This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Shared Plates: How Eating Together Makes Us Human, first released on June 2, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SAMIN NOSRAT: Basically I just missed gathering with people. I miss cooking for other people, I miss sitting around a dinner table and sharing a meal and I suspect you do, too. So I thought that together we can all have a party!
NICOLA TWILLEY: You got the invite, right? The big lasagna party?
CYNTHIA GRABER: I did, I got the invitation, as did all the readers of The New York Times and everyone who follows Samin on social media, and I quickly put it on my calendar. Make lasagna, join Samin Nosrat and a few thousand of her friends on Instagram live to eat said lasagna.
TWILLEY: I mean, what else is on our calendars these days? Which is kind of Samin’s point: back in the good old days, I used to have dinner with friends all the time—at my house, at their houses, at a restaurant.
GRABER: My partner Tim and I would have people over probably twice a week most weeks, and, yeah, I also love going out with friends to restaurants, and I have to say, it’s one of the things I miss the most these days. I, of course, am Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
GRABER: And Samin’s huge online carb fest got us thinking—why do we love group, communal meals so much? What is it about them that’s so special?
TWILLEY: Is there any science to back up that feeling that eating together brings us closer? And what can we learn from Emily Post, the Earl of Warwick, and 23,000 French mayors about how to pull off the perfect dinner party—online if necessary?
GRABER: Once again, we want to thank all of you listeners who’ve been able to support the show. We are a two-woman independent show, and we rely on your support to do this all! And we also want to give a special shout-out to a few of our supreme fans at or above the $10 an episode or $20 a month level, or an equivalent one-time donation, and that’s Kevin Dykes, Mimi Benjamin, Megan Greenfield, Franziska Schnellman, Kate Kelly, Sue Horne, Anthony Hill, Sophie Treillard, Bill Rockenbeck and Emma Rockenbeck, Jeremy Umansky, Ginka, Zao Huang, and Jay Brown.
TWILLEY: Samin Nosrat is author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—she’s been on the show before to talk about sharbat. And she made a little Instagram story to share how she likes to make lasagna.
NOSRAT: This lasagna is super-saucy. And super-juicy. And that’s what makes a great lasagna, because I hate a dry lasagna. I hate it when the pasta absorbs all of the juice, all of the liquid, and then there’s kind of nothing left, so we have to make a really rich, flavorful sauce-y tomato sauce and that’s where we’re gonna start.
GRABER: I also worry about lasagnas drying out, which means I do tend to use quite a bit of tomato sauce. I also have to admit though that I didn’t follow Samin’s recipe.
TWILLEY: As usual, I didn’t follow the rules either. I substituted bison for beef, I added a kale and shiitake layer, I was basically all over the place.
GRABER: But Ashley Belanger, our fantastic now former intern, played by Samin’s rules.
ASHLEY BELANGER: Time to make the roux. And that is the sound of melting butter, so gonna give it a minute.
TWILLEY: And actually, this whole episode was Ashley’s idea, so we really have her to thank for our lasagna adventure.
GRABER: Samin made her own noodles, and that’s one thing I did copy, thanks to Tim—
GRABER: I’m very fortunate to have handmade pasta for this lasagna. And frankly, almost every time we make pasta these days.
TIM BUNTEL: I’ve got it in a nice long strip and I’m just gonna take it down to kind of a medium thickness, I think.
GRABER: It’s a beautiful whole wheat dough.
TWILLEY: Ashley did the no-boil stuff you buy in the packet, and I split the difference and used fresh pasta made by someone else at the store. But I did make the sauce from scratch.
TWILLEY: It is definitely not lasagna weather in Los Angeles, but never mind. Put the stove on. And as soon as that heats up, I will add the onion. And here, two hours later, is my Bolognese sauce.
TWILLEY: I was not making lasagna indoors while it was 90 degrees and sunny outdoors because that’s my idea of good time. I did it because I wanted to eat lasagna with Samin and Cynthia and everyone else.
GRABER: Samin misses having people over, we do too, this was kind of an experiment to see if a huge online group meal like this could help.
