Potluck for the 21st Century
Breaking Bread, Building Communityby April Thompson
Americans are eating alone more than ever, with adults going solo for nearly half of all meals, according to consumer research consultants at the Hartman Group. Yet, fellowship-minded foodies are bucking the trend by finding new and unique ways to bring strangers, colleagues and friends together for healthy, home-cooked meals.
Meal sharing not only builds community and camaraderie; it can also save time and money and minimize food waste. Eating with others can also encourage mindful consumption, a boon to physical and mental health. A number of emerging ideas and platforms from around the block to across the globe are helping singles and families young and old connect over food.
Linking Diners Through Technology“I wanted to find a place to create more meaningful conversations and meet new people than bars where people often meet up, and thought home is that place. Who doesn’t like dinner parties or potlucks?” says Jared Gold, co-founder of MealTribes, in Washington, D.C.
Within two years, MealTribes has grown to more than 200 members that can host or join potlucks via a private Facebook group open to area residents in their 20s and 30s. To encourage participants to be fully present, the group encourages guests to leave their phones in their bags.
Instead of strict food do’s and don’ts, MealTribes encourages attendees to bring a contribution that makes them proud. However, guests are discouraged from bringing alcohol in lieu of a food dish to avoid it becoming the focus of the table.
“Lasting friendships and business opportunities have come from our potlucks,” says Gold. “Even skeptics have come away from events feeling like they got the best-case scenario; nice people, homey environment, with good food and conversation.”
Jay Savsani, co-founder of Meal Sharing, in Chicago, got the idea for the “Airbnb of meals” after seeking out a home-cooked dinner while backpacking in Cambodia. He was invited to a farm feast in the countryside, connecting with local hosts over great conversation and delicious food. “I returned home wanting to find a way to use technology to recreate that serendipitous moment,” says Savsani.
Today, the platform uses technology to connect curious diners with affordable, home-cooked meals in 150 countries. “The concept is open; we encourage hosts to make whatever they believe in,” says Savsani. “That can be a top chef serving nine-course meals or a simple spaghetti someone offers for a few bucks or even free.”
Savsani says the meal becomes secondary to the deeper social interactions that can manifest through these gatherings. “We even got an inquiry from a local fire department interested in hosting meals to get to know people in the community better.”
Organically Grown GatheringsLilia Fuquen, who directs the Food and Community project in Virginia, participates in several gatherings intended to nurture community through food. Fuquen’s project aims to bring people across the state together to document, celebrate and share traditional, contemporary and emerging foodways, initiating a deeper conversation about and the connections between food, place, culture and community.
Last fall, the project convened more than 200 people around a feast celebrating indigenous foods, people and foodways in Virginia. The meal was prepared from locally farmed and foraged ingredients representative of the diverse native culinary traditions of the region, including greens, mushrooms, wild rice and fish sourced from fields, forests and streams.
On a more grassroots level, an intergenerational family dinner potluck “helps create community and a sense of family among people who often live far from blood relatives,” says Fuquen, who lives on a small farm outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
The workplace can also be a great place to break bread together, says Fuquen. Her office enjoys hosting the Souper Club, where co-workers each bring a key element like salad fixings, a loaf of bread or a pot of soup to enjoy together—away from their desks.
Rebecca Shaloff, a fundraising consultant in Washington, D.C., has participated in work lunch swaps, which she says promote camaraderie, new food discoveries and healthy eating. She also takes part in a closely knit monthly supper club of four young families in her neighborhood.
“We all value each other’s friendship and company, but there’s something about coming together for dinner that makes us feel more like family than friends,” Shaloff says.
Connect with freelance writer April Thompson, of Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.