Over the summer my wife suggested that we start hosting a monthly dinner for our group of friends.
She had been reading about the value of eating together for community building and suggested we put into practice what she was learning.
As we watched the Netflix original series Chef’s Table and thought about the first gathering, we decided the meal’s focus would be recipes from Chef Francis Mallmann, our favorite chef from the show. Chef Mallmann is said to have perfect pitch for ambiance and presentation, and we hoped to be inspired by him.
Over the course of that first dinner and the four that have followed, I have become convinced that the table is one of our most important tools in building community.
There are many reasons why this is true. I will focus on three.
A Circle of Trust, from Family to Close Friends
Recently, Jenny Rosenstarch, founder of the blog Dinner: A Love Story, interviewed Sherry Turkle about Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation.
They discussed how family conversations at the table are different than conversations through texting and social media.
Turkle noted that,
With their families, kids don’t have to watch every word like they do on social media. It’s not a performance…kids have terrible anxiety about conversation because they are so worried about getting everything right. But family conversation is a privileged, protected circle where they don’t have to worry about that.
The protected circle that Turkle acknowledges extends from the family to close friends.
There is an understanding amongst friends around the table that sometimes people are going to say things that aren’t “right,” and when those things are said there is grace.
That grace facilitates deep conversation and sharing that would be prevented by the perception of needing to get everything “right.”
‘Fire and Food and Drink’
Sitting down to eat a meal forces everyone to acknowledge our common humanity, at least subconsciously.
It doesn’t matter if you like spicy or bland food, home-cooked or store-bought meals; everyone has to eat.
In the words of G. K. Chesterton, from his book What’s Wrong with the World:
All true friendliness begins with fire and food and drink and the recognition of rain or frost.
Eating, drinking, and experiencing the weather are all something that all humans have in common.
Despite all our differences, coming to the table acknowledges one way we are all the same.
The Art of Building Genuine Relationships
Sharing a photo of your dinner on Instagram and sharing a meal with someone are two different things.
As we become more comfortable building relationships online, we need to acknowledge the differences between online and offline relationship building, being careful not to forget the art of building offline relationships.
Writing on this topic in a recent book, pastor Jonathan Grant asks if “social media is stimulating genuine relationships or just simulating them?”
Often we fall into simulating relationships online. Sitting down to a meal with someone forces you to look them in the eyes and practice the art of building genuine relationships. It enables you to experience the whole person, not just the slice they choose to present online.
At the end of our first dinner together, my friend Aaron reminded us of a quote from Chef Mallmann’s cookbook that read,
When it comes time to sit down to eat, it doesn’t matter to me how people dress or speak, how they look or sound or even smell. They’re all beautiful if they share one simple quality, respect for the meal, the moment and one another – those who cook, those who serve, and those who eat. Such people are always welcome at my table.
Respecting the meal, the moment, and one another helps foster an environment in which we can fulfill our call to community.
Hosting a dinner may sound like a tall task, but it doesn’t have to be. Hospitality doesn’t require a fancy house, dining room, patio, or gourmet kitchen. What matters is gathering people together to build community.