NOSRAT: I think one of the things that I feel the most sort of sad and truly, like brokenhearted and depressed about, is the sort of unspoken moments of being together. It’s not the grand stuff. It’s the kind of like funny looks across the table or just when somebody comes into your house and you feel like they feel at home in your house or you go to someone else’s house and you feel at home. And I assume that, if it means so much, to me, it probably means a lot to you.
TWILLEY: It does. But is there any science behind that feeling? Is there any evidence that eating lasagna together would actually bring us closer together?
AYELET FISHBACH: Well, we know that eating together connects people. And we know that that has been true forever.
GRABER: Ayelet Fishbach is a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, and she’s been studying different ways in which eating together affects us as we’re doing it.
FISHBACH: So we know that in business a meal is part of the ritual—it’s part of how you do business. Actually more in some cultures than in others, we see that in order to start partnership, in order to reach an agreement, often food is involved. Often we get together to share a meal, we connect to other people through a meal.
TWILLEY: A few years ago, Ayelet decided to set up an experiment to see whether eating the same food at the same time—the way we were going to eat our lasagna—she wanted to see whether that would actually change how connected people felt to each other.
GRABER: For the experiment, they had about 160 participants, and everyone was split into groups of two. They did two different experiments. In the first one, each person had either the same or different candy. The options were Butterfingers, Peppermint Patties, Airheads, and Sour Patch Kids.
TWILLEY: Ayelet told the participants that they were there to evaluate the candy—that was a little lie, just so they didn’t suspect what was really going on. And then, after each pair ate their sugary treats, she moved them into separate rooms and had them play a quick trust game together.
GRABER: One person was given the role of investor, they were also given three dollars and an option: they could give some or all of that money to the other person in the pair, that person was playing a fund manager.
TWILLEY: One thing the investor knew was that whatever they give to the fund manager would be doubled. What they didn’t know was whether their good old candy partner-turned-fund manager would choose to give some or even any of that money back.
GRABER: Remember, they were in separate rooms and they couldn’t talk to each other.
TWILLEY: The fund manager could keep all six bucks. Then the first person would end up losing everything. Or they could give money back to the investor—that way they’d both end up with something.
GRABER: So this tests how much the investor trusts this new person they’re partnering with—and whether eating the same or different candy affects that trust.
FISHBACH: The people who had the same food, gave almost double of the money. Okay, so those who were eating dissimilar foods, on average they gave about a dollar and a half to their partner, hoping that the partner will reciprocate. Those who ate similar foods, that jumped to almost two and a half dollars. So it’s a pretty substantial effect.
GRABER: So yeah, eating the same candy together at the same time seems to have made these strangers trust each other enough to risk giving them more money.
TWILLEY: For her next experiment, Ayelet wanted to test whether eating the same thing also made people able to work together better.
GRABER: So she gave partners either a salty snack of pretzels or a sweet snack of M&Ms, some pairs had the same snacks, some had different ones.
TWILLEY: Again, she told them they were evaluating the snack, but afterwards, she gave them a quick role-playing game, where one was the manager and one was the labor leader and they needed to end a strike.
FISHBACH: Those who had the same food took three and a half rounds of negotiations to reach an agreement, and those that had dissimilar foods took more than seven rounds of negotiations, so their negotiations was twice as long.
GRABER: So this is intriguing. It looks like Ayelet’s experiments show that if people are eating the same thing, they trust each other more and work together more effectively. But does the link between the two people have to be food? Or would you see the same effect if they have something else in common?
TWILLEY: Ayelet set up another experiment to test exactly that. She had people look at two different photos, each showing a different model. The models in the photos were the same gender, race—they even had the same hair color. In some pairs of photos, the models also wore the same color shirts. In other pairs of photos, the models were eating the same foods.
GRABER: And then Ayelet asked the participants in the study to judge how similar the people in the two photos seemed.
FISHBACH: Okay, so you either see pictures of people that are dressed kind of the same, or that are eating similar foods. And people infer from these pictures, that the people who eat similar foods are probably friends. They don’t do that for people who are dressed in a similar way. They don’t use other cues in the same way as food. If I see you eating the food that I’m eating, I think that, oh, we have something in common, we can connect. You will probably like me, I already like you.
GRABER: So sharing food clearly has a significant impact on how we relate to other people—I mean, the same color shirt didn’t have the same effect as eating the same food, so there’s obviously something unique and powerful about food. But why?
