Eat Together, Damn it

Our country is divided. People are angry. Neighbors have become enemies.

The fix might be food. What we eat and how we eat it could repair the divisions in our communities and our world.

A study by researchers from the University of Chicago asked whether sharing the same food would influence trust and collaboration with strangers.

The answer was yes.

As they detailed in the January 2017 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, their study found that strangers resolved disputes more quickly and acted more generously after sharing food. People that eat similar foods or just believe that they eat similar foods feel closer to each other and trust each other more. Sharing food, the researchers found, created a faster and better bond than eating different foods or sharing similar clothes—even when they don’t speak.

“The goal should be to find commonality in our food (rather than point out differences).” Kaitlin Woolley, a researcher in the study, says. “Pointing out how the meals are different, works against any perception that our food is similar.”

Maybe Instagramming that #upcycled #vegan #glutenfree #local #organic #paleo #instantpot #yummy soup springs from a desire to break actual bread with someone else. But what happens in person, when we cater to our food allergies, intolerances and preferences?

“Apparently, as long as people perceive similarity in the food they eat with others, there will be positive consequences for trust and cooperation,” Woolley says. “If we’re eating pizza with different toppings, and I view the meal as ‘we’re both eating pizza,’ then it’s likely I’ll feel closer to you and trust you more as a result than if I think of our meals as ‘I have veggie and you have pepperoni pizza.’”

Woolley and research partner Ayelet Fishbach are looking into whether eating the same plate of food, as you would in a Chinese restaurant, has more impact than eating the same dish but served individually.

Historically, commensality (yes, a word that means eating together) has been an element of diplomacy as far back as Ancient Greece. Aristotle in his book, Politics, emphasized the value of common meals in a community as “a bond of solidarity.” The word companion literally means “person with whom we break bread.”

Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches Conflict Cuisine: An Introduction to War and Peace around the Dinner Table at American University’s School of International Service tells me that “coming around the table” is what distinguishes us as humans. “It’s an ancient practice that has been documented in prehistoric time.” The new term for healing conflict through food is “Culinary Diplomacy.”

So, in 2018, let’s all try to get around a table and share some food. Don’t talk about what makes each bite of yours special. Instead, focus on what you share.