#16 food & farming
Prisca L. Watko

The Anti-Restaurants

Eating in supper clubs, with the family, or face-to-screen with a stranger on YouTube – sharing food in private has re-emerged from its original economic motivation to a global trend.

On a Thursday night, a group of people gather closely around a dinner table covered in a white cloth, laughing above the jazzy background music and teasing each other about how much wine they are imbibing. A regular friends’ evening out in any restaurant worldwide it seems, except for the fact that this is the first time they have met, there is no waiter – and no restaurant. Instead Anna rises from her chair, climbs over her cat, and walks into her kitchen to get dessert for everyone. Anna is hosting a ‘supper club’, where fancy, often avant-garde food is served in a pleasant private atmosphere at a lower cost than in a regular restaurant. In the 2010s, such private eateries began flourishing in the Western world, raising the question why humans in the 21st century still hold on to sharing food. While sharing food is a central element of our human history and culture, the role of the supper club differs in the global South and North.

Food sharing as an evolutionary strategy

“Cooking establishes the difference between animals and people” (Claude Lévi-Strauss)

Ever since the first humans came together to hunt and gather, we have shared our food. What started as a collaborative scheme to survive has now turned into a valuable social experience and sometimes even into a rebellious economic act. “Cooking establishes the difference between animals and people”, claimed French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his work “The Raw and the Cooked”. While cooking has made us into the humans we are today by offering the nutrition needed to enlarge our brain capacity, sharing food is a further prerequisite for the development of human societies. For early Homo sapiens, the act of sharing food, particularly the meat of large mammals, allowed us to avoid spoilage and feed the whole tribe: the children, the sick and the elderly. The yield of the hunt had to be brought back collaboratively to a safe, central place and be prepared using a division of labor before it could be cooked.

And we are not the only social animals that ‘break bread’ together. A study from the Anthropology Institute and Museum of the University of Zürich shows that of 68 species, one quarter of adult apes share their food with their offspring, or even with non-related peers for altruistic and strategic reasons, though voluntary sharing has been found to stop in times of scarcity. Apes take turns sharing. This consolidates long-term obligations, rendering food a currency for social support and food sharing a cultural asset, embodied in rituals, ceremonies and tools, among apes and humans alike. It seems sharing food has evolved as a characteristic that defines social animals.

The flip side of the coin – supper clubs as a necessity

While food sharing at its core seems to be symbolic and intrinsically motivated, it can also be triggered by the market. In the face of scarcity or regulation, it presents an opportunity for self-employment and economic liberalization. La Guardia, a supper club in a 20th century multifamily edifice with a façade that falls somewhere between glamor and decay, has provided housing for its residents as well as luxury food for its dinner guests for twenty years now. La Guardia is located ten minutes from El Capitolio – in the center of Havana, where the concept of supper clubs originated.

…paladeres, privately-run neighborhood eateries, have allowed Cubans to work around the strict state food rationing system and supplement their incomes.

In 1968, the Cuban government took over all eateries. After the collapse of the socialist trading system, Cubans faced a sudden decline in living standards in an economic free-fall due to the withdrawal of subsidies amounting to between 4 to 6 billion dollars annually and the economic embargo by the U.S. The result was social instability and food insecurity. Bodegas, the local state food stores, often lacked a reliable supply and variety of goods. Since then the paladeres, privately-run neighborhood eateries, have allowed Cubans to work around the strict state food rationing system and supplement their incomes. The illegal neighborhood eateries were legalized by Fidel Castro in 1993 in a series of market liberalization measures. With Raul Castro’s reform program initiated in 2011, the number of supper clubs repeatedly increased across the island state. Subsequently about 250,000 Cubans, most trying to escape the service sector, applied for licenses to run their own paladeres. Employment guidelines have relaxed for paladeres, allowing operators to hire people outside their immediate family. The selling of alcoholic beverages and charging tourists in U.S. dollars are still forbidden, however, and the number of seats and variety of foods remain restricted by the state.