FISHBACH: At least in, you know, our modern society, it’s a bit of a leftover—like, it’s very incidental. It’s not… I shouldn’t care about what you eat, it’s not actually a great cue that we would get along. So it’s kind of a leftover from the times when people were truly connecting over food consumption more than anything else.
TWILLEY: OK—it may be a leftover today but why did sharing meals matter so much in the past?
ROBIN DUNBAR: Why on earth do we eat together? Why don’t we do what all animals do, including all the other monkeys and apes, and that is kind of graze on the run?
GRABER: Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and he says eating together was key to our development as humans.
DUNBAR: Well, I think it was one of our big adaptations actually. It’s what allowed us to spare the energy requirement for building very big brains that made us who we are today.
GRABER: If you’ve heard of Robin before, you might have heard of his findings that became known as the Dunbar Number. It’s the idea that there’s a limit to how many people you can keep in your extended social circle—he says it’s about 150. These are people you could comfortably go have a drink with.
TWILLEY: He arrived at that number in part by looking at our closest relatives, primates, and comparing their brain size and their social group size, to our brain size and our social group sizes.
GRABER: Robin says this expansion of our social circle, the fact that ours is larger than that of primates, this is a critical step in our evolutionary history. And he says eating together helped make it possible.
DUNBAR: According to my estimate of this, it probably runs back about 400,000, 500,000 years ago. What marks it out is the point in the archeological record where you suddenly see hearths, in other words fireplaces, all over the place. Prior to that, they’re very, very infrequent.
TWILLEY: Hearths are important for cooking food, which is of course a big deal—when you cook food, you make more of its calories digestible, so you get more energy from the same amount of food.
GRABER: We talked about this before on Gastropod, with Richard Wrangham at Harvard. He says that fire, and cooking our food, really helped make us human. We no longer had to spend most of the hours of the day eating in order to get enough calories, like primates do.
TWILLEY: But Robin says all those extra calories from cooking are still not enough to explain all of the growth in our brain size. Cooking wasn’t actually enough to make us human.
DUNBAR: Something else was happening. And the one thing that clearly could happen at that point, which couldn’t before then, is to extend the working day.
GRABER: Primates eat all day, and then they’re so exhausted that they fall asleep at night. But early humans weren’t as tired, plus they had learned to control fire. So they had both the means and the energy to sit around for a few hours in the evening.
TWILLEY: They’d discovered some extra hours in the day. Now what to do with it?
DUNBAR: Now the problem with the nighttime and fires or firelight is, there isn’t much you can do, right? So there’s no point in just sitting there looking glumly at each other across the fireplace. That’s almost certainly, again, the point at which serious use of language for social purposes emerges and allows you then to have bigger groups.
TWILLEY: So now our ancestors have time to hang out and form these bigger groups. And then language develops and songs and story telling. But it’s not all culture and progress. I mean, you’ve seen Big Brother.
DUNBAR: Living in groups is extremely expensive for all animals. I mean they’re ecologically costly because of competition effects, but they’re also socially and physiologically very costly. Because we keep falling out with each other. You know, Jimmy keeps treading on my toes every time I’m wandering from one bush to the next, for no apparent reason. And it’s: how do we handle those stresses and strains, which otherwise would just cause the group to fly apart?
GRABER: Obviously there are benefits to living in groups: We can keep each other from being eaten by large animals, we can take care of each other when someone falls sick. But yeah, we also fight a lot.
TWILLEY: So we—and “we” includes all primates—we have developed an ingenious evolutionary technique for defusing some of those tensions. It involves drugs. Specifically our body’s own internal version of morphine—it’s called endogenous morphine, which has been smushed together to make the word endorphin.
GRABER: And these endorphins make us feel great. They’re an even stronger feel-good drug than morphine is.
DUNBAR: Now grooming, which is what primates do, is a major trigger of that system. We have a specialized neural system that goes from the hairy skin straight into the endorphin producing regions in the brain and which only responds to light, slow stroking.
TWILLEY: But here’s the problem. Early humans had gained a few extra hours in the day thanks to firelight, but still, there wasn’t enough time to stroke everyone in these new larger social groups. Stroking is fundamentally a small-scale technology.
