Laws and minds are hard to change, but a dinner guest list? That’s designed for adjustment.
So goes the thinking of social justice activists and politicians seeking an affordable, approachable solution to the racial divisions that underlie the nation’s most pressing problems. “If it seems too simple and obvious, let me ask you this question: Have you ever had dinner in your home with a person of another race? Many Americans have not,” U.S. senators Tim Scott and James Lankford wrote in a 2016 column for Time Magazine, encouraging readers to invite someone from a different racial background to supper on Sundays.
“We must build respectful unity together, one family at a time,” they concluded.
While the idea of working out issues over a meal is far from new, local interest in fostering reconciliation through food seems to have picked up since 2015, when historians organized a dinner at McCrady’s to commemorate an interracial reunification banquet held in Charleston immediately after the Civil War.
Within weeks of the Nat Fuller Feast, nine members of Emanuel AME Church were massacred during Bible study.
One year later, Bernice King gave the keynote address at a memorial for the victims. “She made that challenge to love and understand each other,” recalls Tina L. Singleton, who was in the audience. “She said, ‘If you’re serious about change, go to each other’s homes and have dinner.’”
The words resonated with Singleton, who had hosted cross-cultural dinners as a development worker in Afghanistan. “That was always my way into different communities; that was my way of building bridges as a black American female,” she says. Listening to Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter crystallized her resolve to assemble diverse dining groups in the Charleston area; she last November launched Transformation Table, the centerpiece of which is a monthly in-home meal featuring global cuisine.
“I am not a facilitator of race issues,” says Singleton, who makes sure every dinner group of 10 registrants is demographically balanced. “If we end up talking about those issues, then we do, but people just want to connect.”
Singleton knows of at least a few Transformation Table participants who have “kept in touch with each other, businesswise,” so the format is successfully fostering relationships. What’s less clear, though, is the influence the dinners have had on people’s preconceptions.
“My hope is when people go back out in the community, they might feel differently about a black man they see on the street,” Singleton says. “I hope they think about him as an individual, not a stereotype.”
Yet social scientists with a wealth of similarly constructed programs to study haven’t been able to figure out whether shared suppers reliably chip away at racist attitudes. Are white parents who’ve broken bread with black parents less likely to flinch when their child is assigned to a black educator’s classroom? Is a white banker who’s asked a black businessman to pass the potatoes more likely to fairly evaluate a black entrepreneur’s loan application?
“You can almost overburden food and see it as having too much power,” says Jennifer Shutek, a doctoral student in food studies at New York University. “Food is incredibly important, but it’s not the only thing.”
According to Shutek, whose research focuses on culinary responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are three tracks of gastro-diplomacy. The first involves officials at the highest level of power, such as a state dinner. The second involves people who have been selected because of their leadership roles, such as Charleston’s recent Nat Fuller Feast. And then there is the “grassroots track,” which encompasses potlucks for peace, dinners prepared by refugees and programs such as Transformation Table.
Even in those well-intentioned settings, Shutek says it’s critical that organizers think about the food they’re serving and why. For example, whites and blacks might feel differently about kale, which was a staple of African-American garden for centuries before it was a trendy ingredient at smoothie bars. “Food can’t just be decontextualized from systems of power,” she says.
Additionally, Shutek says preparing a meal together can serve a more unifying function than just sitting down to eat.
“Our palate can be more adventurous than we are,” she says. “So we don’t want to assume that because we have an ephemeral moment of being open-minded with food, there’s going to be a larger change. The aspect of actual labor is very important.”
Although its members don’t cook together, bringing a dish is central to Dining For Women, a fundraising group that got its start 14 years ago in Greenville. Now, chapters across the country meet on a monthly basis to learn about a charitable organization supporting women and girls in the developing world, and sample dishes inspired by the charity’s corner of the globe.
In October, the highlighted grant recipient was an early marriage prevention program based in Afghanistan, so members of the Summerville chapter arrived bearing potatoes with yogurt sauce, stuffed dates, grapes and chocolate mousse.
“If the French lady wants to make chocolate mousse, we’re eating chocolate mousse,” chapter leader Karyn Healey says, laughing. “Everything is not authentic, as you can tell: We’ve had rare meetings where everyone brought rice, and rare meetings where everyone brought dessert.”
Still, even if the contributions don’t exactly reflect the country at hand, Healey says it’s “gratifying that people all over are preparing and sharing a similar meal.” She also suspects that the dinner puts members in a more understanding mood, positioning them to connect with fellow members of diverse backgrounds and clients of faraway charities.
“I think any gathering built around food is destined to be a better gathering than one that’s not,” member Susan Kammeraad-Campbell says.
Singleton’s dinners, priced at $65 a person, are always catered: A recent meal featured a Vietnamese menu, although Singleton baked the vegan chocolate tart served for dessert. Singleton didn’t mention the pastry was vegan until guests had finished it: She’s very careful about not setting a conversational or philosophical agenda.
“I let it flow organically,” she says. “We’ve talked about education; we’ve talked about travel; we’ve talked about the growth of the city; we’ve talked about differences between Christianity and Islam.”
What’s most surprised Singleton over the past year of hosting 130 diners in other people’s homes is it’s nearly impossible to assemble 10 strangers in Charleston.
“They all have an added layer of connection: They either know somebody at the table, or they know somebody in common, but they haven’t sat down and connected,” she says. “They just want to meet people. It’s such an easy, uncomplicated thing: We just have to be intentional about it.”