Feasting with strangers

by Kristin on June 28, 2010

in Love, family & community

I’m not a food blogger, but as I was on my way to Saturday’s dinner, I really thought I’d soon be writing a post all about food.

Jason and a few of his fellow amateur chef friends had conceived of a plan: A seasonally fresh dinner, held every few weeks, featuring only ingredients grown in home gardens or purchased at our local farmers market. There are so many foodie angles I could take with a post about this:

- The creativity evident in Jason’s chilled minted sweet pea soup, topped with buttermilk-soaked radish slices—a recipe he created and tested in our kitchen (after I helped him shell peas for two hours!).

- The ingenuity shown by Laurence, who, when he realized he forgot to buy local butter at the farmers market, decided to churn his own from local cream he had on hand. (Laurence also cooked the locally-raised pork loin using a little-known French method known as sous vide, and served it with a sauce made from apricots from a friend’s tree.)

- The adventurousness of Dan, who made truffles for dessert using locally-made fresh chevre dipped in the dark Madagascar chocolate he makes starting from cocoa beans. (Dan has recently started his own chocolate business, Flatlander Chocolate.)

OK, so maybe this post is sort of about the food, and about cooking and eating in season, and supporting local agriculture. How could it not be? It was all ridiculously delicious.

But as we left Laurence’s house that evening, six hours after the dinner began, I couldn’t stop thinking about my experience with the people. (cont.)

The 20 people who came to the dinner were treated not just to the delicious bounty of a lovingly-grown and -prepared meal, but to the experience of sitting around a table together with people who are mostly strangers—at least we were strangers when the first course was served. Jason and I knew only eight of the people at the dinner; several people there only knew the person they came with and perhaps one or two others.

In some ways, this experience seems entirely acceptable and normal. It’s not as if people were walking into Laurence’s garden off the street. Each guest had some connection, strong or vague, to one of the guys who organized and prepared the meal. And what we were doing is not odd—we were just sitting down and eating together, which is something people do every day.

But in other ways, it is utterly shocking and intimate, and all-too-rare. Think about the way we tend to seek out the most private table at a restaurant or cafe. Think about how we walk down city sidewalks or stand on public transportation, just inches apart from others, but don’t really see or acknowledge one another. Think about how much we hide behind our earbuds, listening to our private music and consumed with our text messaging. Think about how at parties, faced with people we don’t know, we gravitate toward those we do know, forming tight clusters that protect us from awkwardness and risk.

There we sat at one very long table, facing one another. People in their 20s and in their 60s. Pastors and medical students, farmers and professional violists, mediation specialists and chocolate makers. A friend visiting the Midwest from San Francisco, and a dad holding a baby. Passing the roasted potatoes and finding out about each other. Refilling one another’s wine and water glasses and laughing together. Asking questions about the food we were eating (Stan, who raised the meat we were eating, was sitting right across the table) and sharing in our common loves.  Learning things we didn’t know before from people we didn’t know before.

I’m finding the experience hard to articulate. All I can say is that I stumbled upon something I want more of in my life. Not just more chevre-dark chocolate truffles (although yes, please!), but more interactions with strangers—interactions that are honest, real, sustained, and rooted in the things that make this world a much better place than it often seems to be.

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  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Great post, Kristin!

    We were in Nashville a few months ago and my sister took us to this fantastic Southern-style restaurant. It was in an old, historic home, and there were just a few (huge) dining room tables assembled around a stone fireplace. So we ate with “strangers,” and it was delightful. I left feeling very full – in the tummy and in the heart – and also a little sad. Why is this such a novel experience? Why don’t we “feast with strangers” more often? (The place was called Monell’s. Best fried catfish I’ve ever had: http://www.monellstn.com/)

    Have you read Sara Miles’ “Take This Bread”? I think you would love it – touches on this theme, but in the context of the Eucharist.

  • Esther

    Oh I loved this post! I have been gardening for the first time this season and I am discovering there is this amazing power in being so connected with the food I grow and eat. I feel more responsible in some sense. But then for you all to be able to share such creativity with food together in a miss match of new people – truly beautiful!

  • http://amberRobinson.com Amber

    Hi,

    Great post! I have such a hard time as a natural introvert planning those kind of gatherings but I am always glad when I stretch myself to try more hospitality and community. I agree with Rachel, I feel full in heart in a way that I can’t any other way than being with others.

  • Matt Barnes

    That dinner sounds fantastic, for both the company and the food. My wife and I also went to the farmer’s market last saturday. It was our first time, but certainly won’t be our last. We came back with only a few tomatoes and peaches, but I think we managed to sneak some fresh tomato into every meal we ate that weekend.

