• The Welcome Dinner Project has hosted over 180 potluck dinners in Australia. (The Welcome Dinner Project Facebook page: @TheWelcomeDinnerProject)
"There is something about the dinner table that functions, essentially, like an ‘empathy gym’ — the visceral nature of a shared meal often creates the common ground on which a sense of trust is built."
By
Candice Chung

25 May 2017 - 2:15 PM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2017 - 11:05 AM

I was 22 when I had my first roast dinner. It was a half leg of lamb, with crispy potatoes gathered patiently in a circle, as if in awe, around the slowly caramelising protein. I had just started seeing someone for whom the Sunday roast was a weekly ritual, and he was surprised I’d managed to live half my life in Australia without once indulging in the somewhat stodgy but delicious meal. Was I a closet vegetarian? He askedOr just anti-fun?

There was a straightforward reason for never having been inducted into the Aussie roast tradition, of course: in my first decade in the country, I had simply never eaten at a white person’s house.

What felt like a strange revelation at the time was perhaps not such an uncommon experience. While most of us happily work, study, and microwave our lunches alongside one another, how often do we open our doors and break bread with strangers from cultures different to our own? 

The notion is based on the belief that you can bridge cultural and political divide not through rhetoric or rallying cries — but via people’s stomachs.

Meanwhile, across the world, a new grassroots movement has been born from this very sentiment of communal dining: citizen-run supper clubs.

The notion is based on the belief that you can bridge cultural and political divide not through rhetoric or rallying cries — but via people’s stomachs.

In the US, projects like the Syria Supper Club and New Arrivals Supper Club have emerged in opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant sentiment. These dinner projects have become a practical way for American families to reach out and show their solidarity towards migrants and refugees. Locals sign up to host traditional feasts prepared by refugee families, raising much-needed funds for the cooks while creating a chance for guests to meet and bond with their newly arrived neighbours.

 

In Australia, a similar movement has been quietly gaining ground in recent years. Penny Elsley, founder of The Welcome Dinner Project, the idea of communal dining with a social purpose came to her after an unexpected conversation with a group of Sudanese migrants. 

“One woman told me she’d been here for five years and no Australian had ever invited her over for a meal,” says Elsley. “Another woman had been here for 10 years, and it was the same story — and they wanted to receive that invite.”

Struck by the reality of everyday isolation faced by new migrants, Elsley took matters into her own hands and started The Welcome Dinner Project in 2013. To-date, over 180 potluck dinners have been hosted in Australian homes and community centres. Each meal is facilitated by a volunteer and attended by longtime residents and newcomers to the country. Guests are asked to bring a dish with personal significance — often becoming the catalyst to share their personal stories. 

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“The stories of food [discussed around the table] really breaks down barriers. Introducing your food is nowhere near as confrontational as opening up about yourself. But you actually find out a lot about people from the dish they bring,” said Elsley.

Lauren, 35 , tells SBS she broke bread with newly arrived Australians for the first time when she hosted a lunch in her Maroubra home last month.

"Introducing your food is nowhere near as confrontational as opening up about yourself. But you actually find out a lot about people from the dish they bring."

The Sydneysider was surprised when she found out all of her guests lived in her local area. 

“There was an assumption [on my part] that other suburbs have more refugees, asylum seekers and newly arrived Australians… [But] we have such a diverse mix of cultures and people who all live within a couple of suburbs of my house — it was quite a revelation, actually.”

For Lauren and her guests, the chance to connect with new neighbours instilled a sense of hope.

“Despite the fact that the world may be in a bit of a dark place at the moment, everyone felt that if we continue to build communities in really organic ways — there is hope that maybe things will be better.”

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Dinner table diplomacy

Indeed, there is something about the dinner table that functions, essentially, like an ‘empathy gym’ — the visceral nature of a shared meal often creates the common ground on which a sense of trust is built.

Ahmet Orhan Polat, executive director of Affinity Intercultural Foundation, is a firm believer of dinner table diplomacy. For the past 16 years, Polat has been hosting Iftar dinners in the private homes of Turkish Muslim families and community halls during the month of Ramadan — inviting MPs, law enforcers, journalists and members of the community to bond over sunset feasts.

“We do 35 different Iftar dinners in a month, with two-to-three events on some nights,” he tells SBS.

Two years ago, Polat says, he decided to expand the program into weekend brunches hosted by Muslim families in Sydney’s Western suburbs. “After Ramadan, I started to think, what can we do for the other months? So we started hosting Saturday and Sunday events like barbecues and breakfasts.”

These days, Polat’s weekly brunches run seven months a year and attract a total of 400 guests from all walks of life. The purpose of these get-togethers, he says, is to break down the stereotype of “the other” and allow people who don’t normally talk to each other a chance to start a dialogue.

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“I’ve even invited Pauline Hanson to many events, with no response from her office so far — but I’ll keep trying. If she [replies and] says, ‘I don’t like Halal food’, I’ll say, ‘OK you can have vegetarian, no problem.’”

A natural facilitator, Polat nicknames his regular guests “uncles”, “aunts” and “cousins” — an extension of his belief that kinship can form when people find out how similar their hopes and aspirations are.

The initial experience of dining at his house with diverse guests reminded me of what it feels like to be personally welcomed into the heart of a culture with a home-cooked meal.

It’s been over a year since I was invited to breakfast with Polat for the first time. The initial experience of dining at his house with diverse guests reminded me of what it feels like to be personally welcomed into the heart of a culture with a home-cooked meal. The pleasure of communal dining wasn’t so much about the thrill of new flavours, or the novelty of an exotic kitchen that stayed with me. Rather, it was the fact that someone had let me into the best, most intimate parts of how they live.

And if that isn’t the best way to quell the thirst of belonging, then I don’t know what is. 


Love this author? Follow her on Twitter: @candicechung_ 

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