DUNBAR: And when our ancestors pushed to increase group size in the way they obviously did, they had to find other ways to trigger the same system. And that means really finding a way of grooming virtually so you don’t physically have to touch somebody. And it turns out that eating and drinking alcohol all trigger the endorphin system and do it incredibly well. Almost better than social grooming in fact. But, importantly, allow you to do it to several people at the same time so you can kind of manage to increase the size of your bonded group this way. And that’s why we do communal eating.
GRABER: Robin says there are other triggers of this big group feel-good drug—singing together, storytelling, dancing, religious rituals—but eating together was an important part of it.
TWILLEY: So this is Robin’s theory: having a dinner party is really just a scaled-up chimpanzee grooming session. But obviously, he needed to test that theory.
GRABER: So he sent out a questionnaire to 2,000 people in the UK, and he asked them questions about how often they ate with people who aren’t their immediate family, and he asked them about how happy they were, how satisfied they were with their lives, when they last felt depressed, and other questions to get at their general sense of well-being.
TWILLEY: He collected all the responses and then he crunched the numbers.
DUNBAR: It turns out that the number of times per week that you eat socially, you have a meal with somebody, the more friends you actually have, the happier you feel, the less depressed you felt, let’s say, yesterday, the more you trust the people in your local community, even people you don’t know, the more satisfied you feel with your life and, you know, so on and so forth. Eating socially is actually really is good for you. It’s absolutely astonishing.
GRABER: This sounds amazing—but it’s always difficult to figure out whether one thing causes another, or if they’re just somehow connected. Is eating together the thing that then makes people feel happier, more trusting, more satisfied with their lives? Or maybe you eat with friends because you’re already feeling all those things?
TWILLEY: Robin did some groovy statistics to try to figure out the direction of causality—it’s a technique called “path analysis” and even though he explained it twice, I’m still a little fuzzy on the precise details. But he says it does seem to show that eating together triggers the feel-good sensations and the trust and the life satisfaction, rather than the other way round.
GRABER: And of course this all comes back to endorphins. First of all, just the act of eating itself produces endorphins.
TWILLEY: And then eating together produces more endorphins. Basically, you’re high and thus you feel at one with your fellow humans and the universe.
GRABER: Robin says our survival as humans depended on creating larger groups and thriving within them. Which came from eating together.
TWILLEY: In a really literal sense, dinner parties make us human. Even our closest animal relatives don’t really eat together.
BRIAN HAYDEN: What I would argue is that this represents a whole different new phenomenon in the biological world, in the animal kingdom.
GRABER: Brian Hayden is an archaeologist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. And he’s written books, plural, about the human phenomenon called feasting.
TWILLEY: Feasting is basically the next level up from eating together. Like Robin said, we started eating together hundreds of thousands of years ago. We started having feasts—these epic special occasion meals—tens of thousands of years ago.
HAYDEN: What feasts essentially represent is a way of using surplus foods to establish relationships and to get at other kinds of benefit—to establish other kinds of benefits for yourself.
GRABER: Maybe someone threw a feast so that they could marry off their kid to a neighboring family. Maybe they wanted to get some influence with a leader. Or maybe they just wanted other people to owe them favors in the future, like to help them if they got sick.
TWILLEY: All benefits you could likely obtain by throwing a feast with your surplus food. Brian says that as human groups got bigger and formed societies and everything got more complex, we used eating together at feasts to build a social safety net.
HAYDEN: And so once you link the ability to obtain benefits from the production of surpluses, basically what you are doing is creating a whole new way of adapting to the world.
GRABER: But feasting isn’t just about surviving together, it’s about thriving as a society.
HAYDEN: And in fact, in some of the Peruvian cases, among the Inca, you know, people have recognized that feasting really made the empire go round. And that was the way you got projects built is to hold a big feast. And the same thing is probably true in Sumer, Sumerian cities, and probably was one of the main ways that the pyramids got built as well.
GRABER: Give a big feast and the people who come to it will owe you. Maybe they’ll move around some stones you have to help you build your pyramid.
TWILLEY: Feasting turned out to be such a powerful tool that people wanted to hold more and more feasts, which Brian says led to… the development of agriculture. This is a pretty bold claim, but Brian believes that feasting really was one of the reasons we began farming.