  • http://www.ihatemymessageboard.com Tracy

    Great post Kristin. I always loved the experience of being throw together with strangers. I once took a sleeper train on a round trip to Copenhagen from Heidelberg. On the way there I got bumped up to first class and had my own little private room on the train. It was lovely and I had a great time.

    On the way back however, I was in 2nd class in room with 6 sleeping berths and it was so much fun to just talk and laugh and make friends with people I’d never met before and would probably never see again.

    I think we do sometimes close ourselves off too much from the rest of the world. There needs to be balance between space and connectedness.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Thanks for sharing the gift of this wonderful arrangement with your readers. I read the comments and noticed how many others recalled similar experiences. This kind of activity touches us at a very real level.

    When God wanted to affirm his promises to Abraham, he did so in the context of a meal. When King David wanted to express faithfulness to his deceased friend Jonathon, he invited Jonathon’s son to feast at his table. When Jesus wanted to show the full extent of his love, he hosted a meal for his closest friends. The Kingdom of God is, among other things, represented as the marriage supper of the Lamb, a forever-feast to which all the world has been invited, if we will only accept the invite and joyfully attend.

    And oh–at your advice I ate a meal before reading your post, but I still came away hungry for fellowship and Shalom, which is our true food. Peace!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Rachel, that restaurant in Nashville sounds wonderful! You summed up the feeling perfectly: “I left feeling very full – in the tummy and in the heart – and also a little sad. Why is this such a novel experience?” Why, indeed. Sometimes I think we set our sights too high when it comes to changing the world, and as a result we feel overwhelmed (and often end up doing nothing). What if we started by making an effort to do more little things, like feast with strangers? Perhaps it would snowball into something much bigger—even more profound and far reaching. (Btw, Sara Miles’ book has been on my “must read” list since hearing her at the Festival of Faith & Writing!)

    Esther, isn’t it great? I often get into something like gardening for practical reasons—it’s more economical and tastes better, doesn’t have pesticides, etc. But so often there are many other joys and benefits that emerge once I delve into it. Happy gardening!

    Amber, I’m an extrovert—I get energized and inspired when I’m interacting with people—but it isn’t always easy for extroverts to interact with new people in new settings. I definitely like to find my comfort zones (like having the same few good friends over for dinner in an endless rotation). It’s good for me to “stretch myself” (as you said), too! Thanks for jumping into the conversation.

    Matt, yay! New Farmers Market fans! It’s a lot to take in, so it sounds like you and your wife did it just right—buy a couple of things, enjoy them here and there throughout the week, and then branch out and buy a bit more next time.

    Tracy, your train stories offer such great contrast, and really point to this: “I think we do sometimes close ourselves off too much from the rest of the world. There needs to be balance between space and connectedness.” We do need a balance between the two types of experiences, but from my perspective it’s easy to see which one is more memorable and impactful.

    Ray, yes, there is something fundamentally moving about these types of experiences, and I agree, I don’t think it’s just that they’re novel/rare. There’s something else going on at the core of what makes us human and ultimately connected to each other. I’m glad you brought up examples of meals in the Bible, too, because it’s one of the things that makes me feel so connected to the biblical narrative, to people in other places and times, and to a God that understands (and loves!) who we are. Shalom.

  • http://www.thislittlepiggy.us Laurence Mate

    Kristin,

    It’s great to read your reflections, to be reminded what an wondrous experience this meal was, and to see here in the comments how it strikes a chord in others.

    Feeding people – in their hearts, heads, and tummies – I can’t think of a better description of the goal of these dinners or of this “Backyard Secrets Dinner Club.” When we eat something we’ve grown ourselves – like the red currants I harvested last week, or the blueberries I’m picking now each morning – these secret gems from our own backyards feed us in a special way. But when we open up our backyards, share this food with strangers as well as friends, make so many new connections, we enrich and nourish ourselves in so many other ways.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Thank you for your lovely post & sentiments. It gives me a nudge to expand more beyond my usual circle & I need that.

    Once again I wish I lived a bit closer, I have a few farmer’s market recipes up my sleeves!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Laurence, it really does seem to strike a chord—there’s something at the heart of a meal like this that we’re all hungering for (in both senses of that phrase). The key, as you said, is getting from that place where we’re eating what we’ve grown alone, to a place where we’re sharing in the bounty together. Thanks for opening up your backyard to this first, successful experiment!

    Elaine, you should consider organizing something like this, even if it’s just potluck style and you don’t know anyone who makes chocolate or goat cheese! :) I’m sure you do have a few recipes up your sleeves, and a knack for bringing people together.

  • http://simplycomplicated.me/ Michelle

    I believe you just beautifully described what community looks like. I’m envious of the food and rich blend of people and conversation!

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