What brings people together better than food and conversation? On Sunday, October 2, a panel on the interplay of food, culture and community was held by The University of Washington, Communication Leadership program, through the lens of its Associate Director Anita Verna Crofts’ debut book: Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere. With 21 essays covering food, travel and memory in 15 countries over 40 years, from the only coffee shop in Kunming to a surprise Thanksgiving in Germany, Croft’s book presents us with food essays full of unique personal stories and visuals to illustrate the ways that food ties us together. Moderated by Communication Leadership Director Hanson Hosein, the panel discussion also invited panelists Hsiao-Ching Chou (James Beard Awards Cookbook Judge, and Director of Communications at the Institute for Systems Biology), Philip Deng (Founder and Executive Director, MarketShare), Lesa Linster (Owner, Linster Creative) and Annie Lee (Head of Marketing, EatWith).
Curiosity rose for the title of the book “Meet Me at the Bamboo Table” during the panel. To explain the meaning of the title, Crofts told a story of her life-long friendship across the oceans that has spanned over 20 years. Back to early 1990s, Crofts was living in Kunming, China, where she met her Chinese friend Yang Haiyu. They became close friends and often went to have food at Kunming’s outdoor night markets while trading each other’s stories. When Crofts left Kunming to return to the United States, Yang Haiyu gave her a gift: a miniature bamboo table with matching chairs and a note that said: “No matter where you are, we will always be able to meet around the table, share a meal and talk.” In an era when email was not widely used and given the distance between China and America, neither of them was sure if they would ever meet again. Over the past 20 years, they have been in touch with each other through letters, emails, video conferences, and now social media. Eventually, in 2014, they reunited in Kunming. The bamboo table is the symbol of the meals they have had together, the stories they shared and the connection that has been sustaining over the years.
The panel sparked in-depth discussions about the interplay of food, culture and community. Hosein raised the difference between bonding capital and bridging capital. The former refers to like-minded people bonding with each other, and the latter refers to creating a bridge between different groups. “How to connect groups to other groups is actually the biggest challenge we face right now in communication and community building, especially because social media has enabled us to communicate easier but because of the algorithms and the way social media is organized, we are being thrust into like-minded micro-chambers” said Hosein. “How to balance the importance of strengthening the established groups and connecting groups to other groups?”
“When I talk with people, I always see it as an opportunity to learn something new, to be reminded of something, or to be connected to somebody. I think that curiosity has extended into the realm of adventure of food, adventures abroad or adventures in our own back yard.
To respond this question, Crofts shared her experience of hosting a dumpling party in Seattle in 1998 when she first settled there. Her previous experience in China had inspired her to host a dumpling party and invite friends and friends’ friends. Dumplings brought people together under one roof and expanded everyone’s community. It was also exactly how Crofts built connections in China when local Chinese people invited her to make dumplings at their house. Crofts talked about the importance of everyday conversations everywhere and how curiosity can keep conversations going. She said, “When I talk with people, I always see it as an opportunity to learn something new, to be reminded of something, or to be connected to somebody. I think that curiosity has extended into the realm of adventure of food, adventures abroad or adventures in our own back yard.
Lee pointed out the similarity between EatWith and Crofts’ dumpling party, and talked about how EatWith connects strangers through meal sharing at a host chef’s place. Then, Linster talked about how her work involves with getting people in the same space by bringing chefs and different groups of people to events such as wine making and tasting. Like Crofts, Chou also experienced the power of dumplings in the sense that its universality connects people. Her Chinese cooking class, especially dumpling making class, creates bond between people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. She said, “The thing that resonates well with people is that shared experience.” This is a great example of how food contributes to cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding, which is also the cause of Deng’s organization, Market Share. Its initiative is to establish an international food market to build community and empowering immigrants and refugees through food entrepreneurship.
How technology impacts the ways we communicate and the ways we build communities is another major theme of the panel. The panelists discussed the importance of face-to-face communication in an age of digital communication. Lee mentioned how social media news feeds provide good icebreakers for people to chat with each other in person. However, social media still lacks the authenticity to replace the value of face-to-face communication. Linster found that social media and websites enable people to critique the food and restaurants freely and share their experiences, and also enable chefs to promote their offerings. She held the same position as Lee that face-to-face communication is crucial and went on explaining, “Chefs are telling their stories through food. The best way to do that of course, is in person. You can talk all you want on media and you can have all the photos you want, but really it’s getting people together in the same space, experiencing the food, and joining the conversation that lasts.”
During Q & A, the attendees shared their own favorite meals from the chicken dish in Israel, to the comfort food in Texas. Questions were raised ranging from the ethics of food handling, the authenticity of food and culture to the practical ways to facilitate community building through meal sharing. The panelists shared their thoughts and a sense of community was cultivated through the engaging conversations and laughter.
This panel is the “bamboo table” that we shared. It connected the people who attended as we gathered, talked about food and community, and started meaningful conversations with strangers.
At the end of the event, Crofts signed her books for everyone. She wrote down the following words: “Have Fun. Eat well. Laugh often.” With open minds and hearts, we will stay connected with others no matter where we are. This panel is the “bamboo table” that we shared. It connected the people who attended as we gathered, talked about food and community, and started meaningful conversations with strangers. Through food, we negotiate the meaning of culture, the impact of technology on communication and how community is built with the interplay of all of these factors.