The Hospitality Dilemma

Jul 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Blog

Four days a week for my internship, I help prepare a meal for 40 people give or take, the vast majority of whom are economically poor. Sure, the food is part of it. We have to make sure enough egg salad sandwiches are ready, along with two main dishes, a green salad, and whatever deserts and sides have been donated. The food is the time-consuming part but in the end, it is the easy part of the meal prep.

The hard part of the meal is the intangible, inedible bit. While the 40 guests trickle in and out over the course of the hour, the volunteer prep crew hovers awkwardly around the buffet serving station. Sometimes we slink away into the kitchen to wash dishes or refill trays, and to get out of the eye of those we have made this meal for. Other times, two or three volunteers will eat amongst themselves and talk quietly. In all of these scenarios, the “meal” is not a meal. It is a setting where we, the volunteers, have made lunch for them, the hungry people.

Oftentimes there is a friendly, chatty atmosphere among the regular guests but it is something that I and many other new or occasional volunteers have a hard time joining. When one of us sits down, the conversation slows to a pause and eyes turn to us momentarily or – more uncomfortably – anywhere but us. The fault for this awkwardness is not mine nor the guests’, but the feeling persists. I have promised myself to sit down and eat with the guests every day and so far I have stuck to it. The diners have been welcoming, too, but I cannot shake the feeling of a barrier between us. The more I try to ignore this barrier and dichotomy, the frustratingly stronger it becomes.

How can I create a meal atmosphere where the distinction between cook and guest (along with the implication each of those roles brings) is so apparent? How can I be hospitable while also making the diners forget that I am the host? I believe I have made progress to the goal of being natural around the guests and treating them not as food insecure but rather simply as people. I appreciate any advice you have to help me advance further.

One Comment to “The Hospitality Dilemma”

  1. Carlyn Vachow says:

    Hi, Kyler!

    I think that your dilemma is one that we all face when entering into situations where both parties are aware of a difference. I was thinking that if you start with a group of people (or a person) that are regulars and get to know them so that when you see them again you can ask questions that connect to what you talked about previously, that maybe it would break down the barrier as you make some acquaintances and friends. Once you feel like you’ve gotten to know them a little better, expand your circle, but always return to talk to everyone. Additionally, I know this is easier said than done, you can be helpful and friendly while networking rather than just being the person who is there to help. Also, asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer will help conversations go a little farther.

    I hope that was a little helpful…



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