Thoughts on the shared meal

Every time we sit down to eat together, we honour the collective aspect of our existence. Should we be doing more of it?

When we sit down to eat with others, we are enacting one of the most ancient rituals of human existence. It links us back to our forebears, who we might imagine returning from hunting and gathering expeditions to share the spoils, trusting or maybe calculating that generosity now will be reciprocated in the future when others have better luck. They intuited, perhaps, that a gift is an investment in a shared future. Eating together is a symbol of the high degree of socialization and also specialization that has been key to the achievements of humanity. Every time we sit down to eat together, we honour the collective aspect of our existence.

Shared meals run through human society, and mark many of its defining moments. Eating together is a foundation of religious practice – the Passover meal, the Muslim feast of Eid, or the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist – where it takes on symbolic meaning and is intended to bring about a transformation of consciousness. It is also a staple of political and civic life, where banquets are an opportunity to seal alliances but also to display wealth and power. Among the north American Indian people, for instance, the potlatch was a ceremonial feast at which the host would provide lavish hospitality, and also give away or destroy possessions to demonstrate prestige (the similar-sounding but quite different potluck is a modern invention where all the guests bring a dish to share). Then there are social occasions such as the wedding breakfast, the coffee morning, Sunday lunch, school meals, dinner parties and all the other institutions that bind families and communities together, for better or for worse.

Eating together is so much a part of life that it has its own name, commensality, from Latin roots meaning to share a table. It is enjoying a vogue as growing numbers of people are eating most of their meals alone. Research commissioned for the Eden Project’s Big Lunch in 2017 found that 34% of British adults will go a week or more without sharing a meal with anyone, and that 69% had never shared a meal with any of their neighbours. Commenting on the research, Oxford academic Robin Dunbar sums it up:

“The act of eating together triggers the endorphin system in the brain and endorphins play an important role in social bonding in humans. Taking the time to sit down together over a meal helps create social networks that in turn have profound effects on our physical and mental health, our happiness and wellbeing, and even our sense of purpose in life…In these increasingly fraught times, when community cohesion is ever more important, making time for and joining in communal meals is perhaps the single most important thing we can do – both for our own health and wellbeing and for that of the wider community.”

Common sense perhaps, but well worth saying. Commensality enthusiast Marsha Smith, who is researching social eating for a PhD at Coventry University, adds that shared meals should be not simply an occasion for strengthening social bonds but also a context for research, just as they were with the Food Values project that we ran from Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities in 2015-2016. Going further, eating together is the ideal context for creating food policy itself, allowing it to grow organically out of people’s concerns. As she says, “groups who eat together could and should be the creators of knowledge, policies and interventions that concern them”.

A shared meal creates a space for conversation which is quite different from the TV debate, the radio phone-in or an argument on social media. When we sit down to eat with others we recognize a physical connection with each other, not just a mental or transactional one, and that alters the terms of engagement. Taking food into our bodies is an affirmation of trust and an acknowledgement of shared physical needs, and although we may barely notice this, our bodies know what is happening. We are returned to our physical selves and our mutual connection. A shared meal illustrates and ideally resolves the tension between the needs of the individual and of the group; either both are satisfied, or neither is, because unless everyone around the table receives their fair share, the group will not be in harmony.

Eating together primes us, therefore, to value both the dignity of the individual and the health of the collective. It reminds us of our physical interdependence and has a democratizing effect. Depending on who is invited and what the intention is – to celebrate a family event, maybe, or to create new alliances – it may extend our circle of concern beyond our usual companions to a more universal view. It is the ideal context for discussing the future of food.

Of course, the shared meal has its shadow side. It can be a place for reinforcing social distinctions with seating plans and high tables, and it is often the scene of repressed tensions, unseemly squabbling and bad manners. It can be a headache for the organizer as dietary preferences proliferate and we set limits on exactly what type of bread we are prepared to break with our neighbour. These very imperfections however serve only to point towards the ideal of the harmonious group which nurtures both its members and its own integrity, by showing us where we fall short and inspiring us to adapt. Shared meals are therefore a promising, though by no means foolproof context for civil conversations. But if we can understand in more detail what is going on, maybe we can generalize these principles to other contexts and broaden our repertoire of social gatherings.

Babette’s Feast

In Babette’s Feast, a short story by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen) that was made into a film in 1987, two elderly sisters eke out a life of simplicity in a remote Norwegian village in the nineteenth century. They are guarding the flame of their Lutheran preacher father and caring for his flock of disciples, now grown tetchy and quarrelsome in old age. Into their lives one day comes a French woman, fleeing civil war in her home country, and begging for support. The two sisters take her in as their housekeeper and introduce her to their way of life. For them all ‘luxurious fare was sinful’, and feeding the poor was all that really mattered. Babette learns how to make the best of their simple foods, cooking dried cod and making soup out of stale bread and ale. But already something magical is starting to happen, because she is an accomplished chef with a natural feel for food, and ‘the soup-pails and baskets acquired a new, mysterious power to stimulate and strengthen their poor and sick’.

