x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Every meal needs a generous helping of laughter

Studies have consistently indicated that communal meals shared with family and friends produce healthier, happier people and stronger relationships.

Family meals taken together encourage fellowship and produce happier people.
Family meals taken together encourage fellowship and produce happier people.

Like laughing, eating is easiest when the spirit is light. A quick peek into my kitchen on any given day is a disarmingly accurate gauge of my emotional wellbeing: an abundance of happy thoughts means an overcrowded bowl of plump garlic begging to be pounded into a creamy, aromatic pulp, a platter of precariously heaped quinces wafting their gorgeous perfume through the house, and a gleaming tower of freshly washed dishes from last night's dinner.

Yet to the ailing spirit, eating and laughing can seem a lot less natural and accessible. Just as interpersonal conflict can make it impossible to laugh at a silly joke that might otherwise be funny, strife can make dinner indigestible, and nobody likes eating around enemies. There's a certain amount of vulnerability implicit in an open mouth - and certainly in an open heart. There are those of us who respond to stress, anxiety, pain and grief by eating less discriminately, and that can often mean eating greater quantities of food that's not very good to begin with. Conversely, there are those whose positive emotions are so inextricably connected to our appetites that when we're down and out our enthusiasm for food wanes and we find ourselves reverting to a mechanical, perfunctory routine where food becomes the lowest common cultural denominator.

When I started college in the US, I found it a borderline tragedy that the condiments in our puny dormitory fridge were labelled with masking tape bearing the owners' initials. In the West, there tends to be a more rigid line between Mine and Yours - a concept that can be convenient in workplace and home environments where there are disparities in people's values regarding privacy and personal property.

In parts of the world where young people tend to live in their family homes until they either marry or threaten to combust, our relationships to what we eat are a lot more public than they might be if the contents of our kitchen cupboards were a matter of private interest. And where family-style meals still prevail as the norm and where the sharing of meals is an extroverted activity, we tend towards styles of eating that support our communal lifestyles.

Sometimes I wonder if we maintain such a strong and singular focus on the concept of debt that it distracts us from the virtues that facilitate sharing in the first place. For instance, in many parts of the world, it's considered poor form to return an empty cooking vessel or container to its owner. But an obsession with returning favours can lead to empty, endless gestures that have more to do with the pressure to reciprocate than with generosity, benevolence, or breaking bread.

Traditional Emirati food is still eaten family-style from gargantuan portions; regional etiquette dictates that one mustn't take food from beyond the portion closest to one's plate. The more modestly portioned plates of mezze, served throughout the Levant and parts of the Caucasus, are eaten either before or alongside meals. Variations of mezze are eaten in Serbia, Albania, Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon, Armenia, Iran, Bulgaria, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Bosnia, among other places.

Mezze are the absolute antithesis of the shawarma, or of any sandwich, because they are symbolic of plenty. This is just one reason why authentic local food throughout the region tends to be found only in people's homes. Studies have consistently indicated that communal meals shared with family and friends produce healthier, happier people and stronger relationships. Growing up, we were shown a relaxed clean-plate policy. After all, with family-style eating, there's no need to serve yourself more food than you're willing to eat, so if you can't finish what's on your plate, you can only point a finger at yourself.

As someone who relishes the occasional act of solitary dining, I also know that I wouldn't enjoy it as much if I had to do it out of necessity, day in and day out. Shared meals are an integral part of my day. I've eaten more meals on the run and in my car than I care to admit. And as much as I love my favoured mezze, what solitary working person is capable of generating enough hummus, baba ghanouj and fattoush never to be without some on hand for spontaneous snacking? Not I.

Nevertheless, in simultaneous celebration and mockery of autonomy, I'm trying to be better about cooking the way I dream of eating when I grow up: more small plates, less waste. In the end, food, like humour, is really just a language by which we communicate with each other. What makes them such effective tools is that everyone does both, most people enjoy them, and we tend to be at our most receptive and forgiving when we're happy and well-fed.