“Would you like to come in for coffee?” – you may have been lucky enough to hear that question recently (I, for one, love a strong cup of coffee any time of day), but it doesn’t always mean one thing. A recent misunderstanding over exactly what a ‘coffee’ entailed led me to ponder what it means to share a drink or a meal with someone. Who you invite to dinner is not just a question of availability, but a complex expression of structured social relations.
Sharing food is a defining moment of kinship, family and religion. Food can be as ceremonious as it is scrumptious; one only has to look to the Last Supper, sharing challah bread on the Sabbath, or food offerings at puja ceremonies to see that grub fills more than our stomachs. Food brings a touch of ceremony to the everyday: A cheeky pint; drinks and nibbles; grabbing a sandwich; “let’s do lunch”; eating out at a restaurant; sharing a home-cooked meal. Each step includes steadily more food, and more time invested in it. Although drinks alter the tone, the emphasis throughout this concentric progression of formality and intimacy, is on food.
We share drinks with work colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers, whereas meals are for family, close friends, or invited guests. The very word ‘companion’ is centred on food, as it originates from the Latin companionem, which literally means ‘bread fellow’ or someone with whom you break bread. Like PMS and chocolate, friends and food are a fail-safe combination. There’s nothing like that warm fuzzy feeling after an evening spent round a dinner table with friends, and even a natter over a biscuit and a cup of tea has its particular intimacy.
So why does food bring this delicious intimacy? Eating is one of the body’s parasympathetic activities like breastfeeding or sleeping, that humans prefer to do in a safe environment, it would therefore make sense that we only do it with people we trust. How else could you run the risk of spaghetti round your face, or broccoli in your teeth unless you trusted your fellow dinner? The anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that food, much more than drink, establishes trust because one meal is indicative of how we eat throughout our lives.
Douglas argues that for something to be considered a ‘proper’ meal, it has to have a stressed and two unstressed components, in the same way that we use emphasis or stress in our voice to make a point. Protein (stressed) could be accompanied by a carbohydrate and vegetable (unstressed), for example. Which goes some way to explain why a plate of meat, fish and tofu seems a little one-sided, or vegetable soup with noodles, parsley and grated cheese is more of a ‘proper’ meal than plain broth. Canapés are essentially a mock meal, composed of a cereal base (unstressed), with meat or other protein (stressed), and a sauce or pickle to garnish (unstressed). Although this pattern has a lot to do with nutritional balance, it also provides aesthetic satisfaction like any tri-part structure.
This stressed and unstressed pattern continues throughout the day. We can argue about whether breakfast, lunch or dinner should be the main meal of the day, but the other two meals will be lighter in comparison. If the end of your day culminates in the most important meal, so does the end of the week traditionally culminate in the Sunday roast, and the end of the year with Christmas dinner. There is certain comfort to be drawn from orderly eating; that ‘food’ should be solid, not liquid, or that dessert comes after the main course, not before you’ve even said the word aperitif. It is easier to enjoy a meal completely when we can relax without fear of nasty surprises.
By sharing a meal with someone, you are not just sharing one meal, but revealing your yearlong cycle of eating. The weekday lunch has its place precisely because it is not Sunday dinner – whatever that ‘means’ in your household. Entertaining can become stressful if one feels the pressure to perform a meal in accordance with a socially constructed ideal of how we should eat. Even if you enjoy low-maintenance food like take-away or cereal for dinner, it’s not a meal you might share with a friend unless they were very close – and sharing informal food is more intimate and enjoyable precisely because it is not saturated with social niceties.
Eating is a communal act that allows us to dwell on the food, converse and relax. Yet the early nineteenth century sociologist and, perhaps rather lonely, theorist, Georg Simmel argued that we put such an emphasis on communal eating because it ultimately confirms our isolation. The idiosyncrasies of taste mean that although we may eat from the same plate, we experience each mouthful as individuals; someone else can never taste what you taste in the same way.
As we eat on the move, on the street, alone, in canteens, or in our car, common mealtimes are in a constant state of flux. The state of the nation may be blamed on the fact that families don’t sit down to eat together, but sharing food is a practise you can bring into any area of your life. If you’re feeling lonely, offer a stranger some of your crisps on the bus. Take some biscuits into work. Give the postman some breakfast. In a world of increasing isolation, we can transcend our own boundaries of intimacy through food.