to me that we realize this is like sort of loose ingredients for a recipe where you have to use your judgment to make it work and sometimes you’ll do it exactly like you did it last time but it will turn out to be different. This is of course not a simple metaphor because VC is with different people each time… but when you cook for groups, people tasting your food may be different each time. How you and they feel about it may differ for so many reasons and it’s quite difficult to make a recipe of it. So perhaps an apprenticeship not a documentation model is how new volunteers can learn to do this. Some documentation, sure, but apprenticeship (which we have done informally for years) may be better. Because maybe if you stand next to your grandma you will notice a subtle flick of her wrist as she seasons her food or the way she stirs a pot and it will make all the difference. But she won’t know to explicitly tell you to do it. You need to just notice it. It’s the same with some IEH practices, I feel.

Second story – on spices

Do you like spicy food (as in hot chili or such, not spicy as in cinnamon and cumin)? I don’t. My dad loved it, my mom loathed it. My husband likes it but doesn’t love it.

We once made a food order for a workshop and for some reason all the sandwiches were hot/spicy. So first of all, I am really sensitive to this, but I was really hungry, so my lips were burning. People who don’t mind or like spicy food were happy and kept saying, “it’s really not that spicy” and I was like, “no, it really is spicy, for me”. People have different sensitivity to this and different levels of tolerance for it. Also, because of inexperience with spicy food, I put my finger in my eye before washing my hands and…. you guessed it. FIRE! 🔥🔥🚒🔥🔥🔥🚒🚒🚒

I’m also remembering now two things that happened at two different conferences

One conference I was planning to eat vegetarian (to be as close to halal as possible) and the only vegetarian food available was chili (hot/spicy again!!!) And potato salad. I had potato salad. I don’t understand this. If you are going to make a special dish for vegetarians, shouldn’t you pick a dish most vegetarians will eat?

Which actually may be related to my next point. In another context, I was offered halal food. But the halal food was really spicy/hot, because there was an assumption there that all people who eat halal must be originally from the Indian subcontinent and love spicy/hot food.

This also brings me to something else. Food is a great metaphor for inclusivity… or not.. and how it’s done at conferences makes all the difference.

For example, I was once giving a workshop somewhere, where participants all got mini sandwiches and mini desserts to pick from a shared plate, and I was given a larger box with two sandwiches and salad and stuff. And my own large dessert. I was so embarrassed that I started giving people parts of my salad and cut up my sandwich and dessert so others could share. The intention was to make me feel special, but I felt the privilege was excluding me by making me like I was above everyone else and it was an awful feeling.

I remember another incident where all the halal food was placed on a particular table and so it was kinda assumed that all halal-eaters would hang out with each other and not with others. Which was… really odd!!

The situations I think are sensitive but good are when everything is there in an open buffet and things are labeled to help folks choose what suits them. Maybe in cases of extreme gluten intolerance you want stuff to be on a different uncontaminated table. But for other stuff like vegetarian, lactose intolerance, halal, etc., labeling is usually enough? I mean I guess a messy buffet user might use a spoon with ham by mistake in a pot of halal food (yuck for me) but if you place them far enough apart this should be OK.

There are also two things here

First, considering your audience, what are some things they’re all likely to share in common? E.g. most people will eat mushrooms (works for all kinds of diets and is high in protein, though some may not like them) and potatoes/rice (gluten free carb, neutral taste, kind of). You don’t wanna offer bland food, but just have some “safe, most ppl will eat” foods that cover most dierary needs of your audience (these two, depending how you cook them, can be vegan and gluten-free).

Second is to just focus on having variety with certain options fulfilling the point above of working for your population. For example, Egyptian Christians do a long vegan fast, once where fish is allowed and once where it isn’t. If you have many in your audience, avoid putting milk or eggs on vegetarian dishes so they can be hospitable to those fasting.

It’s really not that hard. It takes time and forethought and many people manage to pull it off.

Third story – on taking hospitality to the next level

The next one is something that happened today at #OEGLOBAL19. I was facilitating a Vconnecting session (awesome all female guest cast btw) that was happening at lunch time, as often happens. And I saw that our onsite buddy Terry Greene was giving out water to folks, and I thought, hey, that’s a cool idea!! And then I noticed some people eating and it turns out Paola Corti, who was one of the guests but also one of the organizers had brought some snacks to the session. And I thought, hey! We should do that whenever we can, or do sessions near where lunch is to make it easy to do this!

Those are my thoughts for today… been reading on decolonizing a lot today, but these are my simple thoughts on food metaphors for social justice and inclusion and hospitality.

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