Beyond Table Talk | Darra Goldstein

We discovered long ago that the simple sharing of a meal eases conversation and lubricates otherwise difficult discourse. But can we get beyond table talk to something more meaningful? After all, many of us were brought up not to talk about religion and politics at the table—in an often futile attempt to keep the peace. Historically, food has played a profound role in dividing peoples and classes (you potato-eaters, you krauts, you frogs!). Could food possibly be used to advance multicultural understanding?

These are just some of the questions I recently discussed in Strasbourg at an intense round of meetings sponsored by the Council of Europe. One of the Council’s objectives is to seek solutions to social problems such as intolerance and discrimination, and in an effort to broaden the conceptual framework for these issues, they came up with the utopian idea of inviting a few scholars to discuss ways in which food can be used to promote tolerance and diversity. Our session on food was part of a larger, three-year project called “Responses to Violence in Everyday Life in a Democratic Society,” which looks at intercultural dialogue, governance, and cooperation among the Council’s forty-four European states. Our working group consisted of Arie Nadler, a professor of Social Psychology at Tel Aviv University and a specialist in conflict resolution; Stephen Mennell, a professor of Sociology at University College, Dublin, and the author of All Manners of Food; Jean-Pierre Poulain, the director of the Center for the Study of Tourism and Hospitality Industries at the University of Toulouse; Kathrin Merkle, the head of the Council’s Cultural Policies Department; Simone Bernhardt, the manager of the Council’s Intercultural Dialogue and Conflict Prevention project; and me.

At the heart of our discussions lay no less broad a subject than the geopolitics of eating. We considered the vastly different cultures of the countries that comprise the Council of Europe and pondered such issues as equal access to food; the economic and social dimensions of food sharing (including not sharing, using food deprivation as a means of control); the relationship between food intake and aggression; and the role of culture in determining food preferences. We argued about whether the experience of diverse food cultures can enhance respect for intercultural relations in daily life, or whether the consumption of foreign foods merely bolsters our own need for adventurism. We discussed the relationship between eating and national or ethnic identity, and wondered whether food can be used as a tool for reconciliation, at a time when Palestinians are accusing Israelis of stealing falafel and Russians and Poles are both laying strident claim to vodka. Eventually we agreed that a degree of cultural clash is not intrinsically bad, and certainly preferable to either a false melting-pot approach to society or a culture that is entirely globalized. Food constructs a social fabric, and many rituals—from the simplest family gathering to the most elaborate wedding—culminate in food. So how can the act of eating be made to work for social integration, rather than against it? How can the sharing of food become a strategy for reconciliation among divergent groups? Not surprisingly, we were unable in two days to come up with definitive answers to all of these questions, but we did conclude that food—and more specifically, the act of sharing a meal—can surely further intercultural understanding.

As practical-minded Americans we may be tempted to scoff, or at least chortle, at European intellectual utopianism. But at least they’re doing something. In fact, the Council’s inclusion of food in its agenda for progressive change highlights the lack of foresight in American governmental and public agencies. For instance, despite all our Time and Newsweek talk about the high national obesity rate, what’s being done in the public schools to change eating habits at an early age when it’s most critical? Many schools allow only twenty minutes for the scheduled lunch period (including standing in the cafeteria line), giving children time only to wolf down their food—food often provided by fast-food concessions. I was amazed at the menu offered during a semaine du goût at Kathrin’s daughter’s kindergarten in a small German town across the border from France. To teach the children to appreciate other foods—and hence other cultures—they were served petits escargots en croûtes, salade de pomelos et crevettes sur endives; filets mignons de porc à la crème et aux champignons, gratin dauphinois, and a choice of mousse au chocolat or mousse citron. Now, I admit that most menus sound more delectable in French, but these dishes would be equally delicious in Pig Latin. All of us would do well to learn that one of the best ways to begin intercultural dialogue is through food, and it’s never too early to do so.

With such idealism in mind, I sallied forth to experience Alsace’s rich culinary culture. I dined on zander with Riesling-infused sauerkraut, venison in a pinot noir sauce, the famous Alsatian tarte flambée, and sorbet drenched with mirabelle eau-de-vie, all washed down with local wine served in charming earthenware pitchers. And because my visit coincided with the start of the Christmas season, I was able to sample local specialties like pain d’épices (an aromatic spice bread), bierewecke (a dense cake with dried fruits), and Chrischtstolle (Stollen)—a wonderful mix of French and German traditions.

Of course, the holiday season always seems to heighten the importance of tolerance and respect among peoples. But it’s not a sentimental phenomenon. Through points of both commonality and divergence in culinary traditions, food can help to unite, rather than divide, us in an increasingly fractious and fragmented world.