Cultural differences

Party and Hospitability

1:31 PM

This month, one of my favourite blog (which is not India related) is having a month long series on simple hospitality which you can read here.
This series she is writing got me thinking big time because there are so many cultural components to hosting a gathering home. I said it in the past in another blog post, but in Switzerland and I know it is the case in many European countries and US, when you are invited for lunch or dinner, the meal is the main event, and you sit down at the table almost as soon as you arrive to your host’s place to eat. And unlike in India, the food served is not the signal that the party will end right after that, it’s the sign that it’s beginning, and that casual talk will take place all through the meal, and stretch until late afterward. When you have a dinner party, or a Lunch party in Switzerland that means that you arrive at a certain hour, are led to a coffee table for the “Apero” which is a pre-meal appetizer of small munchies and a glass of white wine or some juice if you don’t drink, it’s that time during which you basically warm up to the mood and wait for all the guests to come, it can last an hour or more of just relaxing, talking, and nibbling on not too filling food stuff. Then you move to the dinning table, and the meal begins, with a starter, the main course, desert, and finishes with a coffee (always finishes with one, this is the end of the party cue in Switzerland) The conversation usually tappers toward the end of the meal, and coffee means things are about to conclude in most cases. A party meal will have you seated at a table with guests about 4 hours if it is a big party, will still last about 1-2 hours for a regular casual meet, we take food and meal time very seriously in my homeland.

But back to that blog series in question, reading the first 3 entries, I realised that most people in Switzerland already do the simple hospitality thing most of the time, the concept of elaborate theme parties, print out menus, decorations and such is actually very limited, not absent, but definitely not to the extent I have seen with my friends from across the Atlantic. I think the only real major party we make a big effort over is the Christmas Dinner or lunch, for which people from my parent’s generation still did dig out the fancy silverware, special bone china set they got gifted at their wedding, and get the fine table linen out. Adding a few festive touches of gold stars and pine branches to the table to really say it was Christmas and of course dressing up in our finest for the part. But for any other really regular casual meet over dinner gathering, the normal plates were often taken out, the table cloth would be fancier than the flower print one we used daily in the kitchen, but not as prestigiously fancy as the one taken out along with the fine china. My parents were even doing something more special every Sundays in the Fall and Winter months. They would actually set the table with the fine china and a good table linen set, dim the light, put back ground music and serve fancier food that once a week dinner…not only to celebrate family (all family meals were sacred and we always sat down together to eat) but also to teach my sister and I about appropriate fancy table behaviour…it was ok to have a moment and spill something or not know how to use the silverware line up properly at home…not so much in public, my parents were conservative and old fashioned enough to really care about that meal etiquette thing.
My generation is far more lax on these, but the fact is that even 20 something young adults will know their basic host skill because we’ve all been through the drill with our parents, some less extreme than mine, but still. So much so that when I was a student and 23 and my class decided to host a December Holidays dinner, one of my friend of around the same age who is a reggae lover, dread lock rasta to the bone decided to host it, and you’d think he would have not cared much about Swiss values and thrown a more casual early 20’s meet up, but nope, even if the food he decided to cook (yes men cook) was a simple dish we call a “Mongolian fondue”, he still fished out the white table cloth, the nice plates, the wine glasses, and silverware. That’s how deeply ingrained the respect of meals and food is in Switzerland.

And to be fair, this is a bit of what I miss in India, but only for the holidays, food for these events is treated way too casually in India when you come from a culture that pretty much made meal time a religion (and not just party meals…daily meals as well). It actually still makes me a tad uncomfy to just be invited for dinner, or have guests over for dinner only for the food I spent hours thinking about and set just right to just be that “Ok we had fun no eat and leave” signal.
But that said there is something from India I actually appreciate too, while to me holiday events should be fancy and respected and given a lot of time and go by the same old sacrosanct ritual I grew up with, casual gatherings on a Friday night are far warmer and fuss free and happy not obsessing over cooking, setting a table, and being a good hostess. The format that usually goes with DH and I is the informal last minute invitation of friends, buying a few beers, tossing chips in a serving bowl along with peanuts, talking and chilling with the beers and then realise a few hours later that we are hungry and decide to order take out. No hassle cooking, no piles of dishes to clear…just relaxing hassle free time with friends, the way a Friday night should be.
Take out is pretty much an evil word for any kind of gathering in Switzerland, heck take out is not even really done much even on a day you are way too pooped to do anything else and few outlets do it to begin with. If you are going to have outside food in Switzerland, it’s because you want to get out of the house, because if you are really too pooped to think of cooking anything there is still instant soups and bread, or the good old pasta solution that has sustained generations of hungry students and hassled families on a rough day.

