“Food Brings People Together”

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April 28, 2019 by lucieromarin

No, it doesn’t! Food brings everyone to where the food is. What happens after that is entirely up to the individuals present.

I’d had ideas about writing holy thoughts for Divine Mercy Sunday. I was struck en route to Mass by this crabby thought instead, so crabby it is. Suddenly, I saw why all that schmaltzy earnestness on reality television about cooking and eating is annoying. I mean, if by ‘brings everyone together’ you literally mean ‘brings everyone to where the food is,’ then fine, but I don’t think that people mean that. They mean something like “Delicious food, cooked by somebody else, somebody who doesn’t mind doing the cooking, brings people into an atmosphere where, as if by magic, all ethnic and political and inter-family tension melts away and everyone is surrounded by feelings of love that prompt us to laugh and share meaningful stories and appreciate one another.”

Um, have none of these people ever been to an awkward dinner party? Or a dinner party dominated by one person’s favourite topic of conversation? Or a family reunion in which historic rivals said mean stuff between mouthfuls? Have they ever fallen in love with a bad date because they shared the same cheese platter as the date? No!

Any common interest will get a group of people into the same room. Knitting, animal rights, eating, singing, dancing, collecting stamps, will all bring people into the same physical space. The execution of that common interest (the quality of the lighting, warmth, cleanliness, organisation, and, indeed, the quality of the food) will certainly do something for the mood of said people. But none of this will ‘bring them together’ if the people themselves don’t bring virtues that they already have, such as a willingness to listen, to smile, to take turns, to refrain from nasty remarks, or to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and so on.

Sure, not starving to death is a common interest. But nobody goes to where-the-food-is thinking of his neighbour first. How many times has someone said to you of a party, “Oh, it was great! There wasn’t enough food, so I went hungry, but I was totally happy to the be one to miss out?” And yes, I know all about Babette’s Feast and how good cooking mellowed some grumpy elders for a while, but, you know, it couldn’t have done so if those elders hadn’t already had within them that capacity for gratitude which moved them to their real, though understated praise of Babette.

People are really brought together when they’re able to put aside their own interests for a moment to make time or effort for others. This is not what most food-transactions are about. Street food, for example, does not bring cultures together in the above-described cheesy way. The vendor thinks of his profits first, and the customer wonders if the food will make him sick. Once both issues are dealt with satisfactorily then the customer is free to appreciate his meal and feel like he’s contributed to world peace by eating dinner and acknowledging that someone else can cook. (I don’t mean that street food isn’t cool. I mean that rich travellers shouldn’t delude themselves about the kind of cool that it is, or how cool they are for choosing it.)

These thoughts occupied me until I got to the chapel, where they became an ‘Aha!’ about why everyone going to the same Mass doesn’t make everyone equally good. You can prepare the greatest banquet on earth; you can set up that banquet with exquisite care, and offer, indeed, a divine food, but there it ends. A good hostess will not lean across the table to slap some manners into her guest. Neither will the Divine Host. Once the invitation is accepted, it is the guest who brings to the table the irritability, the touchiness, or the sulks…or the habit of thinking out a blog post during Mass instead of being rapt in prayer.

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