Eating with strangers: bringing people together through food

A grassroots movement is bringing people together via a shared love of food, from refugees to socially isolated older people. Sonia Zhuravlyova meets those who are breaking bread, and building bonds

Nothing binds us together like food. Even the word ‘companion’ comes from Latin and means ‘with bread’ – someone friendly with whom to share a meal. We live in an age of seemingly countless restaurants and when an explosion of food delivery companies means more and more of us are opting for solo suppers, often enjoyed in front of screens. Our near-24/7 schedules and the rise of technology threaten to push companionable eating clear off the menu.

But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. A new wave of clubs, projects and charities are using the unique power food has to bring people together, from newly arrived refugees to older or bereaved people, and from people looking for love, to global travellers.

Good journalism can be about good things too.

Chef and political activist Kerstin Rodgers is credited with launching the supper club movement in Britain and says the idea was born after a trip to Cuba, where creating restaurants in people’s living rooms is common. Without enough money to open a “real” restaurant, she went for the DIY version. Rodgers’ Underground Restaurant, launched in her home in Kilburn, north London, in 2009, was a hit and has spawned countless variations on the theme, from Jewish suppers and African feasts to New Year’s Eve fondue nights.

“It’s really hard to make connections in a big city, especially if you’re single,” she says. “At a supper club, you’re obliged to make conversation. It’s about putting away your phone and making a social effort, relating to people face to face.”

Kerstin Rodgers is credited with launching the supper club movement in Britain. Image: Paul Winch Furness

Because there’s a difference between sharing food and sharing a meal. Anyone can order their own dish in a restaurant but at a supper club, people eat the same thing, often helping themselves to a portion and then passing it along, which encourages sociability, empathy and trust. “Eating together is a way of bonding. I do a lot of family-style dishing: you’re passing things to each other so you have to learn to share,” says Rodgers. And watching people go from zero to potential friends – or even lovers – across her dining-room table is magical. “Creating all these connections feels to me like a kind of witchcraft.”

While some supper clubs – and apps such as the now-defunct AirDine, which allowed users to attend dinner parties at strangers’ homes around the world – may cater in particular for young professionals feeling alienated by big-city living, the act of sharing food goes far deeper. “It can be very powerful,” says Julia Turshen, chef and author of recipe book Feed the Resistance. “If you have a bunch of people sitting around a table in a conference room it can feel tense and unnatural – but if you put food on that table and it becomes a meal, it goes from being a meeting to a more relaxed set-up.”

At a supper club, you’re obliged to make conversation. It’s about putting away your phone and making a social effort, relating to people face to face

What’s more, food can change perceptions. “Consider whether the recipe you’re cooking was written by someone who’s had a different life experience to you. Read about what that food means to them and understand their story,” recommends Turshen, who mentions the case of Derek Black in the US. Black’s father was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. An invitation from a college classmate to a Shabbat dinner led him to reconsider the views he had adopted without question.

Turshen’s book – which features recipes alongside resources and essays from activists – has a political edge but its message is universal and pleasingly simple: dishes can foster community while providing sustenance for the mind and soul. So find a way to feed your community, she urges. The first step? Invite someone for dinner who’s different from you; talking about the food you’re sharing can build bridges. “You can’t talk about food without talking about everything that matters,” notes Turshen. “The environment, migrants’ rights, gender,…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

I have a crazy passion for #music, #celebrity #news & #fashion! I'm always out and about on Twitter.
Sasha Harriet

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