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I think we eat wrong.
I don’t just mean the actual food, which is often bad enough – destroying our world, local culture, local industry – heck, even our own bodies.
I mean the WAY we eat.
We seem to have lost the idea of what it means to eat together. We fuel in private, too often alone; perhaps with a partner or a token friend, but rarely in groups – and very rarely in a way where we meet strangers. How did our most social mechanism become so isolated? And how did the idea of socialising lose all relation to food and become so focussed on drinking alone? Drink’s great – drugs too – but a culture that needs it to relax enough to finally socialise – and then often tips over the edge into oblivion – is in need of some major help. Looking in from outside it might look like we are somehow stressed at the idea of meeting others – especially strangers – and thus need to inoculate and anaesthetize ourselves against the pain.
Google trends says London is the sixth loneliest city in the world. Apparently 30% of us are lonely. Kensington and Chelsea is the loneliest borough – perhaps because it also has the highest proportion of people living alone. We lack connection, and we lack ways to compensate for those real geographical distances that keep us apart.
Some of us live here under duress – for work or the sake of a partner or child or other family member; but surely most of us choose to live in places like London for all the brilliant benefits it brings us. So how come so many of us never see that benefit, and never swim with this great sea of humanity that surrounds us? Why live amongst all these people if you never meet them? Why pay a fortune to live in a city amongst folks you’ll never talk to?
In 1930, on the brink of great global strife, Siegfried Kracauer wrote a brilliant account of “the Salaried Masses” and their unfulfilled quest for distraction and meaning. He noted that the very act of their continuous public display – like (his comparison) the “purloined letter” in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story – ensured their invisibility and anonymity, noting that the capitalist system had effectively made its slaves “spiritually homeless”.
Too little has changed in the 81 intervening years. Too many of us still seem to feel traumatised and shell-shocked by the imagined havoc of the city, stressed and retreating, out there yet ultimately alone.
We have two dominant ways of social eating – and they’re both deeply lacking.
Those that can afford it feast in restaurants, but these are simply privatised public spaces where broad interaction is mostly unwelcome. You don’t go to most restaurants to meet other people. They’re more like extensions of your own personal dining room, with hired-in servants. Nothing much changes except your waistline.
The more generous amongst us might choose to host a dinner party, though this will often be deeply assymetrical – time-consuming, stressful, socially limited, expensive and generally unsustainable. The more ambitious we are, the more enslaved by our kitchens we feel; dinner parties aren’t things we’d host regularly after stressful days at work. Collective arrangements where the burden is shared are all too rare, as are the dinners themselves.
One of the reasons I started Latitudinal Cuisine was to bridge these spaces and that gaping gulf at the heart of London, and to carve a space for strangers to meet in a spirit of trust and pleasure and exploration and co-operation. I wanted to find not just new foods to eat, but new ways to eat. And it has utterly transformed my experience of London.
I used to travel a lot more than I do now. Yet though the rigours of running my own architectural practice now keep me busier at work than ever, I also find myself travelling more. Because I travel at home, on my doorstep, across the city to new homes every week and into the thicket of whole new landscapes of people and personalities that I would never have otherwise met if life had continued as it once did.
Latitudinal Cuisine is a potluck dinner club, open to everyone, where we ask people to cook and think about food from the entire world. We scan all 360 longitudinal degrees of the world in 360 days, a degree a day, starting in London and heading East until we return home, cooking food from all the countries we cross. It has been running every week for almost three years and it has always been different. It has broadened our collective horizon, but it has also opened us up to the wonders and flavours and endless diversity of our own host city – as well as many others. As Capitalism cracks and falters, the global Occupy movement offers a glimpse towards an alternative future of solidarity and collectivity that resonates deeply with what we seek.
Come join us, wherever we are, to eat and meet the world.
Alex Haw latitudinalcuisine.com