Eating as a subversive activity | 1.

In 2004 a tiny group of us decided to set aside a day each week to eat together. Then, we thought, why not widen the invitation?

We decided to invite people for a meal and see who showed up. No agenda – just a meal. Random numbers with no set limit. Between ourselves we thought we knew enough people – contacts through school, church, people living nearby – to make something happen. We wanted to host a weekly meal on a regular day. This meant that over time, people who couldn’t make it, who might forget, or just not make it along – could discover it, and show up. ‘Showing up’ is complicated. We’ll come to that shortly.

So we started – on a Monday. With a young family and a small kitchen, we squeezed in others as word slowly got round. ‘Slowly’ is important. Like a ‘slow’ casserole it took time to get established, for people to find out, remember and nip along to our address. We invited people.

It wasn’t about inviting mates round. It was deliberately not about getting mates round! It was about inviting round people local, on the doorstep – random people we’d met in the week and had a conversation with. People we’d said ‘hello’ to in the street, and had longer lingering chats. More people were invited than showed up. We invited people we didn’t know, who never showed. We invited some people on our street week in, week out. Only in the last year have people we’ve invited been coming along, who we’ve been inviting for years.

In our culture, what we’re doing could be considered a bit weird. Polite chitchat in the street leads to invitation to persons home to share a meal? For some, this invitation into a domestic, private space, to eat, with other strangers is threatening.

Invitations are important. The option to belong, and to be part of something is key. We tried to make the invitation easy. “If you can’t come – no worries.” If an invitation is extended its very easy – no pressure “it’ll always be there – come another day, another week.” We then prepare the food.

At this stage we could discuss gender roles. Disappointingly these remained fairly conventional. Women doing much of the preparation, men producing the occasional signature dish. This has changed, with men doing more. We could talk about this – and there’s much to discuss here – Instead I’d recommend ‘Eating Together’ by Alice Julier and her discussion, for a useful critique. We are a work in progress. And this couldn’t be about the astonishing recipes and delicious food and flavour. If astonishing cuisine did happen – and it did quite often – then it was a bonus!

What is important, is a meal and generous conversation and time together and the quality of that opportunity. It wasn’t a foodie thing.

Our culture is obsessed with food. Stuff we drool, chomp, chew, swallow and then… think, talk, tweet about, Facebook and blog. Foodie conversations go in multiple directions – from flavours and food fads, celebrity chefs to the latest café and restaurants. The tastiest recipes are packaged up as glistening food porn, blistered and blurred. Food art to fatties, dodgy diets, and wacky weight loss programmes to eye-poppingly overweight adults and super sized toddlers – each grilled on telly. The good, the bad, the deliciously light all served with a side order of fries.

Eating as a subversive activity isn’t about a fancy recipe or a trendy venue. It isn’t even the food. Instead, our obsession is about what we do with the food, how we prepare it, who we eat with and how we host it.

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