There they consume a home-cooked meal for an affordable price or pick up takeout

Of course, not all supper clubs have websites and take online reservations like La Guardia. Among the 2,000 privately-run Cuban supper clubs, most concentrated in Havana, many are operated in a family’s living space or kitchen. Usually single young adults with insecure occupations, e.g. in the tourism sector, or elderly people frequent paladeres the most. There they consume a home-cooked meal for an affordable price or pick up takeout. Operators learn about planning, pricing and profit margins on the job, and usually offer a good bargain. Despite the ongoing problems of poor infrastructure and high taxation, paladeres give Cuban families more independence, job satisfaction and flexibility. They are evidence of the promising economic opening of Cuba also reflected in the recently signed mutual agreement to improve the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, cooperatives were allowed to lease more than 20 state restaurants in October 2014 under the banner of Raul Castro’s strategy to liberalize Cuba’s socialist economy. In this pilot project, the employee-run cooperatives set the prices, split the profits, and benefit from better tax rates than individually run paladeres. According to Eric Leenson, founder of SOL Economics, more than 50% of Cuba’s economy will soon be privatized.

Employee-run cooperatives have existed since the revolution in Cuba, albeit only in the agricultural sector. Today there are about 200 panikos, organic urban farms, to secure an adequate food supply in Havana. The state leases the land to a group of farmers who perhaps unsurprisingly earn more than professionals in the city. Panikos serve as an initiative to counter the black market supplement of the state-run agricultural markets that often lack products, especially in the summer. Though families have depended on their ration cards for bread and rice since the early 1960s, Cuba is 90% self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables today.

Statistically sharing food in the public sphere or private homes for economic gain is more widespread in countries with high rates of unemployment and urbanization.

While Cuba might be considered the birthplace of the secret eatery, the basic concept exists around the world, often under different names. Statistically sharing food in the public sphere or private homes for economic gain is more widespread in countries with high rates of unemployment and urbanization. Selling homemade foods in Ghana, for instance, takes place either in the street in improvised outdoor restaurants or in 'chop bars' often operated in the private home of the aspiring food entrepreneur. Just like the paladeres in Cuba, such businesses bring monetary gain as well as higher work satisfaction, flexible working hours and independence to owners, who often avoid taxation. The World Health Organization found that more than half of the women in Accra, Ghana feed food from such establishments to their children. There are considerable drawbacks to these privately-run, often unlicensed supper clubs, where a lack of packaging, processing, refrigeration and protection against flies, and the culturally common serving method of using bare hands are prevalent causes of food-borne diseases. Licensing of private food vendors and sanitation and hygiene controls in such establishments as well as more health and hygiene education are needed to ensure consumer safety. Vendors often lack knowledge of simple hygiene methods, such as that hand-washing combats diarrheal pathogens, which leads to contaminated food. Women play a particularly central role here, as they are often employed along the food processing and selling chain and responsible for supplying their households with food.

Sharing food as a trend

“In recent years, supper clubs have detached more and more from the original concept of low-cost foods...” (Nikolai Schmidt, founder supperclubbing.com)

If we look at food sharing in Western societies, it differs a bit from what we see in Havana or Accra. Zooming in again on Anna’s living room, we see that the experience is at the heart of her supper club: meeting new people, tasting new food, eating inside the four walls of a stranger's private home. Curly-haired Anna with freckles, a 26-year-old student of history, registered her event on Supperclubbing.com only a week before, posting a date and menu: veggie malai kofta with basmati rice and fresh naan bread. Seating for five, including herself. Tonight she cooked for me, another student, and a couple in their late 30s, entertaining us with stories and photos from her trip through India last summer. Eating out in anti-restaurants, like staying in anti-hotels via Airbnb, is back in vogue. It harkens back to a legal gray area like the American roadhouses under Prohibition in the 1920s You might have the opportunity to dine in the private townhouse of a five-star chef like Aaron Silverman while he tries out new dishes for “Rose’s Luxury” in Washington D.C., a restaurant occasionally frequented by Barack Obama. Another service, crowdmunch.com, connects chefs with food enthusiasts on a crowdfunding platform for ‘pop-up restaurants'. The popularity of such platforms reveals an underlying, widespread demand, and willingness to pay. “It is simple; the curiosity for food is what connects us all no matter which culture we belong to”, says Supperclubbing.com founder Nikolai Schmidt. He initiated the platform to give travelers and foreigners an opportunity to get to know a new culture through food in a domestic atmosphere. “In recent years, supper clubs have detached more and more from the original concept of low-cost foods in the North”, adds Nikolai. On the one hand there are supper clubs like the one Anna organizes. There are more and more rather exclusive supper clubs as well that offer fancy food for higher prices and larger gatherings.

