How Sharing a Meal Is About Sharing a Culture

Christmas makes one think about sharing and taking part. Christmastime includes cooking traditional meals and sitting at the same table with family, relatives, and friends. When in the Christmas mood, people make edible gifts both at home and at work and donate food to those who don’t have much on their table. One of the ancient customs over here that is still followed in some places in the countryside is to bring bread to the animals in the barn on Christmas Eve.

A great film for invoking the Christmas feeling is Babette’s Feast. The film tells a story about how food can both enliven relationships and elevate us, making us spiritually better persons. It is a film about the beauty shared between dinner participants of different cultural backgrounds and moral values, as well as about love for one’s neighbour and redemption. Still, food culture has to do with sharing every day, not only at Christmastime or when other festivities are taking place.

Canadian anthropologist Gillian Crowther stresses that commensality — sharing a meal with someone, eating and drinking together behind the same table — is one of the most important manifestations of sociality in all cultures. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.

Offering food, no matter how plain, to a stranger is part of elementary hospitality in most cultures. Dinners spent together create and recreate families, friendships, and business relations. Assuring social relationships through food can happen both around the dinner table at home and feasts where those who don’t eat together everyday can meet up. Who’s invited? Who sits next to whom? What do the people around the table talk about, and what themes do they avoid? A shared meal is a social event where thoughts, experiences, and emotions are shared. On a more covert level, acceptance or distance towards other is being expressed, as well as respect or disdain.

In Estonia, buffets and banquets where people are mostly standing have taken the place of so-called “long table parties” (sometimes pejoratively referred to as “the jellied meat parties”). Mumbling folksy songs might not be to everyone’s taste, but a meal shared with large company still has its magic, something one doesn’t experience in fragmented plate-in-the-hand conversations.

Estonian ethnologist Reet Ruumann has pointed out that during those “long table parties” traditional meals are definitely important, but even more important is the way in which collective feasts maintain necessary social relationships. The fact that at bigger parties arranged at home the food is often prepared together – helping others out and having fun – isn’t of minor importance either.

A feast in a medieval restaurant

A feast in Tallinn’s medieval restaurant Olde Hansa. Image credit: Toomas Tuul

Feasts are definitely the most ritualised meals, those where cultural scenarios can come to life in their diversity. Feasts have a specific temporal framework and structure. The way the food is served, how people are sitting behind the table, how they communicate — it all has an air of theatricality to it.

The book High Society Dinners by Yuri Lotman and Yelena Pogosyan depicts quite well those both culinary and social shows among Russian aristocrats of the 19th century. Through the centuries, feasts have been a demonstration of the hospitality and well-being of the upper class, often doubling as an instrument for making important political and financial deals.

As historian Inna Põltsam-Jürjo writes in her book From Feast to Famine: Eating and Drinking in the Medieval Tallinn, here, too, meals made of swans or even peacock, exotic fruits, and dishes flavoured with expensive spices have been brought to the table during lavish feasts. Of course, Estonian peasants had it far more modestly, but still, when holidays and important events came along, a lot of meat was put on the table as a sign of symbolic abundance. For weddings, guests mostly brought along hog heads and trotters of their own, so that sometimes people sitting across the table couldn’t even be seen from behind all the food.

The cultural rules and etiquette of eating are connected to a shared meal. Margaret Visser, the author of many popular books about the history and culture of food, has emphasised that learning good manners often starts at the dinner table. Family dinners teach us more than just food-related values and dining conventions. We also learn moral virtues, such as generosity, discipline, and respect. Good manners are related to the rules of sharing as well: offering food to others, waiting after others, not taking portions that are too large.

You have probably heard caveats such as: “One doesn’t talk while eating!”, “Don’t slurp!”, “Don’t play with the food!” Have you ever thought about which cultural values have brought along rules such as these or where they come from? For example, slurping while eating noodles is well accepted in China and Japan, as it is a sign that the food is delicious and a way to praise the cook. Still, one has to be able to slurp in a cultured way!

Of course, sharing can have an element of being forced as well. Out of respect and politeness, we must eat things we don’t find that tasty or more than we’d actually like to. For many grannies and mothers, food is a way to express caring, and when we don’t eat their food it’s as though we are rejecting their love.

In his brand-new book Exploring Everyday Life, Richard Wilk, an American anthropologist, argues that often it is the non-verbalised rules for eating, little routines and habits that over time become the naturally acquired, invisible part of our everyday life, our identity. Only when we start eating and cooking with others, people outside our family circle or culture, do important differences appear. We start to see the way we crack the egg or make coffee as the only way to do those things, and it is hard to accept that someone else might do it another way.

For couples just starting to live together, cooking and eating can often be the first touchstones during the journey of adapting to each other. When tensions grow too great, making fun of one’s own culinary wisdoms and eating habits might be the best solution. Shared laughter also helps to mend and strengthen relationships.

Ester Bardone is a researcher at the Department of Ethnology of the UT Institute for Cultural Research and Fine Arts.

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