Food and Community

My in-laws just returned from a magical trip to Italy (dying of jealousy over here!) and while they were there they stayed at a villa in the Puglia region. The villa grew all of its own fruits and vegetables and only served food that was in season. My in-laws were enchanted by this and also floored, as they had not really considered this as an option before. They founds that they loved the food that came from local, seasonal eating. Of course they did! It was home cooking made with the freshest ingredients and a great deal of care, attention, and thoughtfulness.  I. Want. To. Go.

So I came home from hearing all about their trip, dreaming of food adventures, and dying to dig into the olive oil they brought back for me (from the villa! It doesn’t even have a label!), and as I sat down to catch up on the latest and greatest from the world of food I came across this article. It is basically about how the future of our culture is picky eaters. That everyone has a right to be picky about their food whether for health, ethical, environmental, or whatever reasons. To a certain extent I agree with that. I do think that we have a right to make choices about the food we eat (and, of course, for many people it is not a choice, but a necessity) and I know that there are food choices that I have made for myself and for my family, some of which others would probably say are restrictive. I work very hard to be respectful and conscious of the dietary restrictions of my friends, clients, and the children in my sons’ schools.

But I also think that something risks being lost in a culture of picky eaters. I worry that if we fully embrace a “to each his own attitude,” we will be isolating ourselves from one another. One of the things that I love most about food (and that is really saying something because, man, I love a lot of things about food) is that food is an opportunity for meals together, an opportunity for community. Sharing a meal, sharing food, is so central to our families, to our friendships, and to our communities. A shared meal provides a common experience that can help to deepen our connections and our bonds with one another. And I am concerned that if we don’t have those shared experiences our relationships risk falling flat.

Now, I am not saying that people with food preferences or dietary restrictions should just suck it up. Or that people with dietary restrictions are ruining our opportunities for communal experience. Not at all. But sometimes I think it is ok to be uncomfortable, it is ok to push ourselves to try new things or to bend our rules, to take chances for the sake of community. Even if the meal is terrible, it will be a memory, a shared memory that has deepened the relationships of the people who were there. One night during their stay at the villa my in-laws shared a four-course meal with the owners of the villa and some dinner guests. It was a meal that they will remember for ages—figs stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in prosciutto, spinach pies, fresh mozzarella, home-made orchiette (which they helped to prepare!) in a cherry tomato sauce, veal, and panna cotta. My mother-in-law doesn’t like veal and really never eats it, but on that night she chose to be a part of the community and give it a try.

What do you think? Is there a balance between individual food needs and communal meals? If you are not a person with restrictions, do you make allowances for those who have them? If you are someone who has a more restricted diet, do you have ways that you try to either stay flexible or offer communal alternatives?

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