Nancy Dent works in the People team at Restless Development and is a freelance writer. As the festive season begins, she takes a look at food culture and how we can all get better at enjoying food together.
Since being big enough to reach across the table and rob my brother of his last roast potato, I have had a firm understanding that I. Love. Food. I enjoy cooking food, I enjoy sharing food, I enjoy exploring new cuisines and flavours and encouraging my mum to try kimchi, or telling my best friend that she can’t live her life surviving on margarita pizza alone – so could she please try the chilli oil at the very least.
Without wanting to sound melodramatic, I have experienced a sort of awakening in my approach to food this year. Moving to London has meant that I now have dishes from every corner of the world on my doorstep, and I have also spent some time volunteering in a place where the food culture is synonymous with survival, hope and social cohesion. I also discovered Guy Fieri’s recipe book, and witnessed how a dinner party can make or break relationships with everyone you have ever known.
In October, I shared a meal with a group of volunteers I had worked with in the Calais ‘jungle’ migrant camp. We had spent some very intense time in a hostile and unfamiliar environment, working with refugees to provide access to legal information and technology as they navigated the challenges presented by the asylum system in Europe.
Our connections were built solely on the injustice of the humanitarian crisis we were working in and conversations rarely strayed beyond the situation we were witnessing. It seemed natural, therefore, that a reunion dinner in the sparkling lights of London, wearing clean clothes and having stitched ourselves back into our normal lives, put us all a little on edge – what on earth would we talk about now?
We didn’t need to be concerned. Lalibela is an Ethiopian restaurant in Tufnell Park, owned by the family of one of the volunteers. Aside from serving delicious food, the restaurant allowed us to spend a few hours exploring another culture away from Wikipedia and the news. Ethiopian food is ceremonial, and we ate slow cooked spinach and chickpeas from a large injera, which involved using our hands to tear off pieces of bread and use it as a utensil to consume the stews on top.
After our meal, we had coffee, which also involved a ritual that is integral to the hospitality of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture. The beans were roasted at our table, and we were invited to inhale the aroma before they were ground and presented to us in an ornate coffee pot as a tiny cube of incense burned beside it. It was (obviously) delicious, but it was also an amazing opportunity to learn about a culture in an immersive and experiential way.
I experienced similar feelings towards the immediate impact that food and food culture has upon one’s understanding of culture whilst I was working in the Calais migrant camp. In the makeshift town, there was a collision of nationalities from across North Africa and the Middle East, all of which have their own approaches to food.
There was a street of restaurants, for instance, that were predominantly run by enterprising Afghan men and served freshly baked tandoori bread with spicy eggs and spinach and plates of kidney beans, rich with spices and tomatoes. Each meal is served with sweet chai, and people gather around to tear off chunks of bread and soak up the sauces. Volunteers sat with the residents of the camp, cross-legged on wide platforms with shoes kicked off onto the floor, a tradition common to Muslim culture.
Conversations with a group of Sudanese refugees revealed a similar approach to communal dining. Their warm hospitality and communal culture meant that they were alarmed when we explained the slightly lonesome British tradition of eating a quick sandwich by yourself at your desk for lunch. I learned that eating alone is often a punishment in some tribes, and that gathering as a group for meals is an extremely important custom. Strangers are often invited to eat with a family in order to avoid the humiliation and heartache of dining alone.
These experiences have encouraged me to consider food and food etiquette in a new way. Whilst we live in a culture of #FoodPorn, with artistic photographs of everything we eat dominating social media and meals with friends, I am keen to explore the ways that food really brings people together.
Cross-cultural dining experiences, conversations about the ways we consume food, who we invite to the dinner table, the times of day we eat, attitudes to sharing dishes, which cultures partake in fasting and which enjoy feasting… these are all questions that can be asked over flatbreads and enormous jars of pickles, roast dinners and glasses of wine, steaming bowls of pho, sushi, or poutine, and we should encourage each other to understand the hows and whys of food. We must eat to survive, and it could be the first step towards breaking down the barriers that often exist between cultures – whether you are eating alone, or with friends.