The power of radically inclusive dinner parties

 Eating dinner together can be a powerful way to bridge divides and advance shared causes.

Eating dinner together can be a powerful way to bridge divides and advance shared causes.

Sometimes finding common ground is as simple as getting together for dinner. That’s what Serious Eats blogger Sarah Grey discovered after she impulsively invited her entire Facebook network to dinner in her Philadelphia home. People from across the political spectrum showed up, and listened to each other. And many returned for dinner the next Friday, and the next.

Four years later, the dinners she dubbed Friday Night Meatballs are still going strong. Grey says that what started as a way to battle the loneliness of a freelancer’s life has become a chance to talk about differences and sometimes bridge the ideological divide. “Some of the... folks who are absolutely wonderful and kind in person might be total trolls online,” Grey told Yes magazine. “But there’s something about looking somebody in the eye and talking to them face-to-face that tends to bring out the best rather than worst in most people.”

open tables, open minds 

Grey's Friday Night Meatball parties are among a number of potlucks taking place across the country that are as much social experiments as dinner parties. Dinner gatherings made up of near or total strangers who want to explore whether we can't all just get along a little better include the Global Table, the Syria Supper Club and Unity Tables.

There's also The People's Supper, which was started in January 2017 by three women troubled by the depth of our political divide. "Our goal is to change the expectation of judgment and the instinct that we have to assume the worst in somebody else," one of the founders, Lennon Flowers, told CBS. The dinners started with a goal of 100 dinners in 100 days but the group has now hosted more than 900 dinners all across country. 

Eating meals together works by helping us scale our “empathy walls,” as U.C. Berkeley sociologist Dr. Arlie Hochschild labeled it, after a national tour to find out why Americans are so divided. Julia Turshen, author of Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, puts it more forcefully. “The most valuable tool  in our kitchen isn't found in any drawer or cupboard," she wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. "It’s the table." She shares the story of Derek Black, a former Ku Klux Klan member who abandoned his white nationalist principles after sharing Shabbat dinner with a former classmate.

Getting together to build community over a potluck meal has long been at the heart of America’s Sunday Supper, a program sponsored by Points of Light. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s vision of people from diverse backgrounds coming together to discuss problems and solutions, the organization offers tips on getting your own dinner event going and how to start meaningful conversations.

The most valuable tool in our kitchen isn’t found in any drawer or cupboard. It’s the table.
— Julia Turshen

how to Throw your own potluck

Want to host your own party? Here are a few tips for making it work. 

Timing is important. Throw your dinner when people are most likely to be relaxed. It’s no coincidence Points of Light calls its gatherings Sunday Supper and Grey hosts Friday Night Meatballs.  

Keep it chill. Try not to spend more than 30 minutes cleaning up before the guests arrive, says Grey. “Once people come over and they see that it’s not perfect, it becomes a more relaxed atmosphere. People don’t feel like they have to dress up. Nothing is formal or fancy. They can let their hair down.”

Suggest a few topics ahead of time, or don’t. If you want a lively political conversation, gently nudge people in that direction. That’s what Points of Light recommends. But more free form discussion can be just as effective. “Bringing together those disparate groups can yield all sorts of connections,” says Grey.

Invite guests to bring empty Tupperware dishes to the party. So everyone can take home the leftovers.

Get help. If you're hosting a crowd, ask for volunteers to help manage the set up and clean up.

Plan ahead. Sites like PerfectPotluck and ThingToBring make it easier to host potlucks by offering to send invitations and providing “who’s bringing what” sign-up forms. Kristin Donnelly, who writes The Modern Potluck, has put together her own checklist for how to throw a potluck.

Rather be a guest than a host? The People's Supper offers to connect you with dinner parties in your area. It's also always looking for hosts.

Organize around a shared cause. Sometimes potluck dinners aren’t just good for bridging divides. They can be a powerful way to create momentum around something you care about, say, the connection between climate change and the way we grow, raise, and dispose of our food? (See video below.)

Another great reason to get together over good food? To talk about the changes we can make to promote a healthier food system.