The Sociology of the Common Meal


Supposedly not much has changed – Humans still spend the majority of their income on food and housing just as they did a century ago. Despite the many possibilities we currently have for consumption and entertainment the numbers show that the elements of survival still requires 70% of our income. Or do they?
The millennials are about to reach a tipping point: Americans currently spend more on eating out than they do on their groceries. While the revenue of the American fashion industry is counted by the millions that of the food and beverage industry is counted in billions. Food has become a branch of pop culture and the restaurant industry is steadily becoming one of the most profitable in many western countries which makes it an ambiguous expense if we think of it only in terms of a necessity. On the one hand Isn’t it wonderful that capitalism seems to be reaching somewhat of a stretch that has pushed us away from the enormous consumption of stuff in favour of a higher consumption of perishable goods that nonetheless leave you with a long lasting experience. On the other however, this approach to dining risks pulling us away from its biological power and social origin, that is, a place for us to meet and exchange.

We use food as a tool of communication. Whether an Italian immigrant continuous to cook a plate of pasta to reinforce his connection to his  homeland, a feminist might avoid meat to reject patriarchy or a Jew declines pork to practice his faith, what we eat, or what we don’t eat, serves us as a form of expressing different parts of our identity. Different foods communicate different things about who we are. And not only does one food or another allow us to communicate to the other person who we are but eating together – regardless to what food is being eaten – creates a space for us to communicate with the other. The medium is the message, wrote McLuhan, and in the case of food, it’s the eating that seems to often matter much more than what is on the plate.

The meal is an active space of exchange that offers us a common language when we have none and it has been as such for the most of human civilisation. It is where we are most human, and most similar. Endless movie scenes have demonstrated how the table easily becomes a place for intimate secrets, awkward confessions or devastating drama to take place. We are the only animal that shares food with non kin members and we have been practicing this social act universally for 12,000 years.

The power of eating is starts from the necessary aspect of eating. Biologically speaking, the need for food is the first one we have when we are born and the first one to be satisfied by our mother. This mere fact makes eating an act that throughout life remains a key to feelings such as intimacy and trust. Add to that than we are probably nicer when we eat because we are happier. Research has shown that generally speaking, eating puts us in a good mood increasing our levels of joy. Certainly, some foods have a greater capability than others, like chocolate compared to an apple, but all in all both will do the job better than eating nothing at all. So you understand why someone might want to have very important business meetings over lunch rather than in her icey office. An experiment reported by the harvard business review showed that students trying to close a complicated business deal has the potential to make 6.7 million dollars more if it was done over a meal. We could have easily had fishing the thumb rule for first dates but even if unconsciously, dinner was chosen for a reason.

In addition to the biological advantages that it allows us in creating intimacy sharing food with someone is intrinsically a matter of trust – “Murder at the dinner table is especially horrendous just because it is so easy to achieve” wrote Margaret Visser in her book the rituals of dinner. We don’t eat with people we don’t trust or don’t really like, and when we do eat with someone it can normally tell something about our relationship with them. In many societies eating together is considered a cornerstone of creating a friendship or a close relationship, exactly because in its deepest meaning eating with someone is essentially trusting them with your life. In the Ancient Greece, one was not allowed to kill an enemy combatant on the battle field if one has hosted him or even his parents once for a meal. Eating together has deep implications tying people together. Even the actual word, companion, is made of the latin words com and panis – That is, with and bread . Our societies see breaking bread as an act meant to be done with others. The meal helps sketch the borders of a group or a society, writes Israeli Philosopher Asaf Ziderman about the social implications of the Kosher laws.

The understanding of the possibile potential in sharing food begs the question of our current dining culture. The proliferation of food images on social media clearly show that we aren’t making the most of our meal in terms of human relations. The amount of occupation we have around what is being served to us isn’t even slightly balanced by the same concern of who and how is being served to us. This is rather a pity if you think of it – the more we increase our mobility and continue creating this shared global community we currently live in, the more food becomes a powerful tool of common grounds that we can be using to share moments with people we otherwise have nothing in common with. Georg Simmel wrote once “Persons who share no particular interests can find themselves sharing a meal—in this possibility together with the primitiveness and thus pervasiveness of the material interest lies the immense sociological significance of the meal”. At times of immense immigration, political conflict and general lack of communication between the gapping parts of society, and alongside the huge interest in food, the real power of the meal seems somewhat overlooked. Though the fine dining, food expeditions, quality products and the rest are all great, the essence of sharing food could be giving society a whole lot more. And boy oh boy could we use that extra mile.

Image by Natalie Shafrir


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