Dinner Table Anthropology at the Witte: ‘Every Meal is a Message’

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Fresh peaches, bread, and a cheese wedge awaited diners at the table as they arrived. Photo by Mitch Hagney

Fresh peaches, bread, and a cheese wedge awaited diners at the table as they arrived. Photo by Mitch Hagney

When was the last time “food was honest?”

According to Chef Michael Sohocki, creator of downtown favorites Restaurant Gwendolyn and Kimura, it was before the 1850s.

Sohocki explained this concept of honest food Wednesday night during the latest installment of the Witte Museum‘s Salud Culinary Night event series.

Though his fidelity to traditional cooking styles is renowned throughout San Antonio, this was not a cooking demonstration. Instead, Sohocki and Dr. Bryan Bayles, curator of anthropology and health at the Witte, focused this lecture on how food – and where it comes from – communicates “profound cultural meaning and impacts a community’s well-being.” As someone who eats with relative frequency, I was curious to try experiencing things Sohocki-style.

When I arrived, long family-style tables were set up with lit candles and foods in a center basket (see top image). Diners apprehensively viewed the whole bread loaf, cheese, and peaches with a sign next to them in bold lettering which read, “don’t eat these … yet.”

“Tonight, we’ll be roleplaying,” Sohocki said as we took our seats. “I want everyone to assign themselves a family role at the table. A mother, husband, sister, uncle, grandmother, any role that you want will work. Remember the roles of those around you.”

Chattering followed as middle-aged women sought to escape a grandmother designation and a table comprised of a single gender negotiated awkwardly. Once roles were settled and marked on nametags, Sohocki told us why.

“Think about the order and the dynamic of how the food was served at family dinners when you were 10 years old,” he said. “For me, my father would always take a leg, which was his favorite piece, and nothing else. The person who was the head of the table cuts a piece and then hands it to the next person, often in the line of development. Each person is thinking about the food that is left for the rest of those at the table.

“The word companion means one you break bread with. So I gave you no knife. You must break the bread and pass it to one another.”

So we did. Our appointed grandfather passed out pieces of the loaf to each of us, as faint steam rose from each new morsel.

Another rule, one that our table relished, was that no one could pour their own wine. Someone else always had to pour. “This is not self-serve. This is other-serve,” he said.

That tradition alone kept us attentive of how those around us were eating, creating a more unified table experience.

The first course was a simple chicken soup, passed around starting with the head of household. We were careful not to take too much, lest one person at the table receive less than the rest of us. While we chose meager chicken portions for ourselves, we poured ample wine for those around us.

Braised pork shoulder and lentil dahl followed, with our now over-worked grandfather cutting pieces for everyone. Strangers who were nervous at the beginning of the meal fell into a familiar rhythm quickly, passing plates around and laughing loudly.

Sohocki continued as we ate. “How much wine goes into a glass? It has a definition in my house. This is where we clarify, construct, and produce a social norm. The definition of how we drink wine in this house is set, which is passed to the father and mother, and then to the children. How old do you have to be to get a glass of wine? How fast do you eat? All of these things are defined and maintained at the family table.”

Dr. Bryan Bayles of the Witte explains the social science of eating as a family. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

Dr. Bryan Bayles of the Witte explains the social science of eating as a family. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

The lecture moved from experience to social science as Sohocki handed the microphone to Bayles. According to new studies, there is a correlation with the frequency that children have meals with the rest of the family and a lower risk of drug and alcohol abuse as well as obesity.

“One of the keys of the culture of food is a sense of mindfulness. The big killer in these surveys of spending time with the family is TV or screens in general. Every meal is a message, and families can either control the messages reaching their children or watch as the media does.”

More wine, poured by my new aunt, softened the cultural anxiety conveyed by Dr. Bayles. As cheese and ripe peaches rounded the meal out for a healthy desert, TV dinners and Whataburger faded from our minds.

The evening was a genuine cultural experience, quite different from the Witte’s often cooking- and farming-centric Salud! Culinary Nights.

Next time Salud will host the “The Bug Dinner,” which is just what it sounds like. The evening will feature chefs Stephen Paprocki of the Chefs Cooperative and Ernest-Lopez of Eilan Hotel along with Megan Curry of Bug Vivant, which is a website with insect recipes, product reviews, and events. It’s bound to be an exciting exploration of how insects can be incorporated into fine dining.

As a truly sustainable and affordable protein, many scientists argue that getting bugs into western cuisine can have tangible health benefits for the humans and the planet. For diners who need some liquid courage, Karbach Brewery will be on hand to help. The dinner is on August 12, and tickets can be purchased here.

 

*Featured/top image: Fresh peaches, bread, and a cheese wedge awaited diners at the table as they arrived. Photo by Mitch Hagney

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