That’s one of these thing I actually forgot all about when I visited back in 2008. My Sister and I made a day trip to a Swimming pool complex, after hours of dipping away in hot pools, sliding down water slides and deciding to head home at 6pm after being out of the house for 8 hours and feeling the effect of a day of active fun on my limbs and mind, I suggested we picked up some take out in one of the few outlets you usually find in the train station in Zurich and head home, and my sister looked at me like I murdered the perfect day with my suggestion. It took me a few minutes to realise that before I left for India i would have reacted the same…in Switzerland you don’t go order take out to eat home after a perfect fun day…nope, you cook! Even if it is something ridiculously simple as making “canape” it must involve kitchen prep work…and no opening plastic containers of take out food onto a serving dish doesn’t count as prep work back home. <y sister even offered to cook some chicken dish seeing I was in a fix, but I refused, because we were at my place and guests don’t cook, so we ended up deciding on buying a nice bottle of wine, some cold cuts of meat, bread, and something to toss a salad, because arranging Parma ham on a plate, buttering toasts and fixing a salad is by Swiss standard better than heading to the Chinese take out to get dumplings, spring rolls and a stir fried dishes or two.

All in all after 10 years in India, I seriously find myself that my compatriots could benefit from doing things a bit less formally for casual, impromptu meet ups and not see eating out of paper plates and plastic containers as something one only do at a picnic gathering (and I should write about that one because it’s just barely less elaborate than casual meet). And people in India should put a tad more oomph into the meal served during festive time such as Diwali, Christmas and New Year by making it a sit down affair where food and people are all celebrated together…just to make it more special, and not use food as a “Been a pleasure to have you over but now please leave” item. It’s not what is on the plate that matter too, some festive Swiss meals are simple everyday stuff like a pot roast, it’s just served in a way to make it special and mark the occasion.

1 comments

  1. Cultural differences are always fascinating indeed.
    I grew up eating with a knife, because it is the proper thing to do in Europe, but I actually don't use it as much as I used to these days, if I have a pasta dish I use only the fork, but my family and friend find it odd not to have a knife in their right hand. In Switzerland the only thing that you are allowed to eat with your fingers in a restaurant without making a giant social etiquette breach is poultry, chicken can be eaten with fingers if it is on the bone, not otherwise, and yep you eat Fench fires with a fork too if you are in a steak restaurant, the only place you can eat your whole meal with fingers is a fast food joint and I remember that my sister and I used to like going there just to eat with our finger.
    My mom and siter had an issue with the Indian style of eating with your hands, they just couldn't get the bread being used as a toold to take small bits of food into your mouth, bread in continental fares is a side, something you pretty much use to clean your plate of gravy toward the end of the meal, not as heavily part of it as it is in India, and I think the first time my sister got to eat Indian she thought that rotis were like the middle easter pita bread and started spreading food on hers and roll it up to make kebab roll simply because the fact that all there was to work with was a table spoon made her think that food had to be put in the bread with it.

    Yes we are very formal about food in Western culture in general, it's not as much the food that has complicated ingredient, but it is given a special status by being something almost ritualistic, a normal lunch break in Switzerland will be between 1.5-2 hours long because it shouldn't be rushed. Food cannot be served on just about any piece of furniture because it usually deserve that one pay attention to what is on the plate, eating in front of the TV is far less of a thing in Europe than it is in the US because when you eat...you eat, you don't just squeeze meal time in. I'm not really sure if there could be a link there, but I remember reading several papers written in US on how French are eating relatively fatty food and a calorie dense diet and yet peopl ethere are far less overweight and obese than in the US. many theories have been made, and I think one of them was that the average French spend a longer time eating in one meal than the average American. So could be that the idea of giving importance to meal time by devoting time to it and ritualising it makes people eat slower, probably in smaller quantity and could be the reason as of why the average weight of an individal in some European nation is lower than in some areas in the US, though of course it is not the only factor, there are some socio-economic one at play too.

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