About Community Dining

“We do not and cannot always argue with our friends, even though we scorn the dictums of formal etiquette.  But because we do not argue, it does not follow that we gain nothing. In fact, ordinary conversation has numerous advantages over debate, not the least of which is the comparative freedom it gives from prejudice.

But the value of conversation depends both on what we talk about and whom we talk with. Too much of our talk is on petty matters, is un-educative.  And even if we converse on worthy topics, it will profit us little if we do not talk with worthy people.  When we commune with a dull mind, our thoughts are forced, in some degree, down to the level of that mind.  But dull people do not usually talk of weighty matters, nor do active intellects dwell long on trifles.  Therefore if we rightly choose our companion we can conscientiously leave our path of conversation to choose itself.

One aspect of conversation remains to be treated — its corrective power.  “There is a sort of mental exposure in talking to a companion; we drag our thoughts out of their hiding-places, naked as it were, and occasionally we are not a little startled at the exhibition.  Unexpressed ideas are often carefully cherished until, placed before other eyes as well as our own, we see them as they really are.”

Henry Hazlitt

Author and Journalist

“Picture to yourself a society which comprises all of the world – English, French, German:  people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word, a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness 100 times greater than our own.   How are they welded onto one people?  By community of interests.  That is the secret!”  Alexis De Tocqueville

Sociologist, political theorist, and historian

When I first started Community Dining, I simply sought to bring people together to support restaurants and other venues that focus on sourcing from local and sustainable organic farms and provide a forum to share ideas about health, wellness, and nutrition.  However, as the group has evolved, I have come to intuitively understand that spontaneous conversations taking place among a group of strangers united for a common purpose over a shared meal create an experience and mechanism for community engagement that transcend beyond the mere act of eating:  an opportunity to stimulate curiosity, playfulness, and sociability that we naturally had as children (which psychologist and research professor Peter Gray cites as the three core aspects of human nature) as well as interactions with worthy companions who provide us the opportunity to forge integrated, heartfelt social bonds and aid in our development as self-directed human beings by giving our thoughts and ideas the mental exposure they need to grow.

These face-to-face connections now carry special significance because of the decline in community engagement described by political scientist and Harvard professor of public policy Robert Putnam:

“The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so.  Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent.  (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly.  Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.)  The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes.  The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo.  Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.”

We must be careful not to substitute networks for substantive social relationships, however, because networks only create a façade.  Former public school teacher of the year and author John Taylor Gatto elaborates:
Networks, even good ones, drain vitality from communities and families.  They provide mechanical solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self-awareness, self discovery, and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.  Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human.  Networks, however, don’t require the whole person, but only a narrow piece.  If you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part – a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to.  In exchange, the network will deliver efficiency in the pursuit of some limited aim.  This is, in fact, a devil’s bargain, since on the promise of some future gain, one must surrender the wholeness of one’s present humanity.  If you enter into too many of these bargains you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human.  And no time is available to reintegrate successful networkers and doubtless generates much business for divorce courts and therapists of a variety of persuasions.”

This idea of bringing our whole selves may feel foreign given how many gatherings we attend whose purpose only applies to sharing the part of ourselves that people want from us, but true communities provide more sustainable long-term social nourishment than networks much like a nutrient-rich diet vs. one based on foods that simply provide a quick energy boost.  I credit Gatto for his ability to clearly express what I never could:  that so many people I have connected with over the years don’t meet the criteria of a true friend, and that many of these same people likely (and rightfully) view me the same way because we are all simply part of each others’ network, where we only share parts of ourselves for limited mutual gain while sacrificing deeper human contact that ultimately provides greater personal growth.

So when I bring up the concept of community dining and connecting with others through shared meals and substantive conversations and see the way people react, it seems like I’ve rediscovered an experience people need more of and that for this reason, the pervasiveness of networks lacking substance and promoting only thin human contact fail to provide true fulfillment. (For more information on this topic, feel free to check out my blog post “Communities vs. Networks”)

In summary, whether we express ourselves through regular social gatherings focusing on how we can optimally eat (i.e. vegan/vegetarian or paleo diet/lifestyle), the connection between food and medicine, deeper questions about life and spirituality, (i.e. the ethical treatment of animals, our treatment of the environment, how we can feed the world, etc…) important community issues and how to address community conflicts, or simply how we can better connect with each other in our own neighborhoods and meet new people, community dining makes it possible to further engage in the world around us.

– Paul Sippil