One of my colleagues at the Tenement Museum is collecting oral histories from Chinatown. This excerpt about eating caught my attention:
Interviewer: I remembered when I came to this country, one day I was dining out in a restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. I saw lots of people ate with a fork on a plate. I wasn’t very used to it. In Taiwan, we only used plates to collect bones we didn’t want.
Interviewee A: Ah…..that’s right.
I: In Taiwan, we ate from small bowls with chopsticks, not from plates with forks. (A & I laughed)
A: Yes, that’s a big difference.
Interviewee B: In Chinese culture, we share dishes with everyone sitting at the table. The Westerners prefer to have their own dishes.
|Chinese Food, Served Family-Style|
A: They prefer that everyone orders their own dishes and eats it separately.
B: It is individualistic. Sharing a dish with someone else is not something that would come to their mind first…… this is a cultural..uh..uh..
I: Cultural difference.
A & B: That’s right.
This conversation immediately reminded me of my experience with the opposite circumstance: seeing communal eating for the first time. Sometime in the mid to late ’90s, a Midwestern chain restaurant called Buca di Beppo opened in the mall near my home town. Offering “Italian Immigrant Cuisine,” the restaurant served family-style meals: large dishes were brought to the table for everyone to share. I remember my friends patiently explaining to me that I could not order my own, personal dish of cavatelli, that the table had to work as a whole to decide on several dishes everyone might enjoy. As silly as it feels to me now, I know that night was the first time I had eaten out at a restaurant where the table ordered together and shared the food, as opposed to every individual ordering their own plate. The concept was completely new to me.
Being young, I picked up on the method after the first time, and thereafter could laugh along with my friends when we told exasperated stories of how our parents and grandparents just didn’t get it. I remember family members getting truly irritated: “But I want stuffed shells!” “Grandma, you’re going to get stuffed shells, but it’s too much for one person. You share it with everyone.” Many of my relations vowed never to return to that terrible restaurant, where they couldn’t order their own food.
Culinary historian Hasia Diner remarks on American eating habits in her book Hungering for America, a look at immigrant foodways in the United States. Diner attributes the habit of eating individually to the bounty on food available in the US as compared to the relatively poor fare of the Italians. She quotes the oral history of an Italian immigrant from the 1920s who said ” (back home) The meal was one dish, from which the entire family ate; here there is a variety of food and each person has his own plate and eating utensils.”
I believe that Buca di Beppo was the first chain restaurant to introduce communal eating to a main-stream audience. It’s a way of dining that I still see as relatively uncommon in midwestern restaurants. Since my teenage experience there, I’ve eaten Chinese, Indian, Greek and Ethiopian food; styles that culturally require you to share dishes with the whole table. Buca is not the perfect restaurant, but I do believe it gave me my training wheels to understand how other cultures eat communally.
-- Posted by Educator Sarah Lohman