A vivid image from Peter Weir’s 1985 film, Witness, sticks in my head. Harrison Ford, hiding amongst the Amish people of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, takes part in the community’s erection of a barn for newlyweds. The base structure built, the workers sit down at communal tables and feast on home-cooked food from their farms. It’s a fabulous scene, a spirit-soaring vision of shared purpose and the cohesion that flows from breaking bread with others.
Yet in the UK we’ve been getting further away from such communal eating. Solitary grazing has taken hold and so many home meals are staggered, largely because of conflicting timescales and work demands. So religion apart, Christmas dinner is a big deal in the UK, if for no other reason than it presents an annual opportunity for a convivial, leisurely home-cooked meal.
Why should such a nurturing eating experience be reserved for one day a year? We only need to look beyond the contemporary confines of ‘normal’ Anglo American eating patterns to see a world of possibilities. Back in May and June, for example, Istanbul’s magnificent Sultanahmet Square hosted open-air Iftar dinners, the meal when Muslims break their daily fast throughout the holy month of Ramadan; 15,000 people gathered at temporary tables to enjoy a collective meal.
In numerous cultures, ritual is accompanied by the sharing of food, and charity is joined at the hip with communal eating in many religions. Sikh temples (gurdwaras) in the UK and around the globe serve free meals cooked in the communal kitchen (langar) as a matter of routine, welcoming everyone from tourists to rough sleepers. Muslim humanitarian organisations cook up Iftar meals in difficult environments, such as refugee camps.
Last year around this time, I passed a greasy spoon café in my neighbourhood that had opened on its day off to serve a pre-Christmas hot meal to homeless citizens. It was a beautiful sight to see – a meal of dignity, safety, and companionship for people whose lives are often chaotic and frightening. I’m sure it uplifted the mental health of the people who took the bother to host it too.
Whether it’s sweetmeats served for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, or a bowl of matzo ball soup at a Jewish Passover dinner, any religious or cultural ritual that centres on the sharing of food wins my respect. When conducted in an open, inclusive way, it strengthens community relations. It’s harder to hate people when you’ve looked in their eyes and they’ve passed you the rice.
Although I’ll leap at any excuse for a one-off celebratory meal, surely a truncated version of this approach could be incorporated into ordinary life? Instead of that dreaded tray of sandwiches that turns up just before lunch at office meetings, what if there was a table set next door for attendees to eat a simple, decent meal on a plate? You can bet they would get through the morning session smartly and return more agreeable and better disposed to others in the afternoon.
Some of the liveliest allotments organise food parties at the end of summer when produce is most abundant. Everyone with a patch brings a dish they’ve prepared, often a taste of diverse culinary traditions. Events of this nature help people bond and escape the stress of modern life. How sane. How civilized.
In the UK we spend so much time agonising over what to eat but perhaps Christmas should prompt us to focus more on how we eat. And that means putting the life-enhancing experience of collective eating at the very heart of our lives.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won’t use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There’s a lot of artisan fakery about
Does your family eat together on Christmas? Leave a comment below…
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.