We've all been there - the dinner party from hell. The host is an anal-retentive control freak who insists on micro-managing every last detail and who flies off the handle if a single flower petal is not in perfect alignment. To your left is a guest droning on about his latest medical procedure; across the table sits an executive who talks only business. On your right is a woman who marinated in noxious perfume, and she's flirting coyly with the drunken sot beside her. Clearly, these people are all exceeding the bounds of acceptable behavior, but no one else seems to recognize it.
Unless we've chosen the life of a hermit, over the next two weeks, every one of us will play the role of host or guest at some kind of social gathering. The rules of engagement, of expected and accepted behavior, come to us through our culture, either spoken directly or inferred from years of observation. But how did these rules develop? Where did our contemporary notions of hospitality come from?
These are the questions behind Jesse Browner's new book, The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality. Starting with a deceptively simple story of a poker game, Browner tells of his pleasure at serving delicious food to his long-time buddies. Only later does he confess an ulterior motive: If his friends are sated, happy and feeling relaxed, they let down their guard at the poker table, allowing Browner to scoop up the winnings.
This personal observation illustrates one of the key aspects of hospitality that Browner explores in the book: For most of the history of Western civilization, right up through 21st-century America, hospitality has been primarily about the host. Working backwards from Hitler to Louis XIV to the emperors of ancient Rome, Browner shows that social etiquette often served the needs of the rich and powerful, as well as those who desired to become part of the influential inner circle.
The title refers to the hapless duchess of Mantua, widow of a minor Italian duke who had surrendered his lands to Louis XIV in 1704. The duchess believed her connections to royalty were enough to guarantee her a place of honor in the court of Louis at Versailles, but she was sadly mistaken. She misread the complicated etiquette of seating at the court, where armchairs were reserved for the royal family, with straight-back chairs for the highest-ranking guests and low stools called tabourets for minor royalty. Everyone else had to stand. When offered only a tabouret, the duchess refused to sit at all and soon left the court. She had learned, too late, that the etiquette of seating had nothing to do with the comforts of the guests and instead defined social status according to the sovereign's rules.
Even when the host is not a ruthless dictator in the political realm, he or she may find it difficult to avoid slipping into controlling behavior; that's simply the model for hosting that we've seen so often throughout history. Browner offers thoughtful reflections for contemporary hosts and guests amid the history lessons.
"We all know at least one person - an overly formal host or an antisocial guest - who will not or cannot alter his or her behavior to accommodate the comfort level of others," he writes. "Do we engage such misfits in a battle of wills, seeking to bend them against their natures and insisting that they conform to our standards when they are under our roof, or do we allow our guests to be themselves, even when their selves are prickly, aggressive, or unsociable?"
As both Browner and writer Margaret Visser (author of The Rituals of Dinner) note, the host ultimately wields power over the guest during the time of the function, and everyone is most comfortable when that power is wielded gently. When we step into another's home as a guest, we place our fates - at least for next couple of hours - into the hands of the host. As guests, we must trust that our host is benevolent. As hosts, we must seek to put our guests at ease.
While Browner has brought his talents as a translator to a wide range of historic sources for this book, he may have committed a faux pas of his own: Non-Western stories are notably absent from his study. What of the Arab tradition of serving coffee to guests? The tea ceremony of Japan? The African tradition of filling a guest's calabash, or drinking pouch, for the return journey? Hospitality extends the world over, although the specifics vary from culture to culture. Perhaps including non-Western cultures would have made the book too unwieldy, but it would have given us other ways to contemplate the relationship between host and guest.