It was President Ronald Reagan who once said “All great changes in America begins at the dinner table.” The power of food reminds us to sit down, take a break and contemplate all the options ahead, encouraging conversations from different sides of the table that can generate a positive and proactive way forward for the future.
Sitting down round plates of food is an opportunity for people to come together, and talk. Spend time with each other. Food is a universal language that that breaks down barriers and boundaries. It unites people of all faiths and cultures.
Community meals form the structure for religions across the globe. From families in Christian households gathering at Easter or Christmas, or Muslims getting together in public spaces for iftar – breaking their fast, or sharing food during Qurbani, food forms the central focus.
The cultural significance of certain dishes
Of the dishes that make up these different meals, many of them have long held cultural significance. Somehow the turkey has become a staple expectation on Christmas tables throughout the Western world. In fact, it did not become popular until the Georgian period, when it would vie with goose as the main centrepiece. Once we entered the Victorian era, the turkey became the most popular choice, encapsulated by Charles Dickens’ reference to buying a ‘prize turkey’ to give to Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol.
The Jewish supper story
Friday evening is sacred for Jews marking the start of the Sabbath, and the Friday evening meal is a fixed part of the week where the whole family gathers to eat certain foods and perform certain rituals, religiously.
The preparation is as important as the meal itself. A beautifully laid table with clean white cloth is sacrosanct – it exalts this meal above all others during the week, and reminds you of its significance and importance. The meal is then heralded by the lighting of two or more candles by the matriarch of the house, just before dusk accompanied by a prayer.
The meal itself includes the following essential items, each of which have their own significance. Two loaves of challah bread refer to the loaves the Jews in the desert received before the start of the Sabbath. Gefilte fish was once considered a real delicacy, and is served to remind Jews that eating delicious food is part of the Torah’s instructions to celebrate the Sabbath.
Breaking your fast with dates
The month of Eid is known as a month of fasting in Islam, and Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the hours between sunrise and sunset. Iftar is the traditional meal that is eaten to break the fast, and is generally eaten within family, neighbourhood and civic communities. In many villages and towns the local authorities would lay out communal chairs and prepare meals for everyone to enjoy.
Before eating iftar, the fast is first traditionally broken by eating a date and drinking water. The date is important – it recalls the tradition that the prophet Mohammad broke his fast by eating three dates. This continues to this day.
Bringing families and communities together
Whatever your faith, whatever your culture, whatever your social standing, food is a great leveler. Where there is discord and conflict, it creates peace and harmony. Understanding traditions, and partaking in the rituals of other cultures deepens understanding and reminds us that we are all connected by a shared humanity and love of food and flavours that bring great joy, as well as nourishing our bodies.