HAYDEN: I think the evidence is pretty clear that you’re getting feasting and surpluses before we get agriculture. And I think there is a direct link because for the first time in human history, we get this pressure to produce more food and more surpluses for feasting benefits.
GRABER: And then, Brian says, this drive to produce food for feasting also led to domestication.
HAYDEN: One of the most relished kinds of food is meat, especially fatty meats. You know, the meats that we get in the store today are 20, 30 percent fat. But wild animals are only 2 or 3 percent fat. And if you want to impress people with the meat that you have and the quality of the meat, basically, you can’t rely on hunted animals because you never know if you’re going to get them or not.
TWILLEY: Whereas if you had an animal you raised yourself, it would be nice and fatty, and it would be right there ready for slaughter whenever you needed to hold a feast and impress everybody.
GRABER: So eating together made us human, and then feasting together brought us agriculture and domestication and maybe civilization, or at least some pyramids. But of course after a while, things got a bit out of hand.
TWILLEY: You’re having a feast to win over a potential marriage partner, say, or a military ally—
HAYDEN: And so you’re trying to impress them. And so when we get that kind of a situation, it’s almost inherently competitive.
GRABER: Nichola Fletcher is a food writer in Scotland and the author of the book Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting. And she has some stories about just how ridiculous the competition got.
TWILLEY: Nichola says this kind of competitive, status-based feasting became common in medieval England, as the nobility jockeyed for power. And their feasts quickly got almost ludicrously excessive. Take the feast for the enthronement of George Neville, the new Archbishop of York, in 1465.
NICHOLA FLETCHER: This is a very famous feast, that is often quoted because, rather unusually, somebody wrote down a list of all the different kinds of meat that were going to be eaten at this feast, ranging from whole oxen to deer, venison and masses of different kinds of birds. And I actually counted them all up and they came to 41,833 items of meat and poultry for this feast.
GRABER: This sounds out of control, but it actually was the norm at the time among their social circle. George’s brother, the Earl of Warwick, he also threw a historically decadent feast of a full 60 courses. Of course there were hundreds of cooks, and performers wandering among the guests as they feasted.
TWILLEY: You would need some distraction—I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken to present and consume 60 courses. Multiple days?
FLETCHER: And the reason he gave 60 courses was that the King, Edward IV, had just recently given a banquet to impress some foreign visitors with 40 courses. So here’s an example of the Earl of Warwick, who was named the kingmaker, because he was jostling for a bit of power himself, just telling the King, “Look who does a better feast here.”
GRABER: This one-upmanship got so extreme, as everyone jockeyed for who could show off their wealth and power the most through these huge feasts—well, something had to be done about it.
TWILLEY: And that thing was: sumptuary laws. Which, in case you’re not familiar, are laws restricting luxury or extravagance.
FLETCHER: Well, they were brought in by various people when these feasts where people were trying to impress other people got just a little bit out of hand, and the powers that be were beginning to get a little bit anxious that, you know, the country might be bankrupted by people just throwing away all this food and, extravagance and musicians, and tapestries, and articles of gold and silver. So as I say, some of the powers that be got a little bit anxious that too much was being spent. So they brought various laws in to limit them. And so, for example, we have one in Hungary, where the free cities would limit the number of guests and number of courses that people could have in their meals according to different categories.
GRABER: They had three categories. There were noblemen. And then next came city officials. And finally was the hoi polloi, just everyone else.
FLETCHER: And the first group could have 10 courses at a wedding. The second one could only have eight, and the third group could only have six. The last group also, not only could they only have six, but they weren’t allowed to have any pȃté either. Goodness knows why they choose these things.
TWILLEY: No pȃté *and* no layer cake for the plebs. And for every plate or dish you had more than the ones you were allowed, you had to pay a quite substantial fine.
FLETCHER: And same sort of idea in Florence in the 14th century. They would fine people who served anybody more than three courses at a wedding. So of course, human nature being what it was, people found all sorts of devious ways to get around this. And they would sort of say, well, we’ve only got one item of meat, but it just happens to be, you know, a peacock stuffed with a swan stuffed with a pheasant stuffed with a… And they went on like this.
