The dinner-party revolution

The dinner-party is a symbol of complacent presumption, the last occasion to be associated with genuine dialogue or the jolt of rethinking. But it’s possible to renew the ritual in surprising ways - and really caring about the food is just the start, says Keith Kahn-Harris.
Keith Kahn-Harris
6 September 2011

Dinner-parties don’t always get a good press. They can be a euphemism for a certain kind of middle-class smugness, disguised under a thin veneer of sophistication. This image of superficiality is embodied in an old TV advert for coffee, where a hostess passes off instant for fresh coffee by making ostentatious brewing sounds from the kitchen.

The dinner-party can also signify a kind of echo-chamber for the lazy assumptions and anathemas of the “chattering classes”. An illustration came in January 2011, when the chair of Britain’s co-governing Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, argued that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-party test” - itself a mirroring of the accusation of the writer Rhoda Keonig in 2009 that “dinner-party anti-semitism” was now rife in Britain. Here, the dinner-party becomes the measure of newly acceptable social prejudice and conformity.

Whether or not such characterisations of polite opinion in Britain are true, they themselves carry the danger of a sort of inverted stereotype towards the dinner-party as an “occasion” and the people who attend it - and perhaps a lazy prejudice about its possibilities. In fact, the reality of the dinner-party can indeed escape the casually reductive formula that surrounds the notion and be instead (as well as a place of enjoyable food) a forum of different views and a space of genuine challenge rather than smug agreement. I know this because, for the last couple of years, I have been organising private dinners that are intended to encourage dialogue and civility within the Jewish community.

The Jewish community in Britain, although relatively small (under 300,000 people), is riven with internal conflict. In the last few years, one of the principle conflicts has been how to relate to the state of Israel. Whereas Zionism had, for the decades after the 1967 war, been a source of relative consensus in the Jewish community, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Israel itself has become a source of dissensus. Questions of how and whether Jews should criticise Israel in public are extremely divisive and debates on the subject are often conducted with great bitterness and anger. At stake are fundamental questions about community and identity - including who is a Jew, and what are Jews’ duties to other Jews and to the Jewish state.

My own difficult experiences of being embroiled in the Israeli conflict in the Jewish community - including losing a grant because of my views on Israel - led me to seek ways to encourage a more civil dialogue on the subject. But few existing conflict-resolution and dialogue models seemed appropriate, as formal dialogue can be stilted and most projects concentrate on relations between communities rather than within them.

After a few false starts I hit on a model that made sense to me: why not invite small groups of Jewish leaders and opinion-formers to my house to discuss the issues in an informal and convivial setting?

Across the divide

So for the last couple of years, my wife Deborah and I have held a series of dinner-parties at our home. We have hosted nearly seventy people from all sides of the Israel debate, including such well-known figures as Jacqueline Rose, Melanie Phillips, Jonathan Freedland, Anthony Julius and Julia Neuberger. Each dinner is carefully put together to ensure a diverse spread of opinions, ensuring that everyone encounters views with which they (according to their publicly expressed views) do not agree.

The dinners are kept deliberately open-ended. Neither my wife nor I are neutral conflict-resolution specialists. Rather, our job is to encourage productive, meaningful conversation between those who, all too often, only know each other from platform debates, media exchanges and comment-threads.

One of the ways we do this is through paying a lot of attention to food and the intangibles of atmosphere. The food is a big deal for us. That means consistently avoiding the Jewish communal standby meal of grilled salmon and boiled new potatoes, or anything that screams “Jewish dinner to talk about Israel". Rather, we’ve tried to serve food that demonstrates care, attention and love, such as home-baked bread and pies, and vegetables from our garden. One rule we have is that everyone eats the same thing if at all possible, so when a vegan attends or someone has an allergy they are not singled out.

It cannot be a coincidence that the one serious row we had happened at a dinner when a lentil dish we had made got burned. For the most part though, conversations have been intimate, sometimes intense, but almost always courteous and productive. We are modest in our aims in that we do not expect that our dinners on their own can bring peace to the community. Instead we focus on subtly putting the issue of civility on the communal agenda, on creating opportunities for opposing “sides” to meet, and on proving that it is possible to talk about our differences without anger.

The strict confidentiality of the dinners means I can only speak about them in general terms. What I can say is that they are often surprising in that those who have argued in public often find beliefs and experiences in common when they meet in private. Those whose public articles and speeches imply an unwavering certainty are often full of ambivalence and complexity in private. When encountered over an intimate dinner, it is hard for any individual to remain a stereotype or a caricature for long - or to see any other that way.

Over the course of this project, I’ve gradually become aware that I’m far from alone in my belief in the possibilities of the dinner-party. Although there is no exact analogue of my dinners, some of the more successful (and least known) interfaith projects do involve sharing food together. More broadly, the rediscovery and popularisation of the salon in recent decades, stimulated in part by work of the American magazine the Utne Reader, and the massive popularity of book groups, show a deep desire for convivial conversation held, for the most part, within the home.

Some organisations, such as the School of Life and the The Oxford Muse, have held “conversation dinners” that aim to stimulate connection and dialogue through the shared pleasures of eating and talking together. The The Underground Restaurant movement, that transforms houses into intimate and quirky places for strangers to come and eat and meet, is quietly growing around the world, stimulated by such remarkable figures as London’s Kirsten Rodgers (aka Msmarmitelover). I myself am part of a project called The High Table that opens at the The University Project in London in autumn 2011; it will create a kind of egalitarian version of the Oxbridge formal high table, in which innovative thinkers and doers will create a kind of fellowship over food and conversation.

The universal table

More broadly, the major world religions all have traditions in which hospitality is a sacred duty. For example, in the book of Genesis (chapter 18), Abraham’s efforts to extend hospitality to three strangers who pass by his tent are one of the ways through which he is portrayed as a spiritual model. There are many ethnic and religious practices that involve welcoming others into the home and the sharing of food: Jewish festivals such as Pesach and Sukkot, monastic practices of hospitality, breaking of the fast during Ramadan, and Pashtun hospitality codes in Afghanistan.

These diverse practices and projects share something very primal. Eating is one of the things that connects all human beings. It is both a pleasure and a necessity. Similarly, the home and hospitality is a reflection of the human need for shelter. By sharing food and the home we affirm something common to us all. That isn’t to say that hospitality can cure all ills, but by creating a temporary refuge from an often harsh world it can also fertilise the seeds of a better.  

Perhaps one of the reasons for the frequent disparagement of dinner-parties is that they are small and private affairs. All too often the public sphere is regarded as the place where “real” change happens and the private sphere as a parochial source of secrets and narrow-mindedness. This certainly, and for understandable reasons, informed the early feminist critique of the family and the home.

The problem is that in a multifarious world of 7 billion people, the task of social change can also seem bewildering and frightening. All the more reason to rediscover the possibilities offered by the private sphere and the home, including that of eating together. After all, big changes can start with small acts, a fact exemplified by some of the great events the world has witnessed in 2011. The educationalist Ivan Illich is reputed to have said: “The limit of political possibility today is the number of people who can sit together around a table.” Maybe, just maybe, holding a dinner-party can be a first step to a larger transformation.

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