“Would you like to come over for dinner?”
My new acquaintance’s eyes grew as wide as dinner plates, as if I’d just offered to have his children. We had only known each other for a week, and it appeared that I had overstepped his threshold by asking him to cross mine.
When you invite a friend over for dinner, you are not only offering to get your pots and pans dirty, but also clearly stating how close you are to that person. If your whole family join you and your guest, then the dinner becomes even more personal, and if you know how they like their eggs in the morning, then that is another level of intimacy all together.
The food you share with someone announces your relationship with them. Food is essentially a code that articulates social relationships, and we learn from a young age what food communicates in our particular culture or family. (Whether we choose to live by those conventions is another matter). Food adverts might emphasise what we eat and drink – whether it’s organic, local, or healthy – but who we eat and drink with is perhaps the most significant choice of all.
Eating is usually more formal, and involves more time and resources than drinking; we might share a quick drink with work colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers, whereas meals are usually reserved for special guests, family or close friends. The very word ‘companion’ points to the stomach, originating from the Latin companionem, meaning ‘bread fellow’ or someone you break bread with.
So why does food bring this delicious intimacy? Eating is one of the body’s most basic functions, like washing oneself or sleeping, which humans prefer to do in a safe environment; it therefore
makes sense to eat only with people we trust. How else could you run the risk of spaghetti round your face, or broccoli in your teeth?
Structural anthropologist Mary Douglas imagines social situations as ever decreasing circles which each enclose greater familiarity. These concentric circles of intimacy sit inside each other like the layers of a Russian doll – think of them as hurdles that may be overcome on consecutive dates: the most formal meeting would exclude food or drink; the next social circle would share a drink; then a drink with snacks; followed by sharing a meal in a restaurant; then an invitation to dinner at home; and the smallest, inner social sanctum would be a meal with family or even breakfast in bed. It’s worth noting that this is a traditionally Western European structure, although it provides a touchstone that is familiar, if not always relevant, to how people share their meals.
Who we do and don’t share our dining table with also influences what we put on it. If you’ve ever tried to make a meal in a hurry, you might have encountered the response ‘that’s not a proper meal!’, like the cries of a restaurant critic or fussy child. A group of people often share deeply held convictions over what is suitable to eat, when, and how. A ‘proper’ meal usually includes a combination of contrasting elements – hot and cold, bland and spiced, hard and soft – as well as ticking dietary requirements of protein, cereals and vegetables. A single, dry piece of toast is a meagre snack, for example; add scrambled eggs and it’s still pretty informal; slide a few hash browns on to the plate, whip up a green side salad and pour a cup of steaming coffee, and it feels like a meal.
Eating is a communal act that allows us to savour the food, converse and relax. Yet the early 19th Century sociologist Georg Simmel argued that cultures put such an emphasis on communal eating because, ultimately, eating confirms our isolation. The idiosyncrasies of taste mean that although we may eat from the same plate, each individual experiences a different mouthful; someone else can never taste what you taste in the same way again.
Indeed, structured eating is not to everyone’s taste. Douglas’ model would suit a nuclear family with a predictable routine, but this is not the reality for most individuals: young professionals live flexible lifestyles; migrants living abroad alter their cultures and adopt others; and some people simply prefer to eat whenever they’re hungry, rather than keeping time with an overpowering social clock.
In a fast-paced, rapidly changing environment, sharing one’s most basic resources of food, drink and shelter still touches the anthropological core – breaking bread is still the fundamental way to make friends. Regardless of the structure in which it takes place, the simple act of giving and receiving food is an essential ceremony. So offer a stranger some of your crisps on the bus; take biscuits into work; give the postman some breakfast. Sharing food, although a basic human act, can also be a revolutionary way to cross your own threshold and create a new community.