GRABER: And thus was invented the ancestor of the turducken. All to get around sumptuary laws and show off at your dinner party.
TWILLEY: I don’t tend to think about having friends round for dinner in terms of a turducken-style extravaganza where I demonstrate my wealth and status. But Alice Julier is a sociologist who has studied the dinner party, and she says, historically, that is what’s going on.
ALICE JULIER: A formal dinner party is a display of wealth, right? And opulence and sustenance and security. In our contemporary world, certainly having enough food and having enough food to put on something, you know, sumptuous and of a certain scale is a sign of class.
GRABER: Alice’s book is called Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality, and she says that in the 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy Americans put on these elaborate, impressive dinner parties to, you know, impress each other and show off.
TWILLEY: These people had been born into upper-class society and they had servants and they didn’t need to be told which piece of cutlery to use for grapefruit.
GRABER: But, by the 1930s, there was a new class of people. The middle class was just being born, and they wanted to copy the behaviors of the upper class and be accepted by them, but they weren’t born into it, they had no roadmap. And knowing how to behave at a dinner party was one of the biggest challenges—Alice calls it “trial by fork.”
TWILLEY: Fortunately for the middle class, along came Emily Post. Emily was born solidly upper class—she was an heiress and a debutante and she knew exactly how to instruct her household to prepare and execute the perfect dinner party. But following her own divorce, SCANDAL, she decided to share her knowledge with the aspirational middle classes.
JULIER: And people take to it, right? Like she has the status herself, but she doesn’t keep it a secret, I guess, is the wonderful thing. I mean, I was fascinated by Post just because she’s so definitive, right. I mean, it’s very clear what the rules are, and yet she’s writing in a way that’s encouraging people to try things. Like, with the dinner party where she’s like, it’s really not that hard. You just have to follow this formula. You know, a certain number of guests and the right size table and this menu… and one menu, there’s one menu in the whole book, I think. And it’s very both prescriptive and encouraging at the same time.
GRABER: Her publisher didn’t have particularly high hopes for her book, which was called Etiquette.
TWILLEY: She wrote the entire thing from her bed and it ended up being more than 600 pages long.
GRABER: Emily filled it with all sorts of useful details, like exactly what thickness paper you should use for visiting cards, and how you should fold your dinner napkin.
TWILLEY: Very fancy foldings are not in good taste, according to Emily. And bread should most definitely not be put in the napkin—not nowadays, she wrote.
GRABER: Good to know, I wasn’t sure where to put my bread. But despite the publisher’s lack of confidence this tome was immediately a hit. It spent a full 18 months on the bestseller list and it had to be reprinted at least eight times. People loved it, they needed it.
TWILLEY: Apparently during the Second World War, Emily Post’s Etiquette was the book most often requested by American soldiers, which is a fact that I cannot make any sense of.
GRABER: This seems kind of ridiculous, but it demonstrates just how important the dinner party was. It was a status feast, and people were trying to up their status and demonstrate that they could belong to a higher social class.
TWILLEY: But here’s the thing. Yes, medieval feasts and aspirational dinner parties are focused on status, but, beneath that, they still do something that eating together always does—they build community. That’s what eating together was for way back at the dawn of our evolution as humans, and that’s what it still does, underneath all the pomp and circumstance of feasting.
GRABER: Which leads us to Nichola’s story of the world’s largest banquet, which delightfully was held outdoors in Paris.
TWILLEY: This feast was modeled on a smaller but still enormous feast held in 1790 to celebrate the falling of the Bastille and the founding of the new French Republic with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
FLETCHER: And in 1900, they felt that this sort of solidarity was kind of flagging a little bit. So they decided to have another enormous, endless table.
GRABER: They invited all the mayors in France, from every city and small village around the country, all 22,695 of them.
FLETCHER: If you just think about that 22,695 mayors all seated down at the tables in these long, long marquees. And there was so many of them that waiters had to use bicycles to serve everybody at table. Because there were seven kilometers of tables there. And the chief supervisor actually used a very early form of a motor car to drive about and supervise everybody. So it does conjure up the most wonderful picture of all these mayors who obviously felt themselves tremendously important being served by people on bicycles.
TWILLEY: And the French Republic continues to this day, so I guess it worked.
