What is it about communal eating that makes it such a central part of our lifestyle? It is not, after all, the most attractive process to undertake in public. Compiling sustenance and shoveling one utensil after another into our gaping maw, and then masticating until what was once food becomes a pasty mess is not a pretty picture to say the least. Many people seem to insist on displaying this process to others around them, chewing with their mouth open, talking and laughing while displaying all they just mashed up for the whole world to see. It’s not that I am a paragon of social virtues myself, mind you. I am, to be honest, not one of the world’s most attractive eaters. My eating philosophy seems to be based around a sustained effort to get as much of the food to my mouth as quickly as possible, while failing to keep food items properly balanced on my eating utensil. Show me a plate of peas in a public place and will invariably drop several down my front and guarantee they be pressed and smeared into my crotch when I stand up. God forbid that I ever end up eating a marinara sauce dish in a white shirt.
Considering these handicaps the best ethnic cuisine for me might perhaps be traditional Middle Eastern food. Sitting on the ground around a communal dish and eating with my hands would seem to suit me best. And so, after a less than needed tangent into my personal dining abilities I return to the question that began this post… what is it about communal eating that makes it such a central part of our lifestyle? Although not qualified to answer this with any degree of expertise, I am, nevertheless going to try. All I can do is recount what is important to me, what is critical to a good meal, and hope that it strikes a chord with others… so here goes.
What I eat is not important; which is to say that I do not have a preferred ethnic food that is essential to a good meal. I do not mean that one could serve up freshly car-mashed groundhog and expect me to lick my lips exclaiming “Oh dear mother of God,” and dig in! I have had many good meals, some in Italian restaurants, some Mexican and even some in English restaurants (yes the British can cook good food when they try). What is important is that the food be prepared lovingly by a person for whom the traditions and conventions of that particular cuisine is a central part of their life. All that needs to be said is “Hey Marcus, I know this little hole in the wall Viet joint where the old Mama San cooks the same Pho that she cooked on the street in Saigon in the 70’s” and you will have a partner willing to risk gastrointestinal distress beside you.
I like others to order for me; to tell me why he or she thinks that I will like something, might enjoy a particular dish at a place I was brought to. Perhaps this is egotistical, assuming that while I lie in bed at night my friends are coming home from dinner out and saying “that Zuppa de Pesh was out of this world, you know who would demolish that? Marcus. Next time they visit…” This habit came from my friend Dave, who foisted this expectation on me almost as a requirement. Early on in our friendship Dave and his wife took us to one of their favorite eateries, a place called Amici’s in Trenton, New Jersey. Over several bottles of wine and conversations ranging from world travel to outlining the various stages of inebriation I turned towards Dave to find a fork full of whatever Dave had on his plate inches from my nose, “try this, you have to eat it, it will blow your fucking mind.” Perhaps it was the sincere inflection in his voice, perhaps it was the fear of severe eye surgery, whatever led me to accept that forkful there was something in his earnestness, something in the pure joy of sharing something in which he found so much satisfaction that spoke to me. Dave has ordered my food for the last 10 years… he has never been wrong.
I don’t like overly formal dining spaces. Our current favorite restaurant is undoubtedly Rick’s in Lambertville, NJ. Run by Dana and her wonderful chef husband Alex this small joint is BYO and cheerily relaxed. The two small rooms that comprise the dining space are framed by wooden walls and checked table cloths. Service is relaxed but attentive and Dana is always more than willing to sit down share a glass of wine and talk about the specials. Which brings me to the specials: I have never eaten anything on their set menu. Why would I when I have a blackboard of seasonal, lovingly prepared Alex favorites from which to let my dining partners choose. Sweet breads, oxtail soup, mushroom ravioli, whatever sounds good (and it always is), described by Dana and leaving our table with watering mouths and a ravenous constitution. Bring it on! Amid the red wine, passing plates, people shouting “you have to try this,” pulled corks and laughter, I have experienced some of the happiest moments of my life. Is it so strange to be so happy about a meal? It is after all just fuel for the body, or is it?
I like to be proven wrong with food. So often we approach food with preconceived notions about its flavor, texture and aroma. Tripe curry for example, would often lead people, if they even knew what tripe was, to unappetizing notions of chewy, smelly, rubbery stomach lining. While certainly correct on the notion that tripe is from the stomach, properly cooked it is tender and flavorful. Most people are unaware that the standard breakfast sausage in the United States actually contains tripe as filler… bringing an uneasy truth to that old chestnut… the two things you never want to see made in this world are laws and sausages… because you never know what’s in them.
So, in conclusion, I like a rowdy, informal, dining experience and the type of food is often immaterial. What, you may ask, separates this from a McDonald’s (which I have not entered for over 10 years, and will never see another dime of my hard-earned cash as long as I live)? Well, the fact that the prepubescent teenager with unclean hands putting together your frozen burger of lips and assholes is a world apart from the type of person that cooks my food, for one thing. As I stated above, I like to eat food cooked by someone for whom the food… matters. It might be someone’s mother cooking a dish from their childhood, something familiar. It might be a friend cooking something that is traditional within their culture. It might also be a person who, steeped in knowledge has tried something new, something daring. So in the end, food must tell a story, from the chef to the table, and that is what I like most.