‘Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry. Raise a toast. Go wassailing. Clink glasses as you ring in the New Year. Memories of Christmas past bring to mind tables groaning under the weight of everyone’s favourite dishes, from turkey and trimmings, to Nanny’s tourtières, to Baba’s cabbage rolls and pierogies.
Best to be careful if you’re driving home after dinner! Turkey is said to be soporific, and no one wants to fall asleep behind the wheel. And family lore includes the story of a relative who got a warning when he blew dangerously close to the limit, all the while protesting that he hadn’t had anything to drink … then realizing that he must have had one too many slices of Aunt Mabel’s infamous rum cake.
Feasting and festing have long gone hand in hand, all the way back to our cave dwelling days. But communal eating and drinking habits have changed over time. Back in the day, people were apt to eat from the same platter and drink from the same cup. Rumour has it that raising a toast has its roots in an old British custom. The host would float a piece of spiced, cooked bread in the common cup, and once it had made the rounds he would have the pleasure of draining it to the last drop and eating the toasted bread.
Current etiquette requires us to provide a separate drinking glass for each of our guests, and while some serve up food on family platters, it’s also common to eat from separate plates. But the sense of connectedness that comes from sharing a meal really transcends time and cultures. Enjoying a new romance? Connecting with an old friend? Sealing a business deal? Wherever you are in the world, chances are there will be some eating and drinking.
Sometimes it such a regular part of daily life — coffee with colleagues; lunch or drinks with friends; nightly family dinners — that we simply take it for granted. But food and drink — and by extension, food and drink establishments — have an impact on our sense of community. Places where we eat and drink can water and feed our souls. They are the places where the regulars feel at home, and familiarity breeds connectedness. As New Zealander Theodore Graves found when he was doing research into pubs, “One of the major functions of moderate alcohol use is to promote social conviviality. But it is the conviviality, not the alcohol, which is of central importance.”
Sourcing our daily sustenance can also be a social experience. Locally owned and operated eateries and food retailers are woven tightly into the fabric of their communities. Take London’s Old East Village, for example — a neighbourhood that provides a feast for foodies. The village is dotted with several authentic ethnic restaurants, an organic café and micro-brewery, a butcher, a baker, a chocolate maker, a bean-to-brew coffee roaster and a gourmet cheese shop. These are the kinds of places where the person behind the counter gets to know the regulars by sight, and often by name.
And then there’s the Saturday Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market, with its amazing selection of edibles, and all the ingredients you’ll need when you are planning to break bread with family and friends. When you walk into the Confederation Building on a Saturday morning and hear the steady hum of conversation and laughter, you know that you have landed in a place that connects people — to each other, to local food producers, to our roots as an agricultural community. And you can even buy a bottle of wine (and a loaf of spiced bread) if you want to toast to that!