GRABER: Nichola had one more story to tell us, and it was a little heavier, less light-hearted than the others. But this story really got to the heart of what eating together can and does mean.
FLETCHER: That story is in one of my most favorite chapters in this whole book, and this particular one was recounted by Primo Levi, who was an Italian writer, who was a Jew, and he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and, as you can imagine, suffered most terrible privations there. But the thing that really stuck in his memory happened just after the camp had been abandoned by the Germans in 1945 who… they realized the game was up. And so they scarpered and left all the prisoners in the camp, who suddenly found that they were able to sort of walk about without being shouted at or shot or anything. He started to search the buildings with a few friends, to see what they could find, because they were all starving, and they managed to find some potatoes and a little stove, and they brought this back to their hut. And they finally managed to light the stove. And suddenly some of the other prisoners sort of emerged to see what they were doing and they brought their pieces of bread with them. Now this, on the face of it, doesn’t sound very special, but in all the time that they were in these camps, it was so much a question of fighting for your own life that, you know, people would almost kill for somebody else’s bread. So this very act of people coming forward, offering their bread to other people, was, as he put it, the sort of start of humanity, the first human gesture that people were able to do after this terrible ordeal.
GRABER: Eating together was the start of humanity in general, and for Primo Levi, it also signaled his return to humanity after his time in Auschwitz.
TWILLEY: These shared meals we’ve told you about this episode, they are all so different, but they all have something in common—they show how powerful it is to eat together. Whether you’re using it to build an empire, signal your social status, or just connect to your fellow human beings.
GRABER: Now that we’ve done this episode, now that I understand the science and history of eating together, I get why it feels so big to not be able to share meals with friends right now.
TWILLEY: Yeah—like I said before, neither of us were using dinner parties to forge a marriage alliance or join a higher social class. But clearly sharing food with friends is essential—there really is something about inviting people into your home, to your table, that makes them feel part of your expanded family.
GRABER: Right, and those are the kind of meals we’re missing today. To me they seem almost like those first communal meals around the fire, eating and laughing and connecting, over food. That’s why we miss having people over so much.
TWILLEY: And that’s why we were making lasagna—to eat together online, to try to recreate the communal meals we can’t have right now. So it’s back to me, Cynthia, and our former intern Ashley in our three separate kitchens, assembling our three separate lasagnas.
TWILLEY: This is just a Bolognese sauce I made earlier, as they say on the TV shows. And that’s my first layer. All right.
GRABER: Okay, nothing like cooking for a big group dinner that you’re going to be eating with two other people.
GRABER: The lasagnas all went into the ovens, and then we all met in front of the computer screen to join Samin.
NOSRAT: All right. Welcome. You guys, people are coming! I was fully five minutes ago having one of those “are people gonna come to my party” like panics. I’m Samin Nosrat, aka Ciao Samin, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Welcome, when my, what’s my intro, to The Big Lasagna! Welcome to the big lasagna dinner party. I have been losing my mind with joy, watching everybody across the world just make lasagna for themselves and their friends and their families. I love it.
TWILLEY: Oh man, there are people tuning in from New Zealand, Connecticut, Colorado, Mexico, Iran.
GRABER: There are more than 3,000 people on here at the moment. Everyone’s checking in and saying hi. San Francisco, Brooklyn, Houston, San Diego, the Bronx, Eastern Washington, Boston Fort Collins, PDX, Miami Beach, Seattle. Ypsilanti, Michigan, I hope I’m pronouncing that right.
TWILLEY: Her lasagna looks good.
NOSRAT: You can just see so… here, let me see if I can give you the beautiful… but like you can see so many distinct layers. I think I got eight or nine layers of pasta in there. Because it was super thin. When I held it up to the light, I could see my hand through it.
GRABER: That was definitely not the kind of pasta that we made.
BELANGER: I wish I had homemade pasta.
TWILLEY: How can she just be looking at that lasagna and not eating it?
NOSRAT: Anyways, so let me take a bite so I can refresh myself. I missed my mouth. Sorry, guys. Mmm, it’s so good. Sorry. That’s rude to talk with my mouth full.
GRABER: This all sounds like we’re having a great old time, but frankly, it was also a little depressing.
