How to Enjoy Dinner with Strangers
During my long-ago vegetarian phase, I visited friends in Alabama and happened to be seated next to an avid hunter at a dinner party. He talked in a sweet, lazy drawl about his father showing him how to stalk, kill, and skin animals in the woods, and about how he was now teaching the basics to his little girl. I was too polite to pick a fight at my hosts’ dinner table, but I remember sitting there with a fixed smile and gritted teeth, simmering with unvoiced self-righteousness, knowing that murdering innocent creatures for sport was vicious, cruel, and utterly abominable behavior.
Then he added casually, “Of course, I eat everything I kill.”
And I suddenly saw hunting from his point of view, as an honorable way to put food on his family’s table, as taking responsibility for the killing that supported his life. I had grown up eating animals that other people had slaughtered, and I was sitting at that very dinner table wearing leather shoes. My misplaced sense of moral superiority evaporated in a split second, and I have been grateful to my dinner companion ever since. No, I haven’t started stalking my holiday turkey in the woods with a bow and arrow, but I now understand why good people might.
Surrounding ourselves with nothing but kindred spirits and likeminded people is comfortable, but it’s also dangerous, making it entirely too easy to view everyone else with disdain and then suspicion. I have friends who live in gated communities and exist in a state of constant, low-grade fear of everyone outside the walls. It’s as if they had chosen to retreat to a medieval castle and worried, every time the drawbridge went down, that the woman delivering the dry cleaning or the guy mowing the lawn was in the vanguard of an invading force. These friends live in constant, barbarians-at-the-gate vigilance, trusting, it seems, fewer people every year.
Getting out and meeting strangers – whether they’re from another country or just the other side of the wall – is the best way I know to let go of that kind of paranoia. As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Spending time with strangers lets us explore the question: Are we really so different from one another? But how can we meet strangers in a safe and congenial environment – preferably with a glass of wine in hand?
One way to do it is through trendy, non-traditional dining experiences such as food tours, home restaurants, underground supper clubs, and pop-up eateries. "Best thing about Paris was not the Eiffel or the Mona Lisa," my friend Lindsay told me. "It was oysters and white wine in the Bastille district at 11am with a local." She found her local culinary guru through Vyable, a worldwide organization offering travelers (and locals) unique experiences in 900 cities. Researching an upcoming visit to England, my husband, Rich, discovered The Secret Supper Society, an in-home restaurant in North Oxfordshire offering informal, bring-your-own-wine gourmet meals, and The Underground Supper Club, which provides family-style dining in a decommissioned 1967 Victoria Line underground carriage in Walthamstow. For more ideas, check out Travel and Leisure's World's Best Secret Dining Clubs and Delish's Secret Dining Societies. Obviously these places aren't very secret anymore, now that they're on such high profile Internet sites, but many still manage to offer a speakeasy ambiance that spices up the meal with a little clandestine thrill.
Breaking bread with strangers – whether in our home town or on the far side of the planet – is often an enlightening experience. Not every chance encounter will revolutionize our thinking about hunting, eating, or any other subject, but by the time the dessert tray rolls around, we may have discovered something new about our companions, the world, and/or ourselves. I'd say that's worth the price of a dinner!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I have not included any dining clubs (or indeed any products or services anywhere on my blog or website) due to sponsorship of any kind. The places and organizations mentioned here are ones I thought you might find interesting and useful in planning your own adventures.
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thanks for the good suggestions in this post. I spend each trip searching for alternatives to traditional restaurants where solo travelers can interact with others and now i have new suggestions.
12/5/2014 09:39:18 am
Your post from two weeks ago makes a lot of good points, about feeling "first date jitters" as you meet fellow passengers, "musical chairs" as you all get to know one another ... Traveling solo can be complicated at times but also, as you have shown, very rewarding. Thanks for your comments, Lee!
12/5/2014 04:09:15 am
Great post Karen. Made me think and it seems that some of my warmest memories involve sharing appetizers, lunches, dinners, or breakfasts. It seems food and companionship go together. There are so many customs and traditions involving food in every culture. I can't think of a better way of meeting strangers than over food and drink.
12/5/2014 09:41:03 am
Glad you liked the post, Steve. I agree that the best way to meet strangers – and turn them into friends, or at least acquaintances – is by sitting around a table sharing food, drink, and life stories. Those are travel memories to treasure.
12/7/2014 09:39:38 am
Walking along on the Spanish caminos is a good way to break bread with strangers. Restaurants in the locations hikers stop for the night offer pilgrim menus where often at large tables you can share interesting conversations with fellow travelers. There are also establishments along the way where you will find hikers sharing tables and chatting. Sometimes spending the night in a small hamlet leaves no option but for everyone sharing what collectively they can pull out from their backpacks. On one occasion half our table shared a bread based dinner while the other half had spaghetti with olive oil for sauce. We laughed all the way through the meal. I contributed a small jar of olive spread that someone said looked just like the mud we'd been walking through all day! Another played a harmonica for an impromptu after dinner sing along. A month of hiking on the Camino Frances provides a wealth of opportunities to dine with strangers.
12/8/2014 12:41:31 am
What great stories, Sandy! Walking the Camino of Santiago is a wonderful way to meet people and share impromptu meals. What they lack in gourmet cuisine is made up for by the abundant fellowship of the road. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.
Good post and it triggered some memories. Also, thanks for the interesting links.
12/8/2014 12:44:55 am
Chance encounters like yours are uniquely precious. You can't help thinking, "What if I'd come down just a few minutes later? I'd have missed that one!" Your story shows how important it is to be open to the gifts that are offered along the way. Thanks, Maria.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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