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Eat Dinner with Strangers

 

Table Matters

How the Northwest’s emergent dinner culture is helping reinvent a lost ritual.


Chase Jarvis/Songs for Eating and Drinking

I have hosted more than three hundred dinners since I moved to Seattle in 2006. Despite the sea of people I have engaged, you might be surprised to know I prefer to be alone. I don’t organize dinners because I “like” cooking for people, or because I enjoy being a gracious host, or even because I desire good company. In fact, I don’t want to know my neighbors. To me the word community sounds like a slow boring death in a long flat country.

When I plan a meal, a dinner, I don’t grab Julia Child or Martha Stewart or even Mario Batali’s recent release; instead my mind wanders to artists, specifically those who have invested in the creation of new ritual. I am moved by the early Dada soirees at Cabaret Voltaire, Gordon Matta Clark’s experimental restaurant in Soho, Yvonne Rainer’s work with folk dance at the Judson Church, the seminal work of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, and the words and actions of Allan Kaprow, the man who brought us the word “happenings” and penned such wisdom as, “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.”

In my mind I have a nagging feeling of a misplaced birthright, a sensation akin to the daydream that somewhere we must have a wealthy uncle we have never met, but whose fortune we will eventually inherit. Instead of money, this fortune – this birthright – is the promise of culture, a sense that our evenings should be replete with spontaneous song, inspired conversation, and food that drips with rich fat and sweats with meaning. We have a feeling that if we shift the jigsaw puzzle of life we will uncover a well of conviviality, with deep pots of food and laughter.

There simply isn’t a more palpable and significant way of understanding the human condition than to take part in a thoughtful, shared, participatory experience. I have filled hotel rooms, forgotten halls and gutted warehouses all over the city with the roar of communal dining because I feel very distinctly that somewhere we lost something.

At this moment, in our region, a new ritual is afoot. Seattle and the Northwest have a rich current of  “food happenings” and “underground restaurants.” The most interesting ones are not those that attempt to recreate a restaurant meal in a cramped bungalow, but the ones that embrace the potential and history inherent in the common table. The table has been the cistern and springboard of culture since we began cooking over an open flame. The Jewish tradition of the seder is an annual dinner enacted to illuminate the Exodus and renew the community’s sense of gratitude and embodied history. The Eucharist, aka the Sacrament of the Table, aka the Communion, turns the table and the guests and even the bread into pure symbolism. There is a richness possible in the form of the dinner party, the feast – even if you aren’t turning water into wine.

This important understanding of the interrelationship between eating together and creating art and culture together is implicit in the various common-table events emerging throughout the Northwest. In the middle of December I had the distinct pleasure of joining the table at the New Guard series of dinners hosted by Whitney Ricketts. I found myself immersed in a resplendent experience that included a renowned molecular gastronomist cooking course after course of high-concept fare while Seattle gangsta-turned-recording-artist Fatal Lucciauno raised his glass and sent a spine-bending toast/a cappella rhyme out into the night.

Peel the surface back further and you will find that our region is also home to the heady bacchanals of Matthew Stadler and Stephanie Snyder called The Back Room, which have more recently grown into a traveling exhibition of new civic rituals called Suddenly that found a home in Pioneer Square and Burien last summer.

Hidden away in a northwest Portland warehouse, indie rock god Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols is putting the last touches on a three-hour suite of music set to the sounds and mechanics of a dinner party, using the actual ebb and flow of recorded fetes, to create his forthcoming Tafelmusik (named after the tradition of sixteenth-century orchestral works for banquets).

My own wanderings have taken me to coffee farms around the globe with Caffe Vita to cook and eat with farmers amidst their coffee trees. More locally I have had the honor of filling my table with the Northwest’s leading musicians at events called Songs for Eating and Drinking with photographer and partner Chase Jarvis. I have even undertaken the absurd task of bringing conviviality to the I-5 corridor, a project that has included building tables, eating feasts and living in freeway medians.

What does all this mean? For me it is clear: the table matters. Eating together is of critical importance; it is a basic part of who we are, whether we enact it or not. Communities are created and reinforced and given meaning at the dinner table. And, to clarify, I actually love cooking for people, and I love good company, and I even enjoy being a gracious host; it just isn’t the reason why I do what I do.


 

In 2010, Michael Hebb plans to bring his lost ritual to more tables, with projects including Night School, his ongoing series of events at Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel, and dinners at Bellevue’s Open Satellite entitled “If My Table Was More Like a Boat,” as well as a series of town hall dinners with civic leaders. Learn more about Hebb's upcoming projects at www.onepot.org.

 

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