InvitationA few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted this Serious Eats article on Friday Night Meatballs on Facebook. The idea is simple enough, pick a night for a standing dinner party and host a small group of folks every week. The outcome, however, is a more ambitious, though: “Change your life with pasta.” In the author’s version of the event “[f]riends, neighbors, relatives, clients, Facebook friends who’d like to hang out in real life, travelers passing through,” they’re all welcome at the Friday night meatball table. And perhaps predictably, she tells a story of people coming together and connecting in novel ways over spaghetti and meatballs, whether it be by making friends, finding jobs, meeting partners, or finding a sense of comfortable home space over pasta.

The idea of building community through food is, of course, not a new or even particularly groundbreaking one. Everyday scenes such as church potlucks, generations of women cooking in family homes, summer dinners in open air cafes, Southern barbecues, and communal dining tables filled with people of all ages underscore how cooking, eating, and serving connect individuals with one another and the world around them. Arguably, we’re biologically hardwired to treat eating — and the preparation around it — as a social activity,  done with and for other people, in spaces which nourish the body and the soul. But the mere recognition that food and community are connected doesn’t speak to the social processes that structure that cooking, eating, and serving or the reality that food practices often reinforce dysfunctional cultural relations. For decades, cultural studies, sociology, and communication scholars have considered the ways in which food systems — whether called “foodways,” “foodscapes,” or “civic food networks” — emerge, evolve, and disappear, reflect and reinforce gender, race, and other identity relations, and constitute the world around us (I’ve even started to consider in my own work how food politics, race, and social activism are linked, in the hashtag #PaulasBestDishes).

20130609_131807Whole Salmon Cookery, at the Pantry

While this isn’t the time or place for an extended conversation about academic work on food and community, I point to the general theme in order to highlight the ever-evolving intersections between food and community. I increasingly see intentional invocations of the term “community” in the context of food in public spaces such as restaurants, gardens, blogs, farmers’ markets, and even social justice organizations. One of the first places in which I witnessed the use of food and community rhetoric in a business context was at The Pantry, a community kitchen in Seattle where I volunteered to prepare for cooking classes as a break from my dissertation (and visit whenever I return to the Emerald City). In owner Brandi Henderson’s words, here community signifies “cooking classes that focus on traditional food crafts and technique, five-course family-style dinners, culinary camp for the kids, power lunches for makers who are itching to enter the food industry, food swaps for people who are looking to keep their cooking time social, and cookbook club potluck suppers, where we pick a cookbook that we’re excited about and invite everyone to share their creations.” An arguably analogous but radically different concept of community can be found in Barbara Lynch’s Boston-based Stir, which on its About page states its goals of creating “a culture of continuing education” through “special wine dinners, cooking demonstrations and dinners with visiting chefs at our restaurants.” Unlike at the Pantry, Stir’s meals mostly involve chef demonstrations in a fine dining setting.

IMG_8979Summer Berry Desserts, at the Pantry

A brief look at the websites, price points, and goals of the Pantry and Stir demonstrate that they cater to particular audiences, ones that can afford the luxury goods of time, fresh food, and cooking education in densely populated cities. That’s certainly not a negative in itself but it does point to the reality that communities are definitionally bounded in ways which afford membership to some but not to others. The concept of “urban food deserts” highlights the reality that approximately 23.5 million Americans “live in areas without supermarkets where they can access fresh, nutritious foods.” Accessibility, however, is only one part of the work of transforming urban food deserts. Social justice advocates and researchers increasingly find that participation in community gardening, education about food preparation, and a sense of community around new eating practices, is necessary to create new cooking and eating practices. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, in reporting on food oases, noted that community gardens not only work to improve access and knowledge to fresh fruits and vegetables but also operate as a means for building safer and more integrated communities.

Changing your life with pasta dinners is a far cry from the social justice efforts of urban community gardeners. It nonetheless highlights the ways in which local practices can alter the spaces in which we live in positive ways and sometimes even become vehicles for reaching larger populations. When I posted about Friday Night Meatballs on Facebook, my friends Mike and Alysia Cockrell Davis told me about their own community dinners for 12 consecutive nights during the holidays (it used to be 30 days), in a format they call Cafe Davis. Recently, they added the following to their website: “We will have a jar out at Cafe Davis this year – if you’re so inclined, drop a contribution in the jar and help us make a different in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham community.” In 2014, Mike and Alysia raised $765 in donations to support their local food pantry.

For me, as a professed introvert with occasional, inevitably exhausting bursts of extroversion, Saturday Night Pasta Dinners are a way to escape the ruckus of the city on the weekend while offering my friends the deeply personal and intimate pleasure of a home cooked meal. After all, preparing food in my childhood home was — and remains — an act of love, dedication, and care. Cooking was my first language, the one I spoke even before I spoke. My Nani constantly told me stories about how, as an infant, I would sit on the counter and watch her cook, while snacking on crushed tomatoes and butter (the quirky consequence of being the first grandchild in a Desi home). As I got older, my Mom and I watched Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Ming Tsai cook on PBS and collected cookbooks from second hand bookstores. Over the years, I learned to cook by feel, with recipes noted down with measurements like “some of this,” “that to taste,” and “enough to cut the sourness.” It should come as no surprise, then, that my first major purchase when I accepted my new job at Boston College was a beautiful ten foot (expandable to fourteen foot) wood dining table around which I planned to share meals with friends.

As a relative newcomer here to Boston, I also hope Saturday Night Pasta Dinners will also give me the opportunity to meet new people, connect with different communities, and — yes — maybe even change my life with pasta. But more importantly, they symbolize a radical openness to the possibilities of a new city and a new period in my life. The invitation that I’ll be sending out every week reads, in part:

“Every Saturday from August 29th to December 26th, I’ll be hosting a casual dinner party. The idea is to have a regular gathering where folks can get together and meet new people over a home cooked meal. I’ll make antipasti, a seasonal pasta dish, and a fancy cake — you bring an alcoholic beverage of your choice that serves two or more (per person, please) and a friend or two (children are also welcome).”

If you’d to join — which, of course, has the additional benefit of helping to stave off my social anxiety about the horrors of an empty dining table and endless leftover pasta — send me an email. Whether you live here, you’re passing through, or you just need a hot bowl of pasta on a chilly fall evening, I’d be happy to welcome you into my home to be a part of this small but exciting experiment on cake and community.