(This Tastebuds column appeared in the 4/19 issue of Sensi magazine)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
We come into this world mouth-first. The very first thing we do after making our entrance is shout for mom’s sweet milk. That’s the way our party starts, with people and food.
My recall doesn’t stretch back quite that far, but my earliest flashbulb memories are around a table. I’m at a table in the kitchen or dining room at home, or at a picnic table at a lake or a restaurant booth. Birthday cake or Thanksgiving turkey or a slippery ear of buttered corn on the cob is in front of me. Mom, Dad, siblings, odd relatives and odder friends are always in the picture. Very early on I understood that celebrating with food was fun.
I learned a lot about food from my Mom who reserved labor-intensive family favorites – like egg croquettes, stuffed cabbage and lasagna – for special occasions. My big tent philosophy of entertaining came from my older sister, Barbara. She loved visiting global cultures that revere food and family and consider celebrating as essential as breathing. She figured that food is everyone’s first language.
When I was in high school Barb had a party celebrating the fact that I was visiting her family in Florida. She invited amazing students, teachers and friends hailing from various cultures. We talked about peace and war and music and nibbled simple, high-flavor finger food. For me it was a new kind of cool fun.
I gleaned that the welcoming spirit of the host determined the quality of the celebration. Barb showed me that gathering the tribe regularly is so important it overrides the usual objections to hosting, i.e., my house is too small and too dirty and I can’t afford fancy hors d’oeuvres.
The Host Catches a Buzz
Once I started hosting I realized it wasn’t some altruistic, kumbaya, self-sacrificing thing you do to better humankind. For those who get “it,” hosting makes them happier than being a guest despite the hassles. Various studies have shown that social connections are as important as kale and Pilates for your health, and the brain chemicals it releases are a decent buzz.
Celebrating is not partying. You can celebrate while sipping mezcal, vaping cannabis and eating poutine, but not by yourself or with strangers. Entertainment is passive. You get entertained. The dictionary definition of “celebration” is to pay attention to a life event with a gathering of related folks. Celebration is participatory, and, at its best, slightly magical. You learn as much about your family and friends at the table as you do from 23andMe.
I have always been a celebration instigator. My 25th birthday at a Boulder restaurant featured seafood crepes and balloons filled with nitrous oxide. Nothing was ever more fun than planning a birthday party for my son featuring cake and odd foods he loved. For Thanksgiving last year I hosted the feast crowd in my tiny apartment and it was like the old days. I like that every-chair- filled, elbow-to-elbow atmosphere with too much food and drink on the table and all the technology turned off. It was an actual – not virtual, event.
The plague of ‘eating alone together’
Some may feel we work too little and celebrate too much but I am not among them. We celebrate and vacation too little and we are a poorer nation for it.
I have spent four decades as a food writer, eight years as a dining critic and a lifetime going out to eat. I watch other people at dinner and learned that sadly, many people don’t know how to celebrate … or are simply unwilling.
I see a lot of “eating alone together.” Everyone around a table at a birthday dinner is looking down at their phones. Eye contact is minimal. As they leave they don’t look like they’ve been celebrating. They look relieved. They look at their phones. I’ve always felt sad for them.
I chalk it up to an epidemic of loneliness and a sea change caused by technology. The numbers don’t lie:
- Studies show that the average American had 3.2 friends in 1990; they only have 1.8 friends today.
- Open Table reports that restaurant reservations by solo diners rose 80 percent from 2014 to 2018.
- A Cigna survey of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of people have feelings of loneliness.
- Only 53 percent of Americans say they have meaningful, daily, face-to-face interactions with other people. Statistics show that nearly 30 percent of U.S. households consist of one person.
We also drive alone in cars, vote by mail and get food, beer, entertainment and groceries delivered, further reducing our social interactions.
Social media is great for keeping far-flung relationships alive, but it makes it less likely we’ll have the eyeball-to-eyeball contact that cements personal bonds. You can end up blowing out the candles on your cake with family on Facebook Live and Siri singing “Happy Birthday.” Besides, the anonymity of cyberspace makes it easy to be mean and may explain some of the increasing brutality of our political discourse and polarized cultural life.
Studies show that having dinner with family teaches children how to talk and behave and seems to support healthier eating and body weight, and much less early use of tobacco, drugs and alcohol. Teens get better grades and sleep better.
I bet it works on adults, too. Celebrating together with food seems to civilize most of us.
How to Be a Heavenly Host
As a host I ponder the logistics from dietary restrictions to my favorite, the party’s background soundtrack music. My gig as host is to pay attention to everyone around the table and to draw them into the buzz.
Celebration food doesn’t need to be artisan, just profoundly tasty. Parties give us a pass to eat things we deny ourselves the rest of the time. I try to pull together treats that sound so damn good in the invitation that the guests can’t refuse. Social media and texting makes it easy to invite folks but, exponentially easier for them to cancel at the last minute.
Whether at home or a restaurant, you need to address the 800-pound “virtual” gorilla in the room. I try to make it a device-free gathering as much as possible. We turn off and hide our cell phones. If they sit on the table the sight entices us with tweets, posts, likes and texts. That temptation rips us out of the moment and away from the company. My modest hope is for everyone to experience emotions, not emojis.
It’s Never Too Late to Celebrate
When my sister Barbara passed away a couple of years ago, it was definitely not a funeral or a memorial service. This was a real celebration of life with far-flung family and friends. The crowd laughed, wept, made music, told tales and, of course, ate. Heartfelt tributes were offered by the newcomers, strangers and “others” from many nations who celebrated around Barb’s tables. It was exactly the kind of love-in with comfort food that she would have loved.
At the end of the day, relationships are all that really matter. I don’t feel “lucky” because I have an incredible extended village of family, friends and neighbors in my life. I’ve selfishly made them a priority.
Two of my best friends from college in Montreal ended up in the Denver area. In recent years we’ve managed to align our lives in order to meet for dinner once a month or so. The three of us together is a celebration and a reminder just how difficult it is to find people who uplift you. After a parade of life challenges kept us from connecting for many months, we started to wonder: Can we keep doing this? Is it still important enough? The three of us resolved to move mountains to maintain the connection as long as we can.
So, raise a toast to your family, in whatever form it takes. Let your friends eat cake with you. Invite a stranger to lunch and bridge the great divide.
John Lehndorff writes the Nibbles column for the Boulder Weekly and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.