From farm to table, community is making a comeback.
Hungry for community? Join the club. After all, more people are living alone. “Between 1999 and 2014, the number of single-person households went up to about 34.2 million from 26.6 million, an average annual rise of 1.7 percent,” according to Deloitte University Press. Meanwhile, more Millennials (people ages 18-34) now reside with their parents, says Pew Research Center, making it challenging to meet others their own age. Eating out has emerged as a key way to socialize.
Restaurants and coffee shops have stepped in to encourage such connections, with communal tables and events. Communal tables remove the stigma of dining alone, plus offer ample seating for large groups, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. They also encourage sharing and socializing. A study by the American Egg Board says that Millennials will surpass the Baby Boomer generation as the most significant foodservice customers, and they are drawn to this type of seating. In fact, 55 percent of them prefer it, according to Lapine, Inc.
Band of insiders
Still, reaching out to strangers in restaurants isn’t the norm — and that’s one reason for the burgeoning secret dining club or underground restaurant movement. In these clubs, invitees meet at non-restaurant locations (that are generally not disclosed until reservations are made), including private homes. Diners usually pay for an experience that includes a meal and occasionally, entertainment or the opportunity to mingle with famous chefs.
Perhaps most importantly, guests can also meet other people. Patricia Williams, the founder of the dining club 10 Chairs NYC in New York City, states on her website that her club is “about combining the joy of seeing old friends and meeting new ones with the beauty, succulence and excitement of food.”
In addition to community, these groups offer exclusivity. “Velvet rope” experiences, they lend participants the feeling of being cool, on-trend insiders. If you google “dining clubs,” you’ll note that some articles on the subject offer tips on how to get these elusive invites. For instance, the club Hush in Washington, D.C., requires prospective guests to fill out a questionnaire and supply a photograph.
These secret supper clubs have become so popular that many, such as Wolvesmouth in Los Angeles, have waiting lists or require bookings up to a year in advance of an event. One club, Gastronauts, boasts 1,300 members.
CSAs offer a range of connectedness, from a little to a lot.
A stake in the farm
In addition to dining out, Americans have been joining CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and community farms or gardens. CSAs offer a range of connectedness, from a little to a lot. On one end, members pay an annual fee for a specific amount of food (usually produce and sometimes meat, cheese, eggs or baked goods), knowing that they and others together support a farm. At the other extreme, participants receive food and also volunteer and participate in events and classes.
Similarly, community farms or gardens allow people (especially those without access to space or many resources) to take an active role in growing their food. Often situated in urban areas, these gardens are commonly divided up into multiple plots, each one tended by a different member. Like patchwork quilts, they reveal gardeners’ individuality.
Caty Poole, executive director of Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut, says, “Our mission is to keep farming, feed people and build community…We donate at least 10 percent of what we grow back to organizations that give that food to those in need. We also engage our surrounding community on many levels.” The farm offers opportunities to volunteer, hosts workshops for adults and farm field trips for youth, and partners with nonprofits and community organizations.
The National Farm to School Network works to “bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education settings.”
Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder, feels that school gardens provide community members and parents with opportunities to engage by volunteering in maintenance activities when school is not in session. Joshi also says food is a unifying medium for building community: “Everyone eats! Cooking with family and friends and sharing meals and recipes are ways to engage with people you may not otherwise, and learn about new cultures and foods.”
Cooking up friendship
For those interested in preparing food, cooking clubs allow members to get their hands dirty in the kitchen. Some groups meet and cook together, divvying up the food to take home. Others sit down after cooking to eat as a group. Different culinary themes are common, and lessons can be incorporated. To search for cooking clubs in your area, consult Meetup, or form a new group with people you know.
Although food is the focus of these clubs, community also takes a central role. The year-old San Francisco Bay Area-based Minimalist Cooking Meetup has 300 members who each bring a couple of fresh ingredients, and together, the group prepares and then eats a meal. According to the group’s founder, Johanna, “I asked one of our regulars, who seemed to not particularly care about cooking, why he kept coming, and he said it was for the community. Most members care about both the social aspect and the cooking.”
“The core group seems to shift every few years, but the sense of community is constant.”
Similarly, the NW Philly Vegetarian/Vegan Food Swap, has resulted in “enduring friendships,” according to member Amy. The group, established in 2009, has members make several portions of a dish and then exchange food. “In the time this meetup has been in my life,” she says, “I’ve bought a house, married, become widowed and watched my swap friends marry, grow older and also [become] widow[s]. We’ve been here for each other when our pets have died, when our mothers were hospitalized, when jobs were lost or gained or changed. The core group seems to shift every few years, but the sense of community is constant.”
Back in San Francisco, the Marina Cooking Club hosts about two events a month, each with a different theme, such as tapas or spring produce. According to founder Kaitlyn Hogue, members get together and talk about the recipes, cooking techniques and local food-related events. “I have made a lot of great friends through the group,” she shares.
In our interconnected, tech-savvy world, community around food can also be virtual. Instagram and Pinterest offer ways to connect over food images and recipes. Meanwhile, viewers bond with others over TV food shows, including competitions. Water-cooler conversation might center upon who won “Top Chef” or “Chopped.”
In so many ways, American dining culture has evolved to offer a sense of community. If you have a yen for connection along with a meal, you’ll find it — whether at restaurants and coffee shops, or through dining or cooking clubs, community farms or gardens, or online. And, if you don’t like what you find, you can always start your own club.