Culture: Dinner for one

There is a new ritual in American life. It goes like this: Whenever you invite someone to dinner, you must inquire about any special dietary needs. Because today, it seems that nearly everyone has drawn a line around foods that cannot pass their lips.

This could be because of allergies, moral qualms, lifestyle choices, health issues, or simple preference. The person might be a vegetarian who eats fish, a carnivore who hates carbs, a glutton who avoids gluten, or a time bomb waiting to be set off by a nut. (Asking ahead makes for a more pleasant evening than calling an ambulance.)

Hospitalization aside, one reason for this shift has been the moralization of food. Our dining choices have become identity choices, a way of saying, “This is the kind of person I am,” or “This is the kind of world I want to live in.”

This is a luxury of our age. The hunters, villagers, and small bands of Homo sapiens in times past would have thought it extremely strange, and possibly hostile, to assert one’s preferences in this manner.

When I went to live in Tanzania, I was a 24-year-old eco-minded vegetarian. In the cafeteria of a liberal arts college, that was one thing. But whenever I tried to explain my beliefs about the earth and responsible use of resources to Tanzanian neighbors who invited me into their homes, I felt silly and self-indulgent. My preferences didn’t seem to have anything to do with the chicken set down in front of me. Soon I began to feel that the generosity I was being shown was worth more than this idea I had brought with me. Rejecting their food was a rejection of the people, of their company, of our relationship. In Tanzania, the worst thing you could be called was mchoyo, or selfish. Meals were meant to be shared, and one of the worst fates was to eat alone.

For much of humanity’s time on the planet, this has been the norm: People gathered around the carcass and ate together. Sharing food was how the group survived, and over time, it came to be one of our core ways of interacting with one another, of building our community. “Eating together,” writes French sociologist Claude Fischler in his 2015 book Selective Eating: The Rise, Meaning and Sense of Personal Dietary Requirements, “is seen as bringing people together, and … eating the same thing … means symbolically building or rebuilding a common destiny.”

Sharing food is a way of saying, “This is who we are.”

Sharing food at a table makes us part of something bigger than ourselves. Researchers who have looked at the effects of family meals on children have found that when adolescents eat with their families on a regular basis, they are at lower risk for alcohol abuse, violent behavior, eating disorders, poor academic performance, and mental illnesses such as depression.

But America has always been a highly individualized culture, and as the demand for special food shows, this fragmentation is accelerating. In the past, refusing food offered by a host would have been seen as an indication of dislike or distrust. Yet today it happens all too frequently. A decade ago, when American journalist Pamela Druckerman moved to France (where the special meal craze still has not caught on), she was a vegetarian on a low-carb diet. But when she went to friends’ houses, they expected her to eat what they had prepared. No one cared about her dietary preferences.

The French are famously proud of their way of dining, which is included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list and remains strikingly formal: In 2010, the average French person spent 2 hours and 10 minutes at meals each day. This is partly because the French idea of food is different from ours. Americans tend of think of food as fuel, as nutrition; the same report found that people in the United States spend only 1 hour and 3 minutes a day eating and drinking. But when French people are asked what “eating well” means, they talk about eating good food in moderate amounts with a convive – someone with whom you share a meal. In France, 80 percent of meals are eaten with others.

In Great Britain a few years ago, a minor panic ensued when a national survey found that 65 percent of people rarely if ever hosted dinner parties because they were too stressful, too expensive, or too time-consuming. A similar trend has been seen in the United States, where the percentage of people who had spent a social evening with their neighbors more than once a month dropped from 44 in 1974 to 30 in 2008. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that in the U.S., we eat nearly half of all meals and snacks alone, and 65 percent of us either eat lunch at our desks or skip it altogether.

Is the dinner party doomed? And what would that mean for our society? In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, psychologist Sherry Turkle says we are experiencing a “flight from conversation,” in which our main goal is to avoid talking to one another. “We once taught our children to ignore a ringing phone at dinner,” she writes. “We became annoyed if telemarketers interrupted us. Now, Facebook suggests that it may be a good thing to interrupt dinner ourselves.”

Sometimes it does seem as if we are headed down a path leading far from Tanzania, far from France, to a place where we each have our own perfectly crafted meals that we eat in our own soundproof bubbles.

Hoping for encouragement, I called Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, hosts of the radio show The Dinner Party Download. They acknowledge the forces working against the dinner party: the foodie arms race, our overscheduled lives, cellphones, cat videos, brunch.

And yet, they argue, gathering around a table continues to be important – even if there are special orders for every belief and immune system, even if we are not all symbolically building a common destiny. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the food or the cloth napkins or the presentation.

“Food is essential for a dinner party,” Gagliano says. “But it’s not the most important part.”

It’s about the company, the conversation, the convives. Sharing a meal – whether at home, in a restaurant, or on a blanket in the park – is about creating a place where you can talk and ask questions and be curious and learn who people are.

“We would have a better society if we had more dinner parties,” says Newnam. “The dinner party is the space where you should be able to talk about everything. Where else are you going to have those kinds of exchanges if not over a table with food and wine?”

Frank Bures is a regular contributor to The Rotarian. His first book, The Geography of Madness, comes out this year.