Perhaps food is the most important thing to people and something everybody has in common. We certainly crave food and can’t live without it. We eat different foods in different ways but perhaps best of all it is used as a medium to meet others.
Food is often the keystone to celebrate special events, to further a romance, to say farewell to a loved one, or to reflect on how different cultures eat. Even the means to get food to our mouths varies from culture to culture. Some use a hand to scoop, others use chopsticks, knives, forks, spoons and every one of these methods has its own etiquette. From a young age we are taught what is right and what is wrong when we join together for a meal. In foreign countries we need to observe the locals in order not to make a gaffe at table.
We designate certain foods for celebrations, cakes for birthdays, turkey for Christmas, chocolate for Easter, Guinness for St. Patricks day, brandy to ‘wet’ the babies’ head and Champagne for any function just to enjoy the bubbles and get a light hearted feeling of fun. Often poor communities will sacrifice a pig or a goat for a special day. Every country in the world has a feast day with a special food eaten for the celebration.
Many years ago for me having a dinner party was a nightmare. In the 70’s in Australia there was a sort of unwritten plan for the do’s and don’ts for entertaining. The cloths and napkins were ironed, the cutlery checked and rubbed over, the china wiped and the menu planned. There would always be three courses and each one was generally cooked.
As a working mother I stressed. Poured over menus, shopped for the best cuts and quality, worried about the balance of the food and whether I had enough. Then I would worry about the guest list, would everyone like one another. By the time it came for the food to be served I was exhausted. I could rarely remember the conversations as I darted in and out of the kitchen hearing only snippets.
Today I invite people for fun. A barbequed steak, baby potatoes and salad followed by cheese and biscuits is one of my favourites, or a grilled fish with fresh fruit. These days I enjoy my guests. The prep and the tidy up are quick and easy, shopping is a breeze and when my friends leave I can remember the chat and the laughs. A glorious experience all round.
Food can be unifying. My street has a once a year Christmas Party in our local park with everyone bringing a plate of finger food to share. I confess at being extremely lax in going out of my way to meet newcomers, so the picnic in the park is a boon for me and assuages my guilt for being a tawdry neighbour.
Recently I learned about ‘Welcome Dinners’ and I think this is the most marvellous idea. One person will host the dinner and whether it is a local get together or hosting refugees newly arrived in the neighbourhood it is an ice breaker and socially fantastic. Each person brings a dish that typifies their homeland. They also talk a little about where they are from and the origin and ingredients of the meal they have brought along.
For those reluctant to host or who don’t have the facilities a café may open it’s doors and allow a once a month dinner with the participants supplying the food. The café in turn gets business at other times. It is pretty much a win-win with friends being made, racial barriers broken down, learning about other cultures and understanding is cultivated within the community.
In two months I am going to live in Sri Lanka for a year and I sincerely hope I can join with others both locals and expats to glean every bit of knowledge about that country through food. I know there are wonderful Sri Lankan curries and there has to be a vast array of tropical fruits and of course lots of world famous Ceylon Teas.
Looking back at my five years in Solomon Islands it would have been barren had I not become involved with sharing food. Once a week up to 20 people would join to eat at a local restaurant, share stories and news and give support to one another. There was also an International Tea Group (sounds stuffy from the name) which is run in many parts of the world to welcome newcomers and lend a hand with starting out in an exotic country. ITG was founded in the 1880’s and has been going strong ever since. Today it is not always tea that is used for a welcome toast but there is always camaraderie and a union of like minded people.
So why not get together with a couple of friends and organise a shared meal to engender understanding in your neighbourhood, eat and learn about foods from around the globe and just have a great night out.