While sharing food sharing in supper clubs is built around the experience of meeting and dining with strangers, other food sharing initiatives are set up to avoid waste. Today, where there is an app for anything important, there are a number of apps for this too: “foodsharing”, “LeftoverSwap”, “FoodCloud” and “ratatouille”, just to name a few. These mobile services are all food sharing networks that follow one simple principle: getting rid of surpluses on one end while filling gaps on the other, closing the circle of consumption, and eliminating waste and need. However, food sharing goes beyond the redistribution of goods to create equilibrium.

Different food cultures and economies – one sharing culture?

All in all, supper clubs are operated and visited for pleasure as well as out of necessity, and sometimes both go hand in hand. Not only from an economic, but also from a cultural perspective, humans need to provide each other with food. Supper clubs and cooperative farming may have initially evolved out from need, but in times and regions of surpluses in particular, it is obvious that sharing food is not just an economic activity. In the Western world, sharing food even goes to the other extreme: Dining together has become a key social experience. In the 21st century, the dinner table is often the only time a family all comes together in one place. We share food not just because it offers a vital source of energy, but because it is an intrinsic human pleasure. If we want to give ourselves or others a treat, we often do it through food. There is something characteristically human about sharing food or consuming food in company that might explain why we feel awkward eating alone in a restaurant. In some cultures, asking for a table for one can even be a moment of humiliation, especially for women. A middle-age woman wanting to dine alone in India for instance, will face a test of courage and might not infrequently find herself refused a table.

Technology is again making it easier to appreciate this basic social experience in our individualized societies in the Western world.

Science finds that in families that frequently share meals, children were 12% less likely to be obese and 24% more likely to follow healthy dietary patterns as adults. They also showed stronger social and altruistic tendencies since sharing a meal equally teaches cooperation, and how to regulate greed and accept rules and authority. Much is to be learned from Southern food cultures that offer and consume food in social settings. Technology is again making it easier to appreciate this basic social experience in our individualized societies in the Western world. Evidence can be found in a web trend from South Korea that offers a new twist on the idea of 'food porn: Since 2011 BJs (broadcast jockeys) snack for money. They consume large quantities of take-out or homemade food, celebrating the joy of joint eating in front of a camera. In a country where one third of all citizens live alone, but eating alone is culturally associated with shame, hundreds and thousands follow their video streams. This trend is called muk-bang, a combination of the word for eat, muk-ja, and for broadcast, bang-song. It provides comfort to those eating alone, comfort reflected in the fans’ donations to the broadcast jockey. Food is also a bridge of discovery to other (food) cultures. This August the initiators of Supperclubbing.com invited two Syrian refugees to cook and host a charity supper club. In a pleasant atmosphere, Mohammed and Ahmad shared more than their food; they also shared their stories, bridging the cultural divide between the guests at dinner table. The event brought in 1,700 euros for SOS Children’s villages in Syria. As seen in many European bus and train stations lately, food is an important means for communicating hospitality and welcome.

Food sharing is the social activity of human societies.

In 2015, we are still looking for the solution for how to feed the world. Supper clubs are definitely not the answer, but they represent a helpful collaborative practice of sharing that might inspire answers in a larger context. Food sharing is the social activity of human societies. We need to preserve and transform this knowledge that defines our culture at its heart. In the fight against food insecurity, collaborative consumption and cooperative clusters in supply thus must be re-activated. Rediscovering the cooperative forms of food sharing, making your own restaurant, growing your own food, will become more and more crucial, not just in the global South, but everywhere. Whether on a small scale, like a supper club, or on a large scale, food sharing shows us a simple principle for survival through reciprocity.

Photo: “Welcome Home” by Jeremy Brooks
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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