We host a weekly meal open to anyone. Attendance is ‘random’, which is tricky.
How many will appear? How many are we cooking for? How much should we prepare for? You don’t know. And that’s the point. There is no way around it. The meal deal is an act of faith, that people will show up and somehow, there will be enough food for everyone. Some weeks we’ll host 15 or 16… other weeks it will be more.
It isn’t simply the numbers – its also combinations of people that are outside control.
A mix of people emerge to welcome, talk to, catch up with. But how? And what about the dynamics? You’ll be aware of the dangers in a random blend of people. To help sometimes we’ve identified regulars – a core group of 2 or 3 people – who host, keeping an eye out for those on the edge of conversation, inadvertently excluded, the collective body language of the group leaving them out. Some times the whole group functions as host – this is best.
Some of the people we invite became friends. Some of the people invited – or who show up – have quirky behaviour. Others have difficult, challenging behaviour. This is critical. Eating as a subversive activity is not a meal with mates. The meal is partly about eating with strangers or strange people.
You may need to think through your own boundaries – whats acceptable and not. And safeguarding if you think its needed. There are complexities and paradoxes about hosting community work in a domestic space – your own home. You need to work these through.
We’ll invite all sorts – including the peculiar, perplexed, stressed or homeless. Occasionally the person you think, you really cannot invite. If they make it, if they show up, if they share food, if they are drawn into conversation the meal becomes subversive. You, me or others may be changed in some way by it.
In the vulnerability, insecurity and unease of an open table there is grace, development, growth – and fun.
We could talk about BP.
BP would shuffle in with plastic bags, eat for a week, then turn and talk at whoever he happened to be sat next to, spraying people with words for hours, without interruption or escape. People felt trapped, looking around for escape. Brian, who seemed oblivious to this, persisted, leaning in. This wasn’t babble – this was a coherent and knowledgeable monologue – from Greek mythology, ancient monuments, obscure world war 2 battles to Mahler, Wagner, the Labour party. It was also unrelenting. People tried to manage Brian by interrupting, shifting topics. However, BP new his stuff, made connections – and went with it. People tried moving. Getting up, shifting seats. BP would follow.
Brilliantly, some people took a lead with Brian, welcoming him and pursuing conversation – actively engaging and listening. Within a week or two, the whole group was compensating. It was like friendly tag wrestling, taking turns, welcoming Brian and sharing our responsibility too him across the group, watching out for each other, like a peculiar dance.
When BP died in October 2012 the eulogies from those at thE Meal clocked how much he had impacted on them. Irritating, difficult, offensive, yet people listened, persisted with him, asked him about his life and got to know him for who he was – this obstinate, fragile human. Babble from Brian turned in to conversation and then, listening to one other, with Brian asking questions, tuning in to others around him.
So food becomes an opportunity for an encounter with someone different, a moment to share story and be listened too. For BP it was a moment of grace. “I’d wish I’d known about this before…”