NOSRAT: I think for me, the big thing is I just miss people, I really miss hanging out.
GRABER: Samin, I miss people, too. I miss people so much. I miss having people over for dinner. I miss having long projects in the kitchen where I cook for people, I miss sitting around the table and laughing and drinking wine together and bringing out something like a big lasagna and all of us digging into it, I really miss it.
TWILLEY: Me too. And honestly, as much as I love watching and listening to Samin, this wasn’t that.
TWILLEY: I don’t know. This doesn’t doesn’t feel completely like a dinner party to me. Because I can’t jump in when I need to. I need to be able to talk. It turns out, it’s not a dinner party until I’m talking.
GRABER: I’m not sure what that says about you, Nicky, but, yeah, we all need to be able to participate to really feel like we’re together. Samin’s big lasagna party couldn’t be a real dinner party, there were thousands of people and there’s no real way to chat with anyone else. But so many of us are trying this in smaller combinations these days, trying to get together with friends and family over the internet and share dinner.
JULIER: And so to me, that suggests that it—people, even in the midst of difficult times, are willing to invest value into eating and cooking and having conversations about it.
FISHBACH: So people are already coming up with some creative ways of sharing a meal without actually being together.
TWILLEY: We’re all improvising. But the question Ayelet is thinking about is—do these virtual dinners actually work? Do they create the same cooperation and trust that she has found eating together in person does.
FISHBACH: Eh, I don’t know. I’m hopeful that it does something. I hesitate to say whether that actually gets people together. I mean it’s definitely something that is on our mind, and we are thinking of testing it at the moment.
GRABER: Robin hasn’t studied Zoom dinners in particular, but he has studied how video interactions compare to other forms of communication.
DUNBAR: Skype interactions were just head and shoulders more satisfactory than phone calls, texting, SMSing, emailing, Facebooking, whatever. These were really by comparison second rate. What that tells you is there’s something about the sense of co-presence—of being able to see the smile breaking on somebody’s lips while you’re telling the jokes, not three days later when you can’t remember what the joke was anyway that you emailed them.
TWILLEY: But even though Robin’s research found that seeing someone on a video call is much more satisfying than just hearing them or just reading something they wrote, it’s still not all that.
DUNBAR: Skype and Zoom work extremely well. But they still, we think, are not in the same league as being physically in the same room together.
GRABER: For Brian, this is what stands out. Zoom dinners are nothing like the real deal.
HAYDEN: It’s a pale, pale reflection of what, what the real thing is. I mean, I guess, you know, you can try, but it’s just not the same. At least not not in my book, anyway.
TWILLEY: But if it’s all we’ve got, I’m in. It’ll do until that glorious day I can have my friends round to dinner again.
TWILLEY: We have a couple of things to let you know before we get to our thanks this episode—first of all, if you support the show at the 5 dollar an episode or 9 dollars a month level or more, you are in for a treat! We have so many more stories of communal eating to share, including the origins of the Sikh langar meal and the tricky question of shared plates in post-COVID dining.
GRABER: And now a correction: We feel pretty good about the fact that we rarely have to make corrections to our shows, we do work hard to make sure that the facts in the show are correct. That said, we have a pretty funny fact that frankly we didn’t even think to double check. A number of you listeners who either live in Sweden now or have lived in Sweden wrote in to tell us that the unpleasant-sounding Swedish pizza Francisco Migoya described in our episode is not in fact a kebab pizza. Apparently it’s what’s known in Swedish as an Africana pizza or a Flying Jacob. There is a kebab pizza, but that wasn’t it.
TWILLEY: A kebab pizza actually contains doner kebab meat and that white kebab sauce, which makes sense. Listeners kindly informed us about another Swedish special called a hangover pizza, or a black and white, which includes sirloin, capers, and a type of Hollandaise sauce. I actually don’t mind the sound of that last one.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Ayelet Fishbach, Robin Dunbar, Brian Hayden, Alice Julier, and Nichola Fletcher. We have links to their books and research on our website, gastropod.com. Thanks also to Samin Nosrat for hosting a lasagna party, and to our former intern Ashley Belanger for suggesting we do an episode on communal eating.
TWILLEY: Next week, we’re back with our final episode of the season—we’re declaring victory. At least in the garden.