The Value of Banter
Socializing and conversation as nourishing elements at the table.
By Allan Richter
People who follow a Mediterranean diet, besides benefitting from healthful omega-3 fats found in staples like olive oil and sardines, tend to savor their meals. Taking pleasure in the company with whom they are eating, they fill the air with laughter and storytelling. And they are not alone. People in many Asian, Latin and other cultures take their time over their meals because of the social element that is perhaps one of their tables’ biggest wellness-inducing ingredients.
“In those cultures, people are eating meals in the context of family and a social event. Most of those areas have their biggest meals during the day, with two-hour lunch breaks, and that’s usually in the company of family,” observes nutritionist Beth Warren, MS, RD, CDN, author of Living a Real Life With Real Food (Skyhorse). “You’re taking a break from all of your stress. In our culture in America, we’re eating while we’re on the computer and not focusing on the enjoyment of eating. And the enjoyment of eating doesn’t have to be about the food; it could be about the company you keep.”
It may be difficult to come by two-hour lunch breaks, but you can pace your meals with healthier doses of social chatter. To help you stimulate more talk at your table, we’ve searched for a number of strategies and inventive food preparation methods sure to be conversation starters—conversations you wouldn’t have if you were wolfing down a sandwich while riveted to your smart phone or making a pit stop at the food truck while dashing to the office.
In the spirit of adventure, here’s to a healthy appetite for nutritious fare and lively banter that brings joy to your table and wellness to your home. Cheers.
Thought for Food
To jump start and maintain table conversation you might reflect on great thinkers who were early advocates of communal eating, such as Jane Addams, a Nobel Peace Prize winner considered the first social worker for her efforts to fight poverty and bring people together around food. Addams, who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, founded Chicago’s Hull House, where thousands gathered around communal tables.
Addams was a miller’s daughter and remembered what it was like to have warm bread on the table. “She traveled worldwide, and her solution to conflicts was to feed people,” says Marietta McCarty, author of The Philosopher’s Table (Tarcher/Penguin), who sees parallels between the Industrial Revolution of Addams’ time and today’s technology boom. “It has many good things about it, but it is also keeping us from breaking bread, slowing down and feeding our souls.”
In The Philosopher’s Table, McCarty focuses on a different philosopher in each chapter, along with recipes that suit the teachings of each great thinker. A recipe for barley with currants, pine nuts and feta, for example, accompanies a chapter on the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was reputed to eat a largely grain-based diet. Epicurus preferred vigorous conversations around a festive banquet table to dining alone, observes McCarty, who suggests that diners enjoying a meal around Epicurus listen to Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” or Michalis Terzis’ bouzouki music.
“In my experience the event that has food connected to it is completely different in terms of openness, laughter and a natural connection among people,” McCarty says. “There’s something about food that is universal and makes this common bond happen naturally. We all have this basic hunger to be together and break bread.”
A Place at the Treble
The power of music to heal and inspire applies at the dining table, too. Sharon O’Connor, president and founder of Menus and Music, a San Francisco Bay area company that pairs recipes from top chefs with Grammy-winning music, points to a Johns Hopkins study showing that soothing music improves dietary habits.
The study, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, showed that people who listened to soft, slow music ate smaller portions and had longer conversations with their dining partners. People that dined without music ate at a rate of 3.9 “fork bites” per minute and asked for second helpings; the rate decreased to 3.2 bites per minute among people who dined while listening to soothing background music—and those people left some food on their plates.
“Food and music are windows into a culture,” O’Connor says. She recently traveled to Barcelona, Spain, where she visited 25 tapas restaurants to develop recipes for one of her upcoming offerings, a tapas cookbook paired with a CD of flamenco music by Latin Grammy winner Vicente Amigo. Among other offerings are those pairing jazz with vegetarian recipes, and chamber music with recipes from museum cafes (menusandmusic.com).
Of course, you can make your own dining music. It’s not difficult to learn to play the ukulele, so start mastering a few basic chords to serenade your loved ones around the table. You’re sure to warm hearts to go along with that warm meal.
