Marta brings dessert, Lisa shares stories and Blackberry Market provides food and a space to come together. Each story reflects communal eating in Spain, Zambia and the United States; each is a version of the classic stone soup folk tale.
As the story goes, destitute travelers stumbled upon a town and asked the villagers for food. When the townspeople refused, the travelers fetched their pot and a stone and told the villagers they were making “stone soup.” The travelers boiled water and a stone in the pot, and when a villager asked what they were doing, the travelers explained their stone soup, adding that it needed a few more ingredients. As word spread, many villagers brought items for the soup, and in the end, the travelers and villagers had prepared a tasty and nutritious meal for everyone to eat.
Actually, sharing bread dates to before the stone soup legend. God created in humans a need for food. God then showed the importance of eating together through Old Testament sacrifice and Jesus’ experience eating with others. Today, European, African and North American cultures all value some form of eating together.
The underlying truth is food is essential to life. Humans need food as sustenance to grow and develop. This fundamental universal need must be satisfied, and communal eating is a way to fulfill the need.
The act of communal eating, that is sharing food with others, goes back to the Old Testament and continues into Jesus’ time. The fellowship offering described in Leviticus 7 includes a communal meal. In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus eats in Levi, a tax collector’s, home. On the way, many other “tax collectors and sinners” join Jesus and Levi and accompany them for dinner.
Jesus shares a meal with his disciples on his last night on earth. He establishes his covenant through shared bread and wine.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul criticizes the church members who ate the Lord’s Supper in private, suggesting it should be an activity shared by believers. Paul goes as far as saying, “So then, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord,” in verse 27. In verse 33, Paul says, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.”
Rachel Marie Stone wrote Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press). In her book, Stone writes, “Eating with others is more than just a symbol of friendship, of belonging, of mutual trust—it is a living metaphor for our connection with other human beings as well as our dependence on the God who feeds us.”
The word “companion” comes from the Latin com, meaning “with” and panis, meaning “bread.” Companions are those with whom we eat bread.
Preparing a meal has different meanings
The practice of eating together is present in many cultures, but it may look different among different groups. Lisa Moore spent four months in Zambia working at a Christian community development center. Every day, Moore ate lunch with locals.
Moore explained what some Westerns find unfathomable in food planning. For most Westerners, “cultivation” means driving to the supermarket for vegetables. “In Zambia, preparing food takes time and effort,” shared Moore. She explained that when someone served a meal, that person had cultivated vegetables and grains by hand and pounded the grains to prepare them. Then, that person would fetch wood for the stove and cook in a small hut. Beyond that, the villagers slaughtered the cattle they raised for meat.
Moore said she ate meals served buffet style and ones pre-plated for her. A typical meal was started with nshima, a cornmeal product also used a utensil. To make nshima, the Zambian women boil maize flour and water into porridge, and carefully stir it into a thick paste. The nshima hardens and is used like a spoon.
With the nshima, Moore ate green vegetables, a gravy and chicken. More said, “Lunch was a time to talk and bond with friends and colleagues outside of work. Forging relationships was as important as nourishing our bodies.”
Communal eating has different purposes
Communal eating arises from various motivations. I spent four months living with a Spanish family in Madrid, Spain. Lunch is the main meal in Spain, and the family I lived with had a cook who prepared a large midday meal, served at 2:00 PM each day. The dad ate the food immediately. Later, when the daughter came home, the dad sat with the daughter while she ate. Next, the mom came home, and the dad and daughter sat at the table with her. This family valued the act of spending time together over a meal so much they “shared” the meal together even when not eating.
Only rarely did this family host friends or acquaintances for dinner, but every Sunday hosted extended family for lunch. Even if the family could not be together during the week, they always brought food and expected Sunday lunch.
The Spanish culture is more oriented towards going out, rather than hosting an event at home. Eating communally in a restaurant is different, but serves the same purpose of bringing people together over a necessary act: eating. In any sense, I rarely noticed someone eating alone in Spain.
Restaurants adopt the trend
Communal tables become more commonplace in restaurants around the world, as owners recognize the power of drawing customers together. Le Pain Quotidien is a bakery café chain started by Alain Coumont in Belgium. “Long enough for all to fit and narrow enough for all to talk, our tables are where friends reconnect and new friendships are forged over the shared appreciation of delicious food and good company,” says Le Pain Quotidien’s About Us statement.
The business spread as more stores opened around Europe and eventually in the United States.
Le Pain Quotidien believes community togetherness is necessary for person growth. Every restaurant has a large wooden table for customers to sit around, even those who are strangers. Le Pain Quotidien continues to thrive around the idea of a shared table and fresh baked bread. In fact, the café plans to open three locations in Chicago in summer 2014, in addition to existing east and west coast locations.
Anna Davidson started Blackberry Market in Glen Ellyn, IL after discovering her love for entertaining people with food. Davidson realized as a child that she enjoyed cooking for her family and friends.
In college, Davidson ate in one family’s home every week. “It’s still one of my fondest memories,” says Davidson nearly 20 years later.
With motivation to recreate that experience for others, Davidson opened Blackberry Market to expand her kitchen table to the community. “The space is warm, inviting, and a place you can see someone,” says Davidson.
Today Blackberry Market is a casual café and marketplace, serving coffee, meals, baked goods and to-go items. Blackberry fosters a warm café environment and offers dinners to-go. Davidson explained that these dinners also foster community. When Davidson brings dinner to her family, she says, “I think about other families doing the same.” This shows another dimension of communal eating.
Living the legend
The stone soup legend lives on around the world. Even though strangers no longer band together over a pot of water with a rock in it, groups and communities band together by each contributing to a meal. As Christians, this is something to embrace.
The Bible calls us to eat with believers and nonbelievers, with our families and with strangers.
Participating in the Lord’s Supper is one way to fulfill our calling to eat with others. Publicly accepting bread as Jesus’ body and wine and Jesus’ blood shows our acceptance of God and his work. The act of doing so communally as believers solidifies our unity as a body of Christ.
Sharing everyday meals together is another way to live out the communal eating call. Like Jesus ate with sinners, we must find ways to eat with our brothers and sisters. Jesus choosing to eat with Levi reminds us to exit our close circles.
Communal eating combats isolation
Forty percent of adults admit they are lonely. Admitting loneliness is hard because society judges individuals based on the size of their social networks. For a group created to live in community, loneliness is a threat.
Though loneliness and isolation existed well before social media, online interactions spread the progression. Users of social networking sites are 30 percent less likely to know their neighbors. Those users are also 38 percent less likely to identify their spouses or partners as close confidents. These statistics suggest today’s individuals continue moving towards loneliness and isolation, that is lack of contact with other individuals.
Adopting the habit of eating together combats the trend toward isolation. Too often families and friends brush off eating together for other activities.
Davidson explained that people often come alone to Blackberry Market, but added, “If you come, you can’t be anonymous.” Incorporating sharing meals into daily life assures we interact with each other, all while satisfying a physical need.
Invite family members to share
Zambian locals, Spanish families and European and American restaurants embrace communal eating. After all, in the words of Stone, ““There are many things that happen around the table that can’t happen anywhere else.”