On this independence Day, I come back to a message I’ve been preaching for longer than two decades. I revisit this topic from time to time, each time convinced the need to share it is needed more than it was the previous one. In 2021, more than ever before, I am convinced this message bears sharing.
I spent about 20 years writing about food and beverage, including two editor-in-chief stints: one for a regional craft brewing publication and one for a fine dining and spirits magazine. Remembering the period when I grew into adulthood, I learned early how people of disparate backgrounds, economics, cultures and beliefs could sit at a table laden with good food and drink, genuinely enjoying each other’s company. I was amazed at how taking a meal and a drink with someone who held opinions opposing my own could unite us in our shared appreciation of the table before us. But this humbly universal principle goes so much further than a mere table.
I believe it’s crucial to remember we all have dozens of things in common for every one issue we disagree on.
Most of us default to that handful of notions that separate us — for some reason, those four or five opinions we fight about are much more important than the hundreds of sentiments we share.
Why? I mean, really. Isn’t it stupid to focus on a single political cause when we could sit down over the grilled ribeyes and local brews we both love? Isn’t it totally pointless to grumble over one political candidate when we could be eating sushi and drinking Northwest saké? Isn’t it a gigantic waste of time to hate someone because they don’t feel the same way we do about one cause when they actually do believe the same way we do on a host of other issues?
Why is it we now require a potential friend to march lockstep with us on two or three deal-breaker issues while we ignore the stuff we have in common? Are we really that insecure? Or is it monumental arrogance? Or is it some primeval stubbornness that keeps us hyperfocused when we could be open to others holding opinions different from ours?
After I witnessed the power food and drink have to bring human beings together, I spent years preaching it, writing about the abundant options of nourishment found throughout our region. Of course, any characteristics or tastes we share with others can unite us. But the fundamental and universal nature of breaking bread with each other can’t be beat for its straightforward honesty.
It’s nearly impossible to hate someone sitting at your table, enjoying magnificent meal, a couple of brews or an ancient whisky. That’s why I tell the following story from time to time.
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Three guys walk into a bar...
Well, it was more than three and included an equal number of women. Several outspoken Democrats, a Muslim, a couple Catholics, at least one Republican, two Jews and probably four races were represented when a group of friends would sit around the table at a popular downtown Portland, Oregon bar a number of years ago. I was one of them. The makeup varied but the conversation and the beverage service remained predictable — we were a group of chums who disagreed profoundly on a handful of issues but we liked each other and we liked hoisting pints together. We were an assortment of personalities and professions, united by our shared affinity for post-work refreshment, at first anyway. But we soon discovered many other details we had in common, much of it tied together by humor — a lot of humor and a ridiculous measure of laughter. We met regularly and were always genuinely glad to see one another. Several times, we may have solved all the problems of the world and once I think we might’ve defined the meaning of life. Whatever the case, we celebrated our similarities and were comfortable with our differences — we knew the former far outnumbered the latter.
We did all this accidentally. We never set out to prove people who disagreed with each other could still be close friends. We didn’t intend to act all adult-ish and set our several differences aside because we had hundreds of things in common. We had no idea we were creating lifelong friendships around that table. No, we were a motley group who just enjoyed the fellowship of a shared table, littered with empty glasses and a lot of laughter. It was totally organic and completely accidental.
But now we need to do it on purpose.
When we think it’s okay to exercise violence against someone because we believe they’re wrong, we’re losing our grip on sanity, even our humanity. When we think we can send poison or bombs to someone with whom we disagree, something is seriously messed up. Obviously most of us totally get how screwed up a bomb is. But maybe not so much some of the lesser ways we express displeasure. This week alone, I saw three separate videos of peaceful protesters being assaulted by counter-protesters who got so angry they thought it was cool to hit someone. Seriously? That’s what we’ve become? We’re sure we hold the moral high ground so firmly that it’s permissible to hit someone just because we believe they’re wrong? And for a moment, we got so angry we couldn’t help ourselves?
I have a better idea: have a beer with them. Or a glass of whisky. Or a meal. I don’t mean go out and find a protest and invite the opposition to have a pint — although I’d admire your chutzpah if you did that. But consciously make the decision to sit down with someone you consider “one of them.” I’ve seen it happen many times — people who considered each other not worth an effort or even potential enemies discover they have some similarities after all. Some of the best friends of my life turned out to be the people with whom I disagreed the most.
I’ve been preaching the power food and drink have to bring people together for two decades. Outside of religion or political passion, nothing unites like a shared fondness for that which sustains and nourishes us. And while food and beverage do a lot to inspire shared enthusiasms, they don’t also usually include the risk of great division like religion or politics so often do.
This message I believe is more important now than ever. In this fractured world, consider sitting down with someone who belongs to the other political party or who comes from a different religion or culture. Do it more than once. Maybe even do it regularly. I promise your life will be greatly enriched as a result.
I’m not asking you to change your mind or alter your principles — just sit down and share a table with someone who’s different from you but might be a lot more like you than you thought. I’m not suggesting you embrace racists or rioters or dangerous fringe nutcases. But there are a whole lot of people in the broad middle — people who are remarkably like you and me, even if they hold opinions opposed to ours. These folks are as disgusted as you and I with the current mess. These are the people we need to invite to our table.
It’s amazing how tensions dissolve as a good meal is enjoyed. We can forget our disagreements and celebrate our similarities. Even if you believe you need to change minds or sway opinions, you should remember it’s much easier to do so over a comfortable table than over a stream of shouted obscenities. At the least, you’ll get a good story and enjoy a meal and a drink for your effort.
After an unprecedented year of quarantine, wildland fires, insane local and national politics and a visceral fight over vaccination, we need to step back and take a look at ourselves and our neighbors. Is this how we want to live? Is this “new normal” acceptable? Is nurturing widespread suspicion and distrust an example for our children?
Not for me. Not for my kids. Not, I hope, for you and yours either. Independence Day is a time to celebrate our nation’s freedom, a day most of us spend celebrating, relaxing and breaking bread with friends and family. This year, consider extending a hand and an invitation to someone outside your circle.
Do it on purpose. The power of food and drink coupled with a willingness to share a table with “them” is greater than you think.