From Palette to Palate
Art and food have been happy bedfellows for millennia, from cave paintings of hunters and their prey right up to Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup can and beyond. Makes sense. After all, any beginning artist’s first still life is a bowl of fruit.
Let an afternoon at your local museum inspire an art-themed meal, complete with treats made from recipes in Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art (Ten Speed): a fudge pop fashioned after an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture or a segmented cake that resembles a Mondrian composition.
Consider equipping yourself with the guides Food and Feasting in Art and Nature and Its Symbols, both published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to help you decipher the meanings of foods at your table or in the art pieces at the museum. You’ll find that a pear can likely be found in religious paintings because the ancient fruit is usually held in high esteem for its sweet taste. And you’ll learn that olives, because they are full of oil, are a symbol of abundance.
Or discuss your favorite scenes involving food in literature or the movies. Do you savor apple pie like Jack Kerouac’s Sal? Or maybe Jack Nicholson’s classic diner scene in “Five Easy Pieces” gets you going. Chicken salad, anyone?
Dazzle your guests with art of your own by styling your food the way fancy restaurants do. Food Presentation Secrets: Styling Techniques of Professionals (Firefly) by Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury shows how to make roses from radishes, lotus flowers from cucumbers and little baskets from parmesan cheese, among nearly 100 other garnishing ideas.
“A true cook,” say Hobday and Denbury, “is an artist who has the skills to allow the freedom of imagination and the ability to translate this to the plate.”
Stepping out of your culinary comfort zone by using tools you haven’t used before can add zest to your kitchen and table. The tools can be as simple as cast iron cookware or a fondue set. Or you can try something more exotic, such as sous vide cooking.
Sous vide involves cooking vacuum-sealed food in low-temperature water for longer than most mainstream cooking methods. There’s a lot less cleanup involved, so there’s more time to talk about this unusual cooking method over the meals you’ve prepared with it. And sous vide is healthful because food is never heated above boiling, keeping nutrient values intact, says Cindy Kowalyk, author of Simply Sous Vide: Soups to Casseroles to Cakes (Cinzia). “All of the vitamins and minerals are retained,” Kowalyk says.
Or you can get your dinner guests gabbing by serving them salad greens grown using aquaponics, the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (no-soil gardening). Aquaponics provides an integrated ecosystem in which fish waste serves as an organic food source for growing plants, while the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in, explains Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening (New Society) and president of the Aquaponic Source. The method is eco-friendly, too, using only about one-tenth of the water consumed in soil-based gardening.
If you like making bread but use store-bought flour, shift your thinking a little by making your own flour. It’s not complicated. Vitamix makes a 32-ounce Dry Grains container that grinds whole grain into fresh flour and mixes batter.
If unique kitchen tools are your thing, MagicalButter, a botanical extractor, infuses herbs into cooking oils, butters, tinctures and sauces; you can make garlic butter or rosemary oil, for instance. For another way to have some fun cooking and eating, and get a little nostalgic, try one of those “As Seen On TV” kitchen gadgets. The Chip-Tastic lets you cook potato or kale chips without frying them, and the EZ-Store Rotisserie, a compact version of the Ronco classic, lets you cook poultry and other main dishes without having to let them sit in fat.
Or, to really stimulate conversation, serve eggs from a backyard chicken coop—such coops are popping up even in urban areas.
Now that’s out-of-the-box culinary thinking.
Travel the World
R emember that feeling of discovery the first time the server at a Chinese restaurant brought you chopsticks? You know, the ones with the little rubber band wrapped around the end for novices? Or how about the good mood that comes over the table when the mariachi band plays at a Mexican restaurant or your server prepares fresh guacamole tableside with a molcajete, a mortar and pestle carved from volcanic rock?
You can recreate that sense of the exotic at your own table. If, for instance, you’re in a Moroccan mood, or want to create one, try cooking in a tagine, which takes its name from both the Moroccan dish and the large cooking pot with conical lid in which the food is cooked. This “long, slow, moist cooking technique” produces deep, rich flavors, says Pat Crocker, author of 150 Best Tagine Recipes (Robert Rose), whose recipes include those for souk food—authentic street food of the spice markets.
