Welcome to the Radio Readers Book Club, where we are wrapping up our Fall Read with discussion of Mark Kurlansky’s Edible Stories. I’m Valerie Brown-Kuchera, your discussion leader for this title, coming to you from Quinter to delve into the idea that people who snack together, pack together.
Certain people need to feed others. My mother is one of these people. She is a tiny woman, and I’m convinced she stays trim because she burns so many calories plying others with food that she herself refuses to eat. We can’t be away from a family feast ten minutes before she is scurrying about, filling bowls with chips and dishing out chocolates. She is a bit hurt when people decline her offers of additional food, as if our polite refusal of a last piece of fudge only minutes after gorging on a rich seven-course meal somehow negates the effusive compliments we paid her throughout the binge. Watching people enjoy food is fulfilling.
Kurlansky understands this phenomenon and plays with it in Edible Stories. In the opening story, “Red Sea Salt,” Robert is reprimanded for not eating and drinking at Elaine’s party. Margaret becomes melancholy if Robert doesn’t want to dine out or appears unenthusiastic about food. At the end of that story, a man waves him away “in a gesture of disgust, just as others had when he didn’t want to eat.”
Later, in “Orangina,” Margaret admits that she broke up with Robert because he “lost all interest” in what she ate. In the story “Hot Dog,” Emma is subconsciously aware of the importance of eating Howard’s fancy shrimp and drinking his wine at the baseball game, despite her overwhelming desire for a hotdog and a beer.
Kurlansky knows that eating together is one sign of community and trust. NPR ran a story back in February of 2017 that discussed research showing that eating the same food increases people’s trust. This idea shows up across cultures and generations. On the High Plains, if we eat together, it means something. Fledgling relationships move to the next level when we go out to eat. Certainly, once we invite a new friend home for dinner, we have tacit consensus that this is a relationship that is going somewhere.
If we review fairy tales and myths and even movies, we can see the recurring theme. Hades doesn’t truly have Persephone until she eats those confounded pomegranate seeds. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana tells Willie to get over her reluctance to eat the villagers’ food. “You’re insulting them and you’re embarrassing me. Eat it,” he says. In Game of Thrones, once guests have eaten bread and salt with a host, they can’t be harmed. Fans of that saga will remember that the murder of the guests at the Red Wedding is a breech of a sacred taboo. There’s no end to literary and artistic examples of this theme. Heck, even Sam-I-Am and his reluctant acquaintance establish a great friendship, but only after they eat green eggs and ham together.
Surely High Plains listeners can relate. I have a few friends who bring their own special food to my home when they come to stay. Perhaps they eat only protein. Perhaps they are “vedgans” as Minty pronounces the term in the story “Bean Curd.” Perhaps they are trying a new diet that requires them to eat seven peas, a black olive, and one third of a boiled ostrich egg soaked in vinegar for each meal. Whatever their reasons, I find myself put off by these restrictions. Why can’t they just dig into the deluxe nachos smothered with sour cream, jalapenos, three cheeses, and spicy ground beef like the rest of us?
If only Dale Carnegie had known that the true way to win friends and influence people is simply share food together. My mom may be onto something when she judges the success or failure of a family gathering by the amount of food that was consumed.