Food and conversation

I got involved in an interesting conversation on Twitter today with Claire Jones, Mike Chitty, Tom Phillips, Jon Beech and others, which started on the subject of health-promoting assets in communities, and then ranged onto social hubs, via the large-scale pub closures which have happened over the past few years, which I wrote about some 5 years ago, here.

One of the topics which emerged in the conversation was how quite a few redundant pubs have been turned into curry houses. I raised the idea that food was historically a focus for conversation and sociability. It’s unlikely that many of these curry houses fulfill the same role as a social hub as did the pub they’ve replaced, and that is a pity. Food should be an excuse for conversation, but there are few eating places in the UK that serve this function. There are a few that do, obviously, and, if you know of one, maybe you could nominate it in the comments below.

I’ve been most taken with Tessy Britton‘s work on Social Spaces, in which she has been creating and re-creating different kinds of spaces in which people can interact with each other. I think this work is very relevant to this conversation. Our twitter chat then touched on Food Banks, which have been becoming every more prominent in these times of austerity. I wondered if the food bank could be remodelled away from its current stigmatised form into a subsidised community restaurant that encourages conversation over food and might also teach people how to cook. I realise that this model might bear some resemblances to to the kinds of things that someone like Jamie Oliver has done in the past, but this idea is different in that it might create something that could be embedded in communities and might help those who most need access to food as well as the skills to prepare it.

I’d be very grateful for thoughts on these ideas.



Here’s another idea which might supplement the facility I am proposing above.

Give the cafe a twitter hashtag which encourages people to propose conversation topics and seek out others to have the conversations with. Then give each table in the cafe its own unique hashtag so people can follow and join in the conversations physically, and online. This could be supplemented with twitterfalls on screens on the wall.

5 thoughts on “Food and conversation

  1. Britons seem to enjoy the social experience of mild transgression: in the shared experience and indulgence of vice not virtue. For ordinary people, it’s been the pub, the bookies, the greasy spoon, the bingo or – most usually – out the back, having a cig. We know we shouldn’t be there – but we find find friendship and fellow feeling in the shared thumbing of our noses at what’s right and proper, and especially what’s good for us. Everyone is welcome, as everyone knows what they’re doing is slightly seedy.

    The only other places we seem to encourage collective kindness to strangers are in mutual acts of penance. The shared confession of AA meetings; the penitants who are weighed and found wanting at WeighTWATchers and gyms; and Occupy camps where you’re taught to expiate first world guilt by tweeting sedition from £500 smartphones.

    The latter are overseen by zealous converts, preaching self-betterment, community and hope of a new tomorrow, and who have designs on your headspace. You don’t go, you Join. They are always eager to teach you something.

    By contrast, the former are more interested in your money than your morals or your motivation. The kindly women of a certain age – who most often oversee these outfits – withold judgement, smile, fill your glass, and understand that the odds are stacked against you. They also know how real escape is a gamble that too many lose. So they sell you the next best thing. The zealots who try to teach you stuff forget that they are the odd ones out, and don’t understand the rules of the game.

    We mostly play to lose, not to win. Not because we’re stupid. But because we don;t view our vices as a defeat. “Winning” would bring with it a whole new set of anxieties and problems that make even less sense than the problems we’ve already got. At least you see the people you know down the bookies, and no-one cares how you pronounce quinoa.

    So John, shared food may well be the answer – but not healthy temples to thrift and frugality. They have to be a bit down at heel and and deeply tolerant, built to accommodate people’s vices, not to purge them.

    • As much as I resent having to, I tend to agree with this sentiment – anything overtly designed to ‘do good’ is viewed suspiciously by those it is intended for. Any scheme needs to acknowledge this and be canny in its approach; calling the space “Trojan Horse” might be a start.

  2. I voluntereered at a community cafe called Lentil as Anything while travelling and it is a similar model to what you have suggested John. I have had similar thoughts, food banks are a sticking plaster not a cure, sharing food, learning to cook, accessing cheaper food sources (don’t get me started on supermarkets) is in my humble opinion a better more sustainable option. I have approached a few people about this and have been met with opposition. It seems giving out food and collecting it makes the doers feel good, especially when partnering up with a major supermarket chain; having social space where people can, well be social, and gain useful skills does not. Happy to have a private chat to you about this.

  3. I can think of several examples in Stoke where cafes are very much social hubs and conversation flows across tables: Spice and Dosa in Shelton, the Hamil Road Cafe in Burslem are two specific examples from different cultures. Nearly all our cafes are like this in contrast to those in bigger cities or more expensive chain cafes, but I suspect you would find the same in most working class areas. They have more diversity too, with carers & those being cared for quite often using them as respite and full meals are cheap if not necessarily healthy. I think what makes cafes social spaces is a simple switch in attitude and these kinds of cafes tolerate both, as do trains in some parts of the country: you can choose whether to sit back and join in conversations or to studiously converse with the newspaper/phone/laptop/person you already know.

    I think this is one of the most under-valued aspects of so-called disadvantaged areas. There’s no curation, they are just affordable spaces. I very much agree with the idea of linking food up with learning, but rather than reinvent we should look to work with cafe owners and, for example, women who cook for large extended families and pay them for their time as experts.

  4. Your idea reminds me of a programme on the Food Programme on Bereavement and Food (9/6/13) . A group of people came together to either learn to cook or to try to recreate a favourite recipe through trial and error. It’s a great listen – essentially a space was created for people to engage with ingredients, memories and emotions. At the end of each session they sat and shared what they had made. I’ve also heard of a group of people who have survived torture who come together to make bread – they find the physical nature of the bread making facilitates sharing of difficult experiences. Any engagement with all the senses in a curated space has real possibilities.

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