For another slow-cooking device used in the same hemisphere, consider a Wonderbag, the brand name given by health and environmental activist Susan Collins to a cooking tool that cocoons a pot of food in a fabric cushion. The device, which keeps food cooking long after it is removed from a heat source, was aimed at helping South African women conserve fuel (nb-wonderbag.com).
Anne Johnson, author of the self-published Conversational Cooking, turned to the Swiss Alps for her tabletop cooking tool of choice—a raclette, a small, rectangular griddle-like device. It was conceived more than 700 years ago, when farmers and herders would prop a wheel of cheese near a flame, and scrape off melted portions to pour over boiled potatoes, meats, onions, gherkins and bread. (“Raclette” is a French word meaning “scrape.”) The open fire gave way to the device as the practice became more refined.
Johnson’s book is so titled because the tabletop raclette cooking “brought the creative spirit of cooking together into my home,” the mother of three says (conversationalcooking.com). Happy journeys—and bon appetit.
Make It Modern
The marriage of science with culinary skills has upended cooking as we know it as chefs embrace techniques more familiar in a laboratory than a kitchen.
What helped popularize the science of cooking was the 2011 release of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold’s monumental six-volume Modernist Cuisine: The Art of Science & Food (The Cooking Lab), which explained the physics behind traditional methods such as grilling and stir frying while shedding light on otherworldly approaches involving centrifuges, modern thickeners, gels, emulsions and foams.
Adding to the momentum of the culinary science revolution is the pioneering work, made accessible in recent cookbooks, of experimental chefs such as Ferran Adrià of the renowned Spanish restaurant elBulli, and his protégé, Andoni Luis Aduriz of Spain’s Mugaritz restaurant.
Referencing Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking (Phaidon), aspiring chef-scientists can try to mimic recipes that call for infusing peaches with exotic concoctions and creating cocoa bubbles as an accessory for chocolate cake.
Further helping to shore up the trend is the availability of molecular gastronomy kits and tools at low prices for home cooks. Kits from Molecule-R in Montreal let home chefs use natural texturing agents such as seaweed-based agar and gellan gum in gel-making, and emulsifying and other techniques to produce delicacies such as balsamic vinegar pearls and melon sushi, while casual mixologists can make, say, white cranberry foam for cosmopolitans.
With a handheld smoker called the Smoking Gun, from PolyScience, home cooks can finish foods that normally would not be smoked—butter, salads, meringue—because the device uses cool smoke; cooks can use traditional hickory and other wood chips or get creative by smoking with flavors like teas, spices and dried flowers.
Try It Dry
For a high-fiber addition to your meals, try including some dehydrated fruit. It’s an unusual source of fiber that can get your fellow diners talking, particularly if you’ve spent the afternoon selecting and slicing fruit to place on the many racks of food dehydrators available for consumers.
Those high-fiber fruits can benefit our digestive process, help lower cholesterol, and increase satiety, says Vandana R. Sheth, RDN, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They also provide potassium and iron.
Sulfur dioxide used as a preservative might protect and maintain the vitamin A and vitamin C content of the dried fruit, Sheth adds, though sulfur dioxide also has the negative effect of destroying thiamine. Because many dried fruits have added sulfites, people who are allergic or sensitive need to avoid them and are better off drying fruit themselves.
Sheth also cautions to keep in mind that dried fruit can be quite calorie-dense. One cup of fresh apricot halves provides roughly 74 calories whereas 1/4 cup of dried apricot halves provides almost four times more calories—about 313. Keep in mind that eating dried fruit in large amounts can contribute to weight gain, but that it is otherwise a healthy, portable snack or addition to a meal. And fun to make.
There are myriad creative ways to bring adventure into dining. You don’t have to be a diehard foodie to reap rewards in the kitchen—and at the dining room table with your friends and family. So send out an invite for brunch. There’s a lot to talk about.