More than just the food

When I was in Sault Ste. Marie last week, I was taken to Giovanni’s Restaurant for dinner. Immediately upon pulling into the parking lot, I could see that it was the place to be; even at 5:30 on a Thursday evening, the lot was full. The sound of many animated conversations hit our ears before we got past the vestibule and, sure enough, every table but the one waiting for us was occupied.

The older Italian woman who checked our proof of vaccine and took us to our table, I learned over the course of the evening, was, along with her husband, the founder of the restaurant. While the running of the business had been passed on to the next generation, the matriarch continues to greet guests at the door and visit every table at least once to make sure everyone is happy. The crowd was an older one of obviously loyal customers, and there was plenty of conversation between tables, much of it punctuated by laughter.

Our waiter, I was told, had worked for the restaurant “forever.” So familiar was he with the menu that he did not need to refer to it or write down orders. He doubles as the Elvis impersonator on weekend evenings and, I have to admit, I could see some of the King of Rock and Roll in his eyes and hips as he moved from table to table.

Our meal may not have been the best Italian food I have ever eaten, but it offered something much more important: a sense of community and people brought together over food.

Breaking bread — together

That’s what food should really be about, after all. I love spending a day (or more) in the kitchen concocting an elaborate meal for family and friends, but at the end of all that work, what I really want is the time sitting around the table sharing the food, talking, laughing, arguing – engaging and connecting with other people.

We have been sorely deprived of that for the past many months, but it looks like we may be returning to a time when we can gather indoors with others, which research shows is good for us.

British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s research shows that communal eating, whether it’s to celebrate something or is an everyday meal, is common across cultures and through time. His data confirms that eating with others provides both social and individual benefits:

“those who eat socially more often feel happier and are more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities and have more friends they can depend on for support.  . . . I suggest that social eating may have evolved as a mechanism for facilitating social bonding.”

I suspect that when people eat together they also eat better: when I am alone at meal time, I am likely to make do with a large bowl of popcorn.

As actor Stanley Tucci said in a recent New Yorker interview:

“It’s the experience. I mean, if the food is terrible, that’s sad, but at least you’re having a good time.”

The beauty of simplicity

With two food movies under his belt – Big Night and Julie and Julia – and a food and travel series on CNN underway, Tucci should know whereof he speaks. Big Night, my favourite food movie of all time, is filled with the elaborate food prepared by Primo, the chef, and his brother, Secondo, the manager of their failing New Jersey Italian restaurant.

All of the food is memorable — I left the film determined to make a timpano, which I eventually did – but more lasting are the images of the exuberant party where friends and strangers come together to eat, dance, sing and laugh, even though the much-anticipated guest of honour never materializes.

What I remember most is the final scene of the film. It’s the morning after the party, the brothers have had an enormous fight about the restaurant’s future, and Secondo decides to make an omelette containing nothing more than eggs and a pinch of salt. His brother wanders into the kitchen and, silently, they sit side by side eating the omelette; eventually, tentatively, each putting an arm around the other’s shoulder.

Some of my favourite meals have been simple undertakings: an evening with friends that evolved from simple drinks into a meal made up of bits and pieces from the fridge and pantry accompanied by hours of good conversation; a bowl of soup with herb bread warm out of the oven shared with last-minute guests, take-out pizza with fellow music lovers after an evening concert.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is lots to be said for the many rituals associated with a fancy meal. Coming up with a seating plan, setting an attractive table, lighting candles, making cocktails and pouring wine are all very appealing to many of us. And, for those of us who like to cook, there is nothing like wandering through cookbooks for ideas or re-creating memories of dishes eaten elsewhere; then meandering from store to market to store to find all the necessary ingredients and, finally, cooking.

Especially now that we can entertain with some comfort that we are not breaking any rules or risking getting sick or infecting others, I plan to do plenty of all of that. The meal will be the magnet that draws people to the table, but what will keep them there and keep the evening in our memories will be the people themselves.

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