Then one day she wins the Lottery and asks the sisters if she may use the money to cook a dinner to celebrate the centenary of the old preacher’s birth. The sisters reluctantly agree, out of kindness to Babette, but their worst fears are confirmed when they see the lavish ingredients that arrive by boat from France, including a live turtle and large quantities of wine. They warn the Brothers and Sisters of the extravagant horror that is approaching, and win an assurance from them that they will make no comment on the food they are served, even if it should turn out to involve frogs and snails. They agree: ‘On the day of our master we will cleanse our tongues of all taste and purify them of all delight of the senses, keeping and preserving them for the higher things of praise and thanksgiving.’

But as dish after elaborate dish is carried into the dining room and received without any sign of surprise or approval, the old people nevertheless soften and start telling stories of past happiness. They rediscover the bonds of affection that connect them and let go of the grievances that they have been nursing for so many decades. When their glasses are filled with Veuve Cliquot, which they take to be lemonade, it seems to ‘lift them off the ground, into a higher and purer sphere’. Leaving behind the hardness of their lives, transcending even the delights of the food they are eating, they find that the room is filled with ‘a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance.’

It’s a story about giving and receiving. The sisters allow their French maid to cook the celebration meal for their father’s centenary, setting aside their own preferences, out of kindness for the homeless stranger. The old people agree to sit down to a meal of unfamiliar foods out of kindness to the sisters, whom they have known since they were small girls. Babette meanwhile pours her entire Lottery winnings and her skill as a chef into one night of glorious abundance, for her own fulfilment. The story ends with one of the sisters receiving Babette’s declaration of what she has done with great sympathy, and proclaiming ‘In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be!…Ah, how you will enchant the angels!’

Table manners

A shared meal then is about giving and sharing – or it can be. It all depends on how we approach it. According to Roger Scruton, table manners are an outward sign of the attitude that make the difference. Passing the food around, serving each other, conversing equably with our dining companions, appreciating the dishes – all these gestures create the ‘ceremonial character of eating, the essence of which is hospitality and gift […] Although the ill-mannered person can grab more of the grub, he will receive less of the affection; and fellowship is the real meaning of the meal.’ Even showing up to a shared meal is a gift, in the sense that we are contributing our time and attention to the well-being of the collective, from which others will also benefit. And of course, providing the food, or booking the restaurant, and inviting the guests are obvious gifts, which the guests in turn receive graciously, maybe offering to wash up afterwards, or maybe not. A meal makes all these human qualities visible and is about the ‘maintenance of human kindness’.

In an individualistic society, we need to be reminded of our capacity for generosity. There is some interesting thinking on this in a 2016 report from the Common Cause Foundation, which promotes greater-than-self values in public life. Perceptions Matter draws on a survey of adults around the UK, grouped by sex and region, in which they were questioned about their values. Overall, there was a preference for compassionate values over individual ones, with some interesting differences (the effect was stronger in women than in men, stronger in older people, and strongest in the northeast of England and Northern Ireland). These results are encouraging: we are not such a selfish society after all.

A selfish society?

The real significance of the study though lies in an interesting twist. Three-quarters of people who stuck up for compassionate values assumed that they were the exception and that they lived in a generally selfish society. As one respondent put it: ‘ “It’s a very materialistic society that we live in,” she told us. “I don’t like it very much. I try to express my values as much as possible but, to live with other people, you just try and play the roles as much as possible.” ‘

This result is presumably related to the negativity bias that means that bad experiences make a stronger impression on us than good ones, and therefore we are more bothered by seeing other people act selfishly than we are uplifted by their good deeds. Meanwhile, the confirmation bias means that we are more likely to notice behaviour that fits our belief that people are fundamentally selfish. The result is a nation of people who do good in secret, while publicly proclaiming allegiance to the story of competition and consumerism. It amounts to an unconscious conspiracy of negativity. (Curiously, while liberals claimed to be more altruistic than conservatives, they were also less trusting of the motives of others).

This matters, as the report’s title reminds us, because the researchers found that having a low opinion of our fellow citizens has negative consequences. People who saw their society as being a selfish one were less likely to vote or to volunteer for their communities. That makes sense, because if you think other people are fundamentally selfish and not likely to match your generosity, then it is hard to make the effort. You might get ripped off, or stand out as a do-gooder, or look foolish and naïve. It is somehow better to be sceptical and cautious, so the cultural norm goes.

Building trust

But when behaviour is based on a lie, and it is harmful, we need to do something about it. We need to question this narrative of competitiveness and mistrust, and balance it with one that honours our equally natural urge to collaborate and contribute. Apart from publishing reports that expose our faulty thinking and rectify our biases, the Common Cause Foundation works with museums to find creative ways of making altruism visible to a local community, for instance creating exhibits that engage with compassionate values, and by drawing attention to the generosity of their volunteers.

Shared meals and food projects of all sorts are of course an opportunity to make human kindness tangible. The outpouring of generosity that accompanied Covid-19 lockdown indeed backs up the findings of the report. Neighbourhood mutual aid groups sprang up all over the country and many of their activities revolved around food: setting up rotas to deliver shopping and hot meals to isolated people, leaving cakes on neighbours’ doorsteps, donating to food banks and sharing seeds, plants and compost. Even exchanging recipes can do the trick.

More than this, sharing food – even virtually – is a physical act and a symbol of interdependence. As such it is the perfect antidote to abstract arguments about the affairs of the day, which so often lead to self-righteousness and polarization rather than any new understanding. Most of us do not live in traditional societies like Babette’s Norwegian village, nor would we want to. But we still live in collective interdependence, whether we like it or not, and we can learn to do that better.