Food Is Social

Food is culture. You eat to live, but it’s more than just taking in nutrition. It’s about connecting with people, and with our childhood memories. Food is social. It’s the original social network. We share food.

When I traveled through Ireland and stayed at hostels people shared food with each other. They made more than they alone could eat. Sometimes they planned pot luck meals for a group of people who didn’t otherwise know each other, other times it was just “come eat with me” or “You want some of this?” I remember one rainy chilly night an Australian guy came into the hostel. He had a long conversation with the resident who ran it, and it appeared that they were talking about money, price from gestures, wallet on a string, etc. Then the guy left, head hanging, to get some money changed. He looked like he was just all in. I knew he’d be back. I fixed spaghetti. I ate, but still he hadn’t returned. I put the leftovers in the refrigerator. He was gone longer than I’d expected, but then, he didn’t know the town, didn’t know where to get money changed, and it was getting late. It was dark. Maybe some places were closed. Finally he dragged in the door, still lugging his backpack. He got a room and when he’d come back into the common area, I walked straight up to him and told him that I’d made spaghetti and that there was some left in the fridge. He looked stunned. Like he almost couldn’t comprehend, then it sank in and he thanked me and hurried to the kitchen. He ate ravenously and we both felt good about that. 🙂 Other people shared food with me and I shared food with other people. It’s important that we give food to each other; it’s a matter of nourishing each other in a way that goes beyond the food itself.

What we ate when we are growing up becomes a touchstone for us. That’s one of the things that makes changing one’s diet so difficult. We have favorite foods that go back as far as we can remember. Often they aren’t “good” foods, as in nutritious, but they nourish us as “comfort foods”.

Food is often social. We sit down to meals together. We meet friends and family at restaurants. All celebrations have food. Birthday cake, among other things. Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas cookies, picnics, cookouts. A friend of mine who is a vegetarian was invited to a cookout on a social network (as was a large number of other people). I sent him a recipe for my vegetarian BBQ Baked Beans to take to the cookout. Because I wanted him to feel included. I wanted him to bring food that other people would like and want. I wanted him to be socially accepted in a situation where vegetarians are typically awkwardly placed (or not invited at all). Food is the social glue that holds us together in many situations. It greases conversation as well as—perhaps better than—alcohol. People separate themselves out by being picky eaters or having special diets. Often this is something they have no control over, but if you’re throwing a party you have to be aware if any guests have life-threatening allergies. While I don’t bend over backwards to make allowances for every weird diet out there—because it seems like these days everyone has some extremely limited diet which is different from everyone else’s—I do try to have healthy choices available when I throw a party and make allowances for people who have health problems. I want people to feel included.

Being in a social situation when you have to politely decline all the food is no fun. It sets that person apart—and that is exactly the opposite of what social events are supposed to do. There really is something fundamental about breaking bread with someone and if that person can’t, or won’t, eat with you, it makes everyone uncomfortable.

One of the things that bugs me about the myriad diets that people are on now is that no one is eating the same thing. People can’t just eat normally (and yes, I consider vegetarian cuisine to fall within the bounds of “normal”) without breaking some rule (which is often self-prescribed and not the result of having been tested and having a doctor or dietician’s advice). I know more and more people who are eating or not eating different things so that it has become impossible for some people who are friends with each other to actually share food with each other at their homes or go out for a meal together at a restaurant because each is on some different restrictive diet. It becomes a barrier.

Food has always had the potential to be a barrier, but usually that’s a cultural thing. As something that sets people of different cultures apart, food can make people into “us and them”. There’s a fracturing of cuisine lately within a single culture (here in America); the result is that we are interacting with each other on social networks, but we can’t actually sit down to a meal together or relax and eat at a party. There are some people that have to have total control over their food, every single aspect of it. Therefore all social situations are gone for them or social situations that they can’t avoid become fraught miserable meals. It’s not mentally healthy to treat food this way. No matter what you eat, you need to have a healthy mental attitude about food, cooking and eating.

Vegetarian cuisine should not be a barrier to social interaction. It’s food at it’s freshest, healthiest, and most fundamental. It’s food you can share. You can make an argument that someone who presents a vegetarian with a rack-o-lamb is putting up a barrier to the vegetarian’s inclusion in the communal meal and enjoyment of the gathering (what to do when someone gives you a Dead Animal is another blog post which I haven’t written yet), but you can’t sustain an argument that a vegetarian is putting up any barrier to another’s enjoyment of food if the vegetarian serves spaghetti with a sauce made with a meat substitute. (At least not the way I make it!) 🙂 I see vegetarian cuisine as inclusive, which is what food should be.

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