Long Meals Together

Written for - though not currently appearing on - Lea Hannah's blog Eat.Grow.Live.

Once upon a time,

People held the idea of hospitality in such high esteem that if, say, your sworn enemy came to your home in disguise, and you invited him in (which you would do, of course, because you would invite in any and every traveling stranger in need of food and shelter) and then, say, your best friend showed up at your doorstep with an army and exposed the disguised enemy, you – as the host – would refuse to deliver your enemy-guest to your best friend. If your best friend threatened to capture the enemy-guest by force of arms, you and everyone in your household would prepare to fight to the death defending him. (Of course, your best friend would know you are honor-bound to do that, so you were about to find out which he valued more – the life of a friend or the death of an enemy).

There was a time, in short, when guests were sacred and a host's courtesy was a matter of the highest honor. When the code of hospitality was among the highest social and moral laws, capable of resolving ethical dilemmas in a way that now feels totally alien.

I'm not about to argue for a return to that time. But I begin there to illustrate how far human society has departed from one of its former values – and whenever we do that, it's worth asking whether we have maybe gone too far... whether we've left something behind along the way that's worth going back for.

The “slow foods” movement exists because of a similar line of questioning. We've recognized that, over the last century in particular, modern mainstream food production has undergone radical changes at every level. Yes, we've made food cheaper, easily distributable, widely available without regard (on the consumer end) to its local growing season or natural production cycle – “but,” people began to ask, “at what cost?”

And so, here we are: a small but growing group of people who desire to be more connected to the foods we consume – to be more aware of where it came from, how it was grown, what was involved. Who prefer, masoch istic as it may seem to fast-pace-of-life addicts, to chop, mix, cook, and even grow our own food to pealing off a round of plastic wrap and tossing a “disposable” plastic tray into the microwave. Who would really like it if Big Farm and Big Pharma had a lot less to do with one another, thank you very much.

What I'd like to suggest is that this desire, to be more connected to the foods we eat, has even more to offer than health and well-being: that it can help us become more connected to other people as well.

i.e., hospitality – and what that under-appreciated word means for us, and our friends, today.

I think of my friend Derek, who has recently taken to growing tomatoes in buckets on the back deck of his townhouse, for the express purpose of being able to make his own spaghetti sauce when he has people over. I picture a bunch of people sitting around his kitchen, talking and playing games, while the tomato sauce simmers in thick, aromatic bubbles in a giant pot on the stove behind them. The scent of basil and oregano tinge the evening, rousing guests' appetites for the feast to come.

What does it communicate when you show up to a holiday party with a platter of store-bought cookies or corporate-cut fruit and veggies? I didn't have time, but I wanted to contribute.

Okay, that's fair – no judgment here. We all get busy, and we'd much rather you showed up than that you stayed away out of embarrassment for lack of time to prepare something yourself.

But on the other hand, what does it communicate when you show up with a steaming made-from-scratch quiche, or a six-pack of home-brewed beer as my friends Nate and Margaret have often done? Considerably more:

-You care about what you eat and drink, and you care about your friends... so you care about what your friends eat and drink, too.

-You took time, effort, and energy to craft something personal for your friends, or your friend's guests... something everyone can enjoy.

-You planned ahead (probably. But if this is a lifestyle for you, not necessarily: a little while ago my wife and I decided at the last minute to attend a potluck, and because we bake our own beer bread two loaves at time every week, we had a suitable contribution waiting to be shared.)

When you're the one hosting, you have an even greater opportunity to invest – both in the future of the slow foods movement and, more importantly, in your friends.

Next time you have people over for dinner, try this:

  1. Plan to eat at 7pm, but tell your guests to come at 5pm.

  1. Don't stress about trying to get everything done before they come. Your friends don't expect a restaurant experience when they go to one another's houses for dinner; it's okay for them to see your cluttered kitchen. You're making their food, and they don't mind the process – they're grateful.

In fact – pro tip – if you succeed in conveying the “I'm a perfect homemaker” vibe, with a delicious dinner in the oven and a perfectly clean kitchen, you're actually less likely to get a return invitation. Why? Because you've given your friends the impression that that's what you expect, that's your standard, and they won't invite you over unless they feel like they can meet it in their own home.

  1. Instead, be working on dinner when they begin to arrive and be ready to involve them in the cooking process whenever they get there. Even if it's just chopping ingredients (maybe cut the onion yourself, though), there's nothing more satisfying than working with your hands and having something great to show for it as a result... except maybe having something delicious to eat!

(If you don't have a kitchen you can comfortably host from, make do as best you can for now and write that down as a criteria for your next lease/remodel/home purchase.)

What's the purpose of doing dinner like this?

Well, first and most basically, it gives everyone something to do. Especially if you're making new friends or catching up with long-lost acquaintances (or an ex...!), it fills up the awkward gaps when you're figuring out what to talk about, and lots of people are more comfortable when they're doing something, rather than just sitting or standing, drink in hand, while waiting for dinner to finish cooking.

Second, you're putting yourself and your guests on the same level. You're making them feel at home in your home by having them do something homey with you. You're inviting them to share your position as host – when you and your guests cook together, you're all investing in your evening; now everyone has a greater interest in its success. And when your food is a smash hit (pro tip: don't use guests as guinea pigs for culinary experiments without prior consent – taste-test recipes on your own first!), you're allowing them to take pride for their part in preparing it... rather than intimidating them with how delicious it is. Again, you're far less likely to get a return invitation if your guests come away thinking, I could never pull that off.

And third, you're passing on some of the philosophy of the slow foods movement without having to say a word about it. You could be introducing people to home cooking who may not have grown up with it, almost like hooking kids' interest in a school subject with a hands-on activity. Or you could be reminding people of how good it can be – not just the eating, but the whole experience – who may not have gotten much of it since they left for college.

I titled this post “Long Meals Together.”
Just what do I mean by that?

It can be hard, when we talk about being part of a movement like slow foods, to avoid coming off as pretentious as Irish comedian Dylan Moran's friends talking about their weekend:

“We went to that really cool place, you know the one you haven't heard of, it's called The Cellar, it's on the top floor of the building, well, it's not really called The Cellar, it's called Umlaut, well, it's not really called Umlaut, it's just two dots over a 'u' that isn't there. Yeah, it's great, they make their own tomatoes out of vodka...”

But by mixing hospitality with slow foods – and the two really are natural allies – we have an opportunity to show and not tell. We can give a taste, literally and metaphorically, of what we're about.

A long meal together is exactly what it sounds like. You begin by involving your friends in the food, letting them experience it with all their senses as it is prepared into a tasty meal. You have a natural opportunity to talk about where you get your ingredients – whether it's a local farm, co-op, market, backyard, or grocery store. Moreover you communicate, non-verbally, something you're passionate about while you discuss something they're passionate about. Sharing a meal is the ostensible purpose of your get-together... so share the whole meal, beginning with pulling the ingredients out of the fridge and cupboard.

Oh, and – pro tip: Pause between the main course and dessert. Reconvene on the couches with some drinks, carry on the conversation, digest for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then break out the dessert. Remember, you invited them for dinner. If dinner ends too soon, they may start feeling like you want them to leave.

(On that note: don't, Don't start doing the dishes while your guests are still there. They'll feel like they have to help, or they'll leave to avoid helping. The best way to spoil their satisfaction at having contributed to an excellent meal is to confront them with the cold dishwater of reality. Cleanup can wait. They might be new to this, remember.)

Hey, talking of long meals together – when are you